Wednesday, February 15, 2006

My opionated take on the po po, and social services...

I just watched some of Seattle’s finest arrest a crack dealer. I also witnessed a white officer jab a black man in the ribs several times. At least a dozen people walked by. I smoked a cigarette. No one really paid much attention. The police read him his rights, put him in a squad car, and hauled him off to King County. The neighborhood went about its business - life in the city, right?

Every month I do a series of trainings for the newest recruits with the Seattle Police Department. The young officers have just finished at the academy. They will be hitting the streets in the next week, or so. I’ve been asked to represent Real Change, and give a brief overview of homelessness and the newspaper.

My training follows a social worker talking about detecting child neglect, and abuse, and a man who works with the State of Washington. His job is to uncover fraud committed by poor people who take advantage of the system. Out of respect, I’ll keep my opinions to myself on the latter. Although, I will say the idea that people experiencing homelessness, and poverty are at fault for wasted tax-dollars is sickening. We live in a corporate culture that has brainwashed society into blaming poor people for wasting billions of dollars that are going towards war profiteering, and tax-breaks for the rich.

Yeah, we’ve all heard the argument before – the welfare mom who keeps having kids to make money off the state, the homeless guy who wants to be homeless, and the immigrants who come to steal jobs away from American workers.

A recruit setting next to me today couldn’t have been more than 19 years old. He was quiet, and respectful. All of the recruits are respectful. It’s not so much the idea that police officers have it out for poor people – it’s more about the culture they are introduced into. Every time I do trainings I get a different vibe. Sometimes the group is responsive, and eager to learn and respectful to what you’re saying, other times it’s like talking to a brick wall.

A kid walking out into the world armed with a gun and a badge is one issue. It’s the information entrenched into young officers minds that is the real danger. The recruits are armed to the teeth with disinformation provided by various institutions about why poor people are the enemy.

The Serge that brings the recruits in is an interesting fellow who always shows respect. You can tell he’s a hard man, and no doubt seen some crazy shit in his life.

Being a lefty writer, freak, and organizer I have been on both sides of that fence.

I’ve been on the side explaining to an officer that yes, that was the last of the pot found in the car. Only for the officer to come back and say, “What the hell is this? I thought you said that was it?” - Oops. (Funny thing was, they overlