04 Sep Episode 85: Incitement Against the Homeless (Part I) — The Infestation Rhetoric of Local News
Citations Needed | September 4, 2019 | Transcript
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Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
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Nima: “As homeless people turn off visitors, San Francisco tourism senses threat,” notes Travelers Weekly. “Seattle Is Dying: Drugs And Homelessness In Seattle,” laments KOMO Seattle. “Austin veteran fights off homeless attacker after offering to help him,” exclaims ABC-affiliate KVUE.
Adam: As housing costs skyrocket and inequality grows, homelessness is reaching crisis levels in large metro areas. In response, the media — namely local news stations and Fox News — routinely treat the homeless like an invading species, a vermin to at best be contained, and at worst eradicated.
Nima: The result has been a slew of stories pathologizing those experiencing homelessness as uniquely dangerous. Panhandlers are viewed as con men out to screw over the working man, chased down by vigilantes with the help of outraged local news crews “standing up” to the poor. The housing status of those who commit crimes is only mentioned when they’re homeless of course — never for the housed — and every transgression committed by someone who is experiencing homelessness is viewed by our media as evidence that the homeless population in general is just out to attack us all.
Adam: But this narrative flies in the face of the evidence, and tracks — like most quote unquote “crime coverage” — with the needs of real estate interests who set the tone for local media coverage, and who have every reason to highlight and oversell the threat of homelessness to pressure lawmakers and police to displace “eye soars” for their yuppie clientele they’re attempting to sell to and ultimately serve.
Nima: We’re going to discuss this over two episodes. On the first — today — we’ll be joined by Steve Potter, an Austin-based artist and activist. He’s a member of the Homes Not Handcuffs Coalition and Austin’s Homelessness Advisory Committee. Steve is also a founding member of the Gathering Ground Theatre troupe.
Steve Potter: One of the buzzwords the other side likes to use of course, when they are referring to the homeless, they’re referring to them as “transients.” That’s simply wrong. I know homeless folks that have been in Austin for decades. This is simply another tool, another tool of language that they use to discredit people as people. And, you know, they’re not deserving of the same respect, they’re not deserving of the same dignity, they’re not deserving of the same consideration because they’re just passing through.
Nima: And next week we will be joined by Madeline Peltz, writer and researcher at Media Matters for America.
Adam: So on this two-parter, just to set the table, this week’s episode is going to be about specifically local media, which we consider kind of one half of the shit pile of bad coverage of homelessness. And then the second part, which will be next week, is going to be specifically on Fox News and how they’ve led an incitement campaign against the homeless for decades. I think it’s fair to say that both of these institutions, local television news and local media and Fox News are responsible for about 95 percent of the anti-homeless demagoguery that the average public consumes.
Nima: So let’s begin by discussing a recent local news report. This is from WFLA in Bradenton, Florida, and it’s the case of Ryan Bray. So we’re going to play the audio of this local news broadcast that aired of Ryan Bray being basically turned into a local hero for harassing a random homeless man who goes by the name of Alabama.
Adam: So listen to this clip. We’re going to play it in its entirety. It’s extremely gross. Unfortunately, you can’t see how bad the visuals are of course, cause it’s podcasting, but we’ll, after you’re done listening to it we will kind of give you a visual description as well.
Jennifer Leigh: Tonight, a street corner showdown caught on camera. A Bradenton businessman is taking on panhandlers. Instead of giving money, he tried to give a homeless guy a job and as Melanie Michael explains from Bradenton, what happened next is pretty incredible.
Melanie Michael: Talk about a wild story. It started with a job offer and ended with chaos on this corner.
Alabama: Keep the fucking camera outta my face, brother.
Cameraman: What’s going on?
Alabama: Anything you want to bro.
Melanie Michael: That’s the response we got on this busy street corner in Bradenton where panhandlers approached cars constantly, including this homeless man who says he’s the one who feels harassed.
Alabama: This is not against the law. It’s not against the law. Ask any police you want to ask.
Melanie Michael: It’s not against the law, but it’s too close for comfort says businessman Ryan Bray.
Ryan Bray: This is our town. We pay the taxes here.
Melanie Michael: He and his family feel bullied daily.
Ryan Bray: They threatened violence on me. I can tell you what they said to me. The Bradenton Police Department heard it. Uh, “kill my mother,” “rape my wife”.
Melanie Michael: On Sunday, Ryan said he decided to try a new tactic with persistent panhandlers and offered the guy a job.
Ryan Bray: I offered him $15 an hour to do yard work for me and he refused. If we as a community stop paying them, they will leave our neighborhood.
Melanie Michael: Ryan told us he spent three hours Sunday, standing side by side with this guy, stopping panhandling briefly by telling the truth he says, so people know the real story.
Ryan Bray: They want money. They don’t want jobs, they don’t want to work.
Melanie Michael: As far as this guy is concerned-
Alabama: Quit following me.
Melanie Michael: Sir, we’re trying to get to this, well we’re all coming so we can all just-
Alabama: You’re not coming nowhere with me.
Melanie Michael: He asked us to leave. Ryan Bray tells us this battle is far from over. He plans to go to the city council next week at their meeting and they tell us they’ll take up the topic then. In Bradenton, I’m Melanie Michael, 8 on your side.
Adam: Okay, so a couple of things on this. Um, first off, this specific instance of this random guy harassing a panhandler — who may or may not have addiction or mental health issues — had original reporting in Tampa Fox 13, ABC Action News Tampa, which actually had two separate reports filed from the scene, and had an article in the Bradenton Herald, which is the local newspaper. And it was written up in over 70 different stations: WATE Knoxville, Kentucky, KAMR Amarillo, Texas, KIRO Seattle, WSVN Miami, WTHR Indianapolis, WSB Atlanta, ABC 15 Arizona, so forth and so on. Even the UK Mail even wrote up this story. and over 60 more outlets across the country. Now, WFLA’s report fails to mention a couple of things, which is the main report most of these other write-ups were based on. So here we have a story about a random guy in the middle of Manatee County, Florida who decides to make claims that he was attacked by this homeless guy. And now I emailed the reporter and asked her if she had any evidence of these claims. She never got back to me of course, because she doesn’t, because it’s just some guy. He’s constantly centered as inherently trustworthy because he’s referred to as a quote “local businessman,” which by the way isn’t true. He works for his dad’s company cause he lost his brokerage license. But we’ll get into that later.
Nima: Local businessman does good, Adam!
Adam: So taxpayer —
Nima: Family man.
Adam: All these kind of right-wing signal words are used to elevate his allegations, which are just that: they’re allegations. He says that the homeless person in question kicked his car, threatened his wife, said he was going to fuck his wife.
Nima: And so the reaction was then offering yard work. And then when that was turned down, he like showed back up where this guy was asking for change, right? All alleged. But then the thing that’s like caught on camera when the local news team is there to support Ryan Bray, is Bray like holding a sign next to the guy who’s like asking people for change, outing him as not wanting to work.
Adam: Which is effectively, and let’s be clear about this, this is a claim of fraud. He’s accusing him of fraud and harassment. So I want you to remember those two words because we’re going to talk about Ryan Bray’s history of fraud and harassment in just a minute. But I want you to remember that.
Nima: So the WFLA report, and you heard like the local news reporters, you know, very, very impassioned line readings there. It really doesn’t cover a lot of, a lot of, I dunno, potentially important things like why would someone do ill-defined yard work for a total stranger who may not be necessarily trustworthy or have the best of intentions? What, if any, are Alabama’s medical conditions, the status of his mental health? These are never explored and clearly not even deemed important. Like that is not the point of the story. What, if any, are Alabama’s physical limitations? Is he even capable of doing the yard work that was allegedly offered? Temperatures that day in the greater Tampa area were about 95 degrees with humidity hovering around 75 percent putting the heat index around 115 to 125 degrees. Now this may seem like, hey, whatever, it’s Florida. But again, the offer was to do yard work and so is that a safe thing for someone to be doing and allegedly then getting paid to do that by, again, some stranger? Is this a reasonable thing for Ryan Bray to ask someone to do in the first place? And again, was it actually asked with the best of intentions?
Adam: Right. And so like of course none of this is mentioned. None of this is mentioned in the 70+ writeups that span from Seattle to San Diego. There’s a fundamental issue here, which is like you don’t know this guy’s story, but it’s turned into this simplistic morality tale of a layabout con man panhandler versus the hardworking proper Christian man. So let’s take a look at Ryan Bray. Ryan Bray who is again referred to somewhat euphemistically as “local businessman.” Ryan Bray was accused himself of harassment in a 2013 FINRA complaint, which is the regulatory body for financial brokers, Bank of America via its subsidiary Merrill Lynch said that Bray had threatened the life of its employees, an accusation Bray subsequently denied in a lawsuit and called quote “libelous.” Bray, who was accusing Alabama here of fraud, has at least three different times in the past been accused of failing to pay his banking clients hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has had his brokerage license suspended four separate times, which is why he’s referred to as a “businessman” because he’s working for his father’s local modeling business. So those are all allegations. It’s possible Bray is perfectly squeaky clean and was wrongfully accused of threatening the lives of Bank of America employees, which he did according to Bank of America. He claims in subsequent emails to me that Bank of America’s own internal investigations found that wasn’t true. But what we have here is a pattern of allegations of harassment and a pattern of allegations of financial wrongdoing, both of which he’s of course accusing Alabama of.
Nima: And I don’t think that WFLA is then going to do a story on Alabama holding a sign outside of Ryan Bray’s business being like, ‘this guy threatened his employees.’
Adam: So Ryan Bray’s a serial litigant. The reason why someone like Alabama, who is clearly indigent and doesn’t have a home and doesn’t have resources, the reason why WFLA and others — dozens of other websites — can basically just call him a fraud and a schemer and scumbag and get away with it, is that they know and their in house lawyers know that he has no power and he has no ability to sue them. However, people like Ryan Bray can go around and accuse people of fraud and no one can ever attack him because he’s a serial litigant. This speaks to the radical power asymmetry at work here. Not only are we doing this kind of neutral on a moving train routine where we say, okay, you know, this bully who has homes in Manatee County, has two homes in Manatee County, hovering around three quarters of a million dollars, that this guy is scrappy underdog and this other guy is harassing his family and we’re gonna hear both sides. But of course only one side is really going to get smeared because one side doesn’t have the resources to fight back.
Nima: As we’ve discussed previously on Citations Needed, one of the primary editorial drivers of local news media, is often real estate interests who on the whole kind of loath homeless people. Suburban whites and gentrifying NIMBY liberals the target demographic being appealed to here, right? People moving into spaces that are currently occupied with undesirables. High rent payers or the highest moral position one can have in the kind of American mythos is homeowner. Right? So the idea that the homeowner, the taxpayer must be always catered to, their interests are supreme and all of the kind of garbage littering the wonderful white-picket-fence-streets need to be cleaned up.
Adam: A close corollary to that of course, Nima, is the “local business.” You’ll see local businesses fear homelessness as a corollary entity that’s being centered, right? Local businesses fear new homeless law, direct local businesses fear homelessness. Um, but aside from their primary demographic, which is upper middle class white people both suburban and gentrifying, some local media news outlets themselves own massive real estate interests, which I think is worth pointing out. So the Trump-aligned Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc. and its subsidiaries, Keyser Capital and Sinclair Investment Group currently hold equity interests in dozens of real estate projects around the Greater Baltimore, Maryland, Virginia area. They own 1100 Fleet Street retail center, which is a new development next to the Hyatt Place Hotel in Baltimore. They own the new Bagby commercial building of Baltimore, North East Commons retail. We could go on and on and on. We’ll have a link to their 10K where you can read all those real estate development interests.
Nima: Yeah, it’s a massive list. And so to really see how media and real estate are linked in this way, and especially a giant like Sinclair, which, you know, broadcasts nationwide, does syndication all over the country, you can really see kind of how sinister this relationship is. Sinclair also owns Patriot Capital, which is a private equity firm heavily invested in metals and construction, real estate development materials and other quote unquote “fast growth industries” throughout the country. So all of these types of businesses and industries that have a lot to gain from pressuring police to crack down and hyper-criminalize the homeless, those are all folded in to this Sinclair media empire as well, so you can really just see how they work together here.
Adam: But the problem is not limited to Sinclair. Sinclair’s a more cartoonish version, but it’s important to point out that of the stations we mentioned earlier that covered the Ryan Bray harassment of a homeless man, none of those were actually Sinclair. The WFLA story we led with is owned by Nexstar, which after having bought the Tribune Company in 2018 is now the largest local news conglomerate in the country. When they bought Tribune, they took over Tribune Real Estate Holdings LLC, which has a sizable real estate portfolio with developments in dozens of cities including 700 West Chicago, a seven acre mixed use urban campus that’s opening in Chicago’s west loop later this year. Now, I want to be clear here, it is not as if all local media directly owns real estate, but there are a lot of them that do and a lot of their owners — and more importantly — either own real estate or work for private equity or investment firms that have real estate and development properties. And depending on which online or newspaper real estate, 20 to 35 percent of advertising dollars come from real estate. The real estate sections in newspapers and uh, the real estate shows that play on networks on Saturdays and Sundays are huge drivers of profit. And so the reasons are not just real estate to be clear. There’s kind of the inertia of general white supremacy. There’s the class interest of those who actually work at the stations. Of course there’s the general class interests of those who own the stations. But a primary component of a lot of this coverage is the centering and the focus on real estate development — something we’ve talked about on Episode 15, we talked about in Episode 54, as the thing they care most about — not the least of which is because that’s the interest that police follow and that police and local media largely takes their cues from police and right-wing interests on the local level, which almost always has a tremendous amount of incentive to push the interest of development in real estate.
Nima: So, one really extreme version of this was noted in 2015 by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting really shows like a, a very direct incitement against people experiencing homelessness. A July 2015 editorial by one of New York City’s major tabloid papers, The New York Observer demanded quote, “we Take Back Tompkins Square Park. And New York City.” End quote. This is a major part of what was found in that editorial:
“Tompkins Square Park has been an accurate barometer of where the city is headed. Known for decades as ‘Needle Park,’ its disarray and lawlessness reflected a dysfunctional, ungovernable city. The restoration of its beauty over the last 20 years has heralded an era where residents and a vibrant collection of small businesses near the park — is there a single better food in all of New York City than the jalapeno cheddar cream cheese at Tompkins Square Bagels? — have thrived. Let’s not allow that progress to slip through our fingers.”
Adam: The result was predictably more policing, over policing and criminalization of the homeless. As FAIR’s Jim Naureckas notes, “Tompkins Square did get more than a visit–it got a guard post, a mobile police surveillance tower that was installed on July 21 as ‘a temporary ‘high-visibility’ police command post to address safety issues on a temporary basis,’ according to a spokesperson for New York Mayor Bill deBlasio.” So you have a direct line between the New York Observer running a multi-day, along with the New York Post, incitement campaign against homelessness and Tompkins Square. Then the police come in, sort of wash out the homeless people, but left and mentioned in the Observer’s editorial and coverage of this by The Post and even The New York Times at the time, was that the New York Observer’s owner is of course Jared Kushner, who is now senior advisor and son-in-law to the president, President Donald Trump. He owned the vast majority of the real estate around Tompkins Square. Jared Kushner’s real estate company, Kushner Companies, for years leading up to their incitement campaign, bought up hundreds of rental units in the East Village, including the blocks immediately surrounding Tompkins Square. The Kushner Company, according to the Real Deal New York real estate magazine in 2013, was quote, “now likely the largest landlord in the East Village with all [its] acquisitions.” So, like Nima said, this is sort of an extreme version of that, but here you have a direct line between incitement against the homeless, pressuring the police and law makers to attack the homeless, real estate interests and also just the general, because we don’t want to oversell the real estate angle at all really, but the general class interest of the wealthy.
Nima: Right. It’s not all just real estate focused grossness, there is just an anti-homeless person, anti-poverty, anti-poor person bent to all of this reporting. The flip side being, as we’ve been saying, the small business owner, the family man, the concerned citizen, just trying to like live your lives and bring your kids to soccer practice and you like have to be either harassed or have to, you know, deal with the psychological trauma of people sleeping on the street. So clearly they need to be gotten rid of.
Adam: It’s animated by a number of factors, material interest of those who own the stations and those who advertise at the stations is, in my opinion, probably the primary driver. But look, Sinclair Broadcasting and Nexstar, which is becoming more like Sinclair, it’s always in the best interest of your investment portfolio of adjacent subsidiaries or related companies to be right-wing, you know, to shore up the police and to shore up local business and to bash progressives and to bash liberals and to bash the homeless. Like in the aggregate, you know, Rupert Murdoch understood this. He was both ideological and in terms of long term and also short term he, you know, he owns a lot of real estate. The New York Post is one of the biggest defenders of this as is Fox News of course. And that those interests will always sort of conspire, they’ll form a consolation to attack the most vulnerable. And of course, something we’ve talked about a lot on this show, there is no homeless lobby and editors never get a call from a homeless advocate. They don’t have enough money or resources. If you’ve ever had the fortune of knowing homeless advocates, there is no real pressure. There’s no lobby, there’s no-
Nima: Right, exactly. There’s no powerful opposition to this kind of reporting. It’s either, you know, people are going to scold on social media and like The New York Post doesn’t fucking care or, more likely, you’re just going to achieve the thing that you want to achieve in the first place, which is outraging more white people and demanding more cops to do something. So a primary really grotesque example of this is a recent mini documentary called Seattle is Dying: Drugs and Homelessness in Seattle, which was run by a local station, KOMO in Seattle, Washington. So we’re going to show you three of the clips that are terrible, that are some of the worst of the worst. This was an hour-long primetime documentary that was later, somewhat semi viral on Facebook and Youtube. Started a lot of controversy. And again, these things are not done in context. They have a direct link to how politicians respond. So the KOMO, the local Sinclair station in Seattle, actually took credit for and boasted about how the doc prompted a Seattle Police Department bust of drug “crime rings” quote unquote, in a local Seattle homeless encampment where they said quote, “10 people were arrested for allegedly selling hardcore drugs out of homeless encampments.” Unquote. A politician running in somewhat nearby Spokane, Washington, herself a former news anchor named Nadine Woodward, really jumped on this program and used it as a platform for her to run for Mayor of Spokane on a tough-on-crime platform. So we want to be clear that this demagoguery of the homeless exists in this very specific political context. And so we’re going to play some of those clips and we’re going to talk about why they are bullshit and terrible.
Narrator: It is about the damage they inflict on themselves to be sure, but also on the fabric of this place where we live. This story is about a beautiful jewel that has been violated and a crisis of faith amongst a generation of Seattleites falling out of love with their home.
Nima: The Rod Serling-esque narration there.
Adam: So yeah, you have this extreme moral panic, the doom and gloom, by the way, this is over B-rolls of homeless people on the streets. Again, you’re centering the people, not the homeless, right? You’re centering the quote unquote “taxpayer.” Let’s do another clip. This one feature is an upholstery shop owner who’s sort of the every man, the small business owner, again, the holiest of the holiest thing you can be is a small business owner. Let’s listen to that.
Narrator: This is Mehrdad Derakhshandeh. He runs an upholstery shop in Ballard near the Burke Gilman trail. See if you can’t feel his frustration.
Mehrdad Derakhshandeh: This is just, this, this is just… this is not right.
Narrator: Out his window. He looks at this.
Mehrdad Derakhshandeh: Oh, they’re a human being. Yes. I’m a human being too.
Narrator: Customers coming to his shop see the same thing.
Mehrdad Derakhshandeh: I have known cops from Compton, Watts, South Central, they have some power in their hand. Here its a bunch of twinkle toes running around here, what the hell, because they run the city like that. They’re having problems. They’re having problems, they’re not having enough authority.
Adam: Here you have a very typical sort of, this is what we call the Death Wish 3 formulation where the local —
Nima: Yeah, exactly.
Adam: — asks for Charles Bronson to come and blow away the trash because Compton, Watts and South Central, as you may suspect, is a bit of a racialized term.
Nima: Yeah. For like having power, right?
Nima: They have power there. They can put down the savages there. And yet in in namby-pamby Seattle liberal wonderland.
Adam: “Twinkle toes,” which is of course a homophobic, right?
Nima: Exactly. Twinkle-toed cops aren’t doing anything and, you know, and as a result, he is suffering.
Adam: So needless to say, there’s never, in this entire documentary which is an hour long, we of course can only play a few clips, they never interview any actual homeless people or homeless advocates. It’s nothing but cops, prosecutors, and the ultimate highest priesthood, which is that of small business owner or businessman. So we’re, we’re going to go to the next clip. This has the sort of typical kind of hysterical purple prose where it’s this kind of tenth grader doing an impression of Joseph Conrad. Like they’re sort of entering the jungle and they’re explaining it. So let’s listen to that.
Narrator: And then you walk down the street and you see a wretched soul like this consumed by demons, maybe madness, maybe drugs, maybe both. This is what suffering looks like. This is pain. Ranting and raving, screaming silently, coming completely unraveled before our eyes. And then tomorrow you’ll wake up and relive the nightmare all over again.
Adam: Yeah, so the reason why, if I may pontificate here as I sometimes do in the show, I think the reason why people just want it to kind of go away is that homelessness is a visual reminder of the runaway inequities and injustices in our system. And that visual reminder upsets people. It upsets people because it necessarily indicts us and indicts the system that has made us comfortable and relatively wealthy and the need, the urge, the desire to have it just swept away is because we don’t want to have to deal with that cognitive dissonance. We don’t want to actually have to deal with the injustices. This is why Seattle is Dying was so popular because it told people ‘it’s okay.’ And then there’s this other layer of kind of pseudo liberal veneer where you say, ‘I’m not about rounding people up because I’m evil or because I’m genocidal or because I have contempt for the poor, but it’s actually for their own good.’ That they want to be taken, arrested and thrown into jail and removed to a different city.
Nima: The struggles that people have in their lives are very real things, right? Are, you know, even if you can pay your rent or you own a small business or you do this, you know, you have a wonderful family, but nothing’s easy and like you have hardship and I think as you said, then being faced with a completely different kind of hardship that actually is on a societal level, is not just an individual thing where you can be like, well that’s not me so whatever, when it is so, so visual, so ever present in a lot of metropolitan cities, it again has that, it’s not just, ‘oh, that’s something that I don’t want to see,’ but it also frustratingly diminishes your own personal problems in a way that then it’s, ‘oh, well, I really don’t want to deal with that because now I feel like I can’t even have hardship to myself to claim that I need help myself.’ It’s this multilayered thing where then you don’t have it as bad as someone else, which is then frustrating.
Adam: Yeah. And so in Boston recently, a bunch of credulous reporters rallied around this thing called Operation Clean Sweep. This was in early August, Operation Clean Sweep, which they all kind of giddily went out and talked about how they picked up all these, found all these needles. Now Operation Clean Sweep is inherently a genocidal term because it implies that the people who are being quote “swept” away e.g. human beings, are trash. You clean sweep trash, garbage, dirt. So Operation Clean Sweep, which was the disbursement and displacement of a homeless camp in Boston, was cheered on by local media. The term, no one was really questioning whether or not using terms like Operation Clean Sweep, itself a term for a military operation that was part of a genocide campaign in East Timor and the early eighties, we don’t think about that. It’s just get it the fuck out of my way. And of course everyone likes to make themselves the victims. Oh, people attack people. There’s drug addicts. There’s not really any evidence that homeless people commit crimes, violent crimes at a higher rate than others because they get arrested a lot more. As we talked about on episode 71 about the Florida Man, you know, 81 percent of people prosecuted, not arrested, but prosecuted in Miami Beach are homeless. The average income of people, according to one study of people in both Philadelphia and Miami who are in jail because they can’t afford to pay bail, their average annual income is $4,500 a year. Average annual income is $4,500 a year, which is a huge indicator that this is just homeless people in jail. And because this is the United States, the only way we solve anything is by putting fucking people in jail or arresting them or ticketing them, getting them further in debt. And so the political desire to sorta just get rid of the problem by just cleaning it away is necessarily a carceral solution. And the carceral mentality is driven by this media that centers the small business owner and centers white suburban interests over what is fucking human beings. So the outrage is not that there is homelessness, it’s that police are not purging homeless people. So they, you know what I mean? The whole moral framework is completely warped.
Nima: Well, right. And the idea of this purge, right? And so it’s not only carceral, but the cleansing mentality, as you said, is fundamentally genocidal and dehumanizing.
Adam: So there’s a similar thing happening in Austin. So Austin Mayor Steve Adler and other city officials, they loosened, there was three different ordinances that they shifted to basically make it so you can’t give a ticket or a fine for people who have encampments. And the mayor to his credit is telling everyone to fuck off and saying, if you have a problem with it, you should house the homeless. Needless to say, there has been a quite a backlash in Texas and central Texas. Fox 7, KLBJ Radio, ABC Austin all ran coverage of a local Travis County Republican Party chairperson who passed around a change.org petition to get rid of, uh, this, this shift in the ordinances without noting that most of the people who signed it actually don’t live in Austin. It went viral in sort of right-wing circles. The Austin Chronicle wrote that KLBJ’s popular drivetime AM host Todd Jeffries and Don Pryor who are featuring increasingly kind of foaming calls who describe homelessness in quote unquote “apocalyptic terms.”
Nima: And this has been covered throughout the city. So a different Austin outlet, KVUE, which is a CBS affiliate, ran a story, this is on July 10th of 2019 with this headline, “Austin veteran fights off alleged homeless attacker after offering to help him.” Again, it’s another one of those ‘local hero tried to do good for indigent vagrant and was attacked for it.’ It’s another kind of Ryan Bray Story.
Adam: Yeah. So KVUE did this great cherry picking, did some more Death Wish 3 framing where they found an obscure homeless guy who said that his ticket had saved his life. The headline said, quote, “He spent more than 20 years living on Austin’s streets. Now, he’s thanking the officer who ticketed him and the community court that got him a case manager.” This is part of a general messaging effort. This story came up two days prior also on KVUE Austin that said quote, “Austin Police Department: Citations Help Connect Homeless with Services.” So there’s this idea that carceral responses, police are social workers with guns, that they are actually good for them. And ever since this shift in the ordinances in Austin, there’s been all these different articles that just keep coming out and out about how we need to respond with more policing, how city officials are sort of doing nothing. There’s this constant moral panic that goes on. And this is of course trumpeted by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, by Republicans, Senator Ted Cruz, and there’s been some real consequences. So in July the homeless encampment was lit on fire by a passing car that threw a firecracker at the tent. Fortunately, no one was injured. And the previous week, Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who’s been an advocate for the homeless, posted a threat on Twitter. He was sent a letter in the mail with a picture of an urn with ashes in it with the text scribbled on it “Fuck you Casar… here’s what you should ‘do for’ the vagrants.” Obviously the implication being we should burn them to death genocidally.
Nima: Yeah, exactly.
Adam: Like I said, as one would in a genocide and so it’s obviously anecdotal, but there appears to be a spike in hate crimes are targeting homeless people because of this. Exists in the context of both the media coverage and also local Republicans specifically really kind of losing their shit over this because of downtown businesses.
Nima: Because the “solutions” quote unquote to the more visible signs of homelessness are always going to be stricter laws rather than looser ordinances, right? And far more police activity rather than increasing services, actually providing homes so that people are no longer homeless. It’s always the most punitive ways which are seen as being the rational, reasonable, forceful ways to deal with this current crisis rather than seeing the victims of the crisis, not as the small business owners or the suburban commuters, but rather the people who are experiencing this danger of being homeless.
Adam: We want to be extremely clear here that there is a direct, provable, demonstrable line between media, paranoia, panic and demagoguery about homelessness and the over policing and criminalization of homelessness. That this is not a theoretical media studies abstraction. That this is something that is extremely measurable. So the story we began this segment with about Ryan Bray the small businessman taking on big panhandler, this controversy was front and center at both the Bradenton City Council meeting the following week and the Manatee County, which is the county that Bradenton’s in, and the Manatee County Commissioner meeting. So the Bradenton Herald wrote that quote, “buzz around the story prompted [Bradenton City Council member Gene Brown] to ask police and the city attorney to look into the city’s options for dealing with panhandlers.” Unquote. After a Manatee County Commission meeting Tuesday where, of course, Bray himself spoke, where he sort of now he’s not the mascot of the everyman, County Commissioner Reggie Bellamy told the Bradenton Herald quote, “We need more strategic enforcement on this.” Assistant County Attorney Kate Zamboni added, quote, “My recommendation would be to try to enforce what we have a little bit more strictly through the help of law enforcement.” So the response to the quote unquote “lawmakers” is to call on police to fucking arrest more panhandlers.
Nima: Exactly. So irked business owner calls media, media does sensationalist story, lawmakers express outrage, demand the solution, which is more law enforcement. That’s how that works.
Adam: And they’re already doing it in Bradenton. This is the direct line. So like there’s real stakes here and that the relationship between these kind of foe indignant, outrageous over-aggressive panhandling and the over-policing of the homeless, which of course serves the, the interest of the rich and the highly coveted middle-class, whatever that is, is an extremely direct line and it’s one, I think those in the media should be extremely sensitive of. That they’re really playing with live ammunition when they do these stories.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Steve Potter, an Austin-based artist and activist. He’s a member of the Homes Not Handcuffs Coalition and Austin’s Homelessness Advisory Committee. Steve is also a founding member of the Gathering Ground Theatre Troupe. He’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Steve Potter from Austin, Texas. Steve, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Steve Potter: I’m very glad to be here.
Adam: For our listeners, let’s kind of lay the groundwork for what’s really been going on in Austin right now regarding homelessness. At the top of the show, we discussed some of the more egregious articles that are coming out of the city. The city recently passed an ordinance stopping the use of tickets for homeless encampments, which has led to quite a bit of backlash, a sort of political coalition of kind of bearded IPA liberals and MAGA chuds, sort of a, a weird coalition of like white tech worker and your typical conservative backlash that one would sort of come to expect. Can you give our audience some context here and discuss what the mayor has done and what the media backlash and also from people like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz and so forth.
Steve Potter: Well this is actually involved with three ordinances. You have the no sit/no lie ordinance, you have the panhandling ordinance and then you have the ban on camping. All three came up. I was a part of the coalition that kind of pushed that through. We’ve been fighting the last two years. The no sit/no lie was essentially unconstitutional along with the panhandling ban. And the camping ban was a little different in some ways. What we’re talking about is amendments to current ordinances. We are not talking about repeal, we’re not talking about getting rid of anything, we are simply changing the language to the existing ordinances and with that the essential change is based more on behavior. If someone is a public health risk, if someone is, you know, essentially acting out in a violent manner, if they are causing a nuisance, causing obstruction, that is when those ordinances are still applied and that is when those folks are still subject to those ordinances. This was put in place to acknowledge the fact that giving someone a ticket simply because they’re homeless is simply no way to actually solve the problem. And the mayor made specific recommendations and changes to the language so that it reflected the focus to be on the behavior of the individual rather than the situation that an individual is in. A lot of it’s the Downtown Austin Alliance and the downtown businesses, they are more concerned with the no sit/no lie, to be honest. And I can kind of understand you don’t want anybody sitting in front of your establishment that is strung out on K2 and scaring your customers away. But giving that person a ticket, arresting that person does nothing to actually address that. Does nothing to solve that. In fact, it creates an additional barrier for that person to actually get out of the situation they’re in, and there has been a lot of misinformation and there’s been a lot of untruths out there from that side. What the ordinances are, the language that has been changed and you know, there’s a lot of fear mongering and whatnot from that side on this issue.
Nima: Well, right because laying it out as you just did, Steve, there’s a lot of rationality there that’s reasonable. I’m sure there are still issues with the current ordinances and how they’re applied, of course, but as you’ve just described, it’s talking about specific scenarios it’s trying to lessen the impact of a blanket criminalization of the scenario of homelessness. And so with the sensationalist portrayals that you’re seeing both in the media and also, you know, the kind of opposition activists, what are you seeing now in terms of how the backlash is actually affecting people?
Steve Potter: All right. Um, and I hate to diminish the horrific violence that went on during the Civil Rights Movement, but I am seeing a lot of those same parallels. A lot of that same language is being used against the homeless. A lot of those attitudes are currently there in Austin. What we’re seeing is just the beginning of what I hope does not go down that way. I think what we’re seeing is a lot of ignorance, a lot of fear perpetuated by the downtown businesses. I see that the city has recognized that homelessness is a problem in Austin. Homelessness is become more visible and yes, homelessness can be ugly, it can be dirty, but it has really shown a spotlight on exactly how extensive the problem is currently in Austin. And with that, some folks that have moved here for the music and the scenery and this and that of course don’t like their perceptions challenged of what Austin is. Austin’s a big tourist town of course, and you want to keep the paupers out of the side of the king, kind of thing.
Adam: Yeah, so Mayor Steve Adler, the Mayor of Austin, to his credit, has done what you’re talking about, which is he sort of called their bluff. He tweeted out an Op-Ed he wrote for the Austin American Statesman and he said quote, “want to stop people sleeping in public spaces? House them.” Basically saying that if you really don’t like seeing homeless people such that it is then give them homes, which is really, I think the kind of core counter-argument to this, this idea that like there is a very easy way of solving this and other states and other countries have solved it, which is giving people homes. Can you talk about how for people you’ve dealt with or people you’ve talked to, even some people who may self-describe as being progressive or liberal, how such a possibility is just not imaginable?
Steve Potter: I think this again has a lot to do with a lot of the ignorance and a lot of the fear. One of the buzzwords the other side likes to use of course is when they are referring to the homeless, they’re referring to them as “transients.” That’s simply wrong. I know homeless folks that have been in Austin for decades, this is simply another tool, another tool of language that they use to discredit people as people and, you know, they’re not deserving of the same respect, they’re not deserving the same dignity, they’re not deserving the same consideration because they’re just passing through.
Adam: You see a similar moral schism with the idea of sort of panhandler versus homeless, that the panhandlers are all a bunch of con artists or that the sort of deserved and undeserved poor is like a huge like way that liberals can justify it in their head, right? These people don’t deserve it. They’re sort of, they’re just con men or whatever.
Nima: Right, because it’s a choice, because then there’s a different kind of agency that you’re ascribing and it all becomes just a choice to like swindle rather than like a much larger societal issue.
Steve Potter: And, and it’s unfortunate that that has gone down that way. These are old arguments that the businesses use to discredit these people as people. So, you know, essentially it’s the same old playbook. A lot of the fear, a lot of the, a lot of the hatred, you know, it’s based on ignorance. It’s based on the fact that the businesses want to put profits over people. One of the things that I push, many of these businesses do not in fact pay their employees a living wage and therefore are contributing to the problem that they are then complaining about. If you’re going to complain about the homeless, all right, how about paying your people enough so you know it’s not a problem as much as it should be or could be?
Adam: You mentioned language. We focus obviously on that. We focus on that a lot in this podcast. A recent rounding up of homeless people in Boston was code named Operation Clean Sweep, necessarily implying that the people who are being displaced are trash, which I don’t think is a, is a huge rhetorical leap. It’s the obvious implication of that. Sinclair’s KOMO documentary Seattle is Dying in Seattle, was very popular in right-wing circles for its depiction of homeless people, which were repeatedly referred to as garbage or trash or sort of synonymous with trash. Can we talk about what I think we established earlier in the show as genocidal language — a term I think is actually not hyperbolic, but is actually in the literal sense genocide on the sense that it equates people with some sort of vermin or infestation — can we talk about the use of genocidal language to refer to the homeless or broader dehumanizing language and what that effect has on both what you view as the public perception but also the disposition of people who are experiencing homelessness?
Steve Potter: Well, in as much the public image of the homeless person now, yes, we have a segment of the homeless population that has a substance abuse issue. We have a segment of the population that has a mental health issue, but these are not the majority of the people who are homeless. But it is often the argument that is being used against all homeless, that all the homeless are drug addicts, all the homeless are bums, all the homeless they don’t want housing. They don’t want to follow the rules. They don’t want to be a part of society. So again, it’s all this faults narrative that’s being spread because it’s easier. I think it’s easier to distance someone that doesn’t fit within your particular box, that doesn’t quite smell as pleasant as you would like them to smell, that doesn’t quite look as good as you would like them to look because of the situation they’re in. So it’s easy to see that person as a pariah. It is easy to see that person as a nuisance. It is easy to see that person as someone who is of lesser value and it’s a hard thing to fight, but that fight is out there, that the understanding is there. The one thing I love about Austin, the people of Austin generally have a big heart. They really do. It’s just some of those that have just recently moved. It is some of those who just for one reason or another haven’t gotten themselves involved in enough of that. Whether that’s, you know, they’re dealing with their own issues or what and they have taken to believe that homeless don’t have value.
Nima: So you work with a lot of local groups in Austin. Can you tell us about some of the work that you’ve been up to, some of the work that those groups are doing and maybe also how our listeners can, you know, be paying attention to what’s going on and maybe even get involved with some of those groups themselves.
Steve Potter: All right. Uh, boy, I’ve got a long list.
Nima: Go for it. Do it.
Steve Potter: Alright. It started with the Gathering Ground Theatre troupe. I am a creative in Austin. I have a background in film. I have background in writing. I had an interest in what Roni Chelben had started with the Gathering Ground. And so I joined that, I became a founding member. Uh, the Gathering Ground Theatre Troupe is a theater troupe of homeless, former homeless and advocates that present the point of view of someone from the street. In fact, one of our performances, the second one was called No Sit No Lie based all round the ordinances and essentially that kind of kicked off what eventually happened. The performances attracted the attention of Chris Harris with Grassroots Leadership at the time and it also attracted Emily Garrett with Texas Fair Defense. These three groups form the Homes Not Handcuffs Coalition, which has grown considerably since then. The coalition met with City Council folks individually, spoke at City Council a number of times. I was present at most of those. Additionally, Austin has a very, very unique resource called Austin’s Homelessness Advisory Council. This is a collection of 15 individuals who have lived experience. Some are currently housed, myself is part of the group that is not currently housed and we offer street-level advice to city level, mostly mid-level city workers, different departments. We’ve had just about, I can’t think of a department we really haven’t talked to about solutions to homelessness in Austin. It’s a project that I would like to see spread quite honestly. We’ve given some very valuable insight to all that. Additionally, I am a member of ECHO’s Membership Council. ECHO, which stands for Ending Chronic Homelessness Organization. I believe that is a very big picture. What I do is again trying to provide a lived experience of viewpoint, street level if you will, and there are others, House the Homeless is an organization that I have been supportive of. They have a few different events every year that I try to attend and I will be kicking off an ongoing series of just candid interviews with the homeless. I’ve got good relationships with a number of churches over the past, you know, few years and I’ve learned that the homeless have a lot to say so I want to give them that opportunity. So I’ve got a youtube channel set up for it, I just let them say whatever they want to say. And when you’re dealing with the homeless in a situation like this to get them to speak, you are dealing with trust and you are dealing with apathy. But I have gained some of that trust. The work that I have done has gained some recognition both within city government and the homeless population. So yeah, I’m going to continue that and essentially, you know, if I see a need that I can be a part of, I try to involve myself.
Nima: You are very, very busy Steve. That’s a lot. You’ve got a lot going on.
Steve Potter: I do.
Adam: This was fantastic. We really appreciate it.
Nima: Thank you. Steve Potter, Austin-based homeless advocate and activist as you just heard, founding member of Gathering Ground Theater Troupe, very active member of Homes Not Handcuffs Coalition as well as ECHO’s Membership Council and Austin’s Homelessness Advisory Committee. Steve, thank you so much again for making the time to join us today on Citations Needed.
Steve Potter: You’re very welcome.
Adam: So, definitely check out those groups. You know, when I was in film school in Austin, uh, which is something I apparently did, your first rule of intro film class was you were never allowed to do a film on homeless people cause it was sort of like cheap sentimentality and kind of voyeuristic and always sort of shallow. And I, I was thinking of that when we were doing the interview because I was like, well that would be terrible and schmaltzy but my god, it has to be better than KVUE, CBS and the local media’s coverage, you know.
Nima: Right. Well it’s better to be sympathetic at least then to be seeing vermin to be wiped off the street. I mean, which is what these reports are all about.
Adam: Well, you know, a lot of them do, they do this really weird pivot where they sort of will gesture towards some liberal, you know, getting people help, getting people treatment and we’ll go into this more in the Fox News episode because Fox News, even Jesse Watters will do this. He’s like, ‘oh I’m all about them getting treatment.’ But like there’s this weird thing where they’re acting like they care, but the liberal solutions, the sort of bleeding heart solution looks a lot like sending people to jail or just putting them on a bus and telling them to get lost.
Nima: There’s a nod to that even in the Seattle is Dying piece that, you know, like ‘this is what suffering looks like’ — Rod Serling voice and Twilight Zone music — right? You know, but really the solutions always give away what the whole point is. And the solutions are always more cops and stricter laws. It isn’t providing housing. And so, uh, yeah, it’s something to just keep in mind when you see these stories because they are everywhere on local news. We covered local news today and we could have done, god, a whole lot more.
Adam: So yeah. So join us next week we’re going to go over the other half of the pile of dog shit that is media’s coverage of homelessness by talking specifically about Fox News and their decades long incitement campaign against the indigent.
Nima: So that will do it for this week’s episode. Thank you everyone for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And of course, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production Assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research and newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. A very special thanks to Chris Harris and Alex Cox of Cards AGainst Humanity for your support. The music is by Grandaddy. Welcome back to Citations Needed for Season 3. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, September 4, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.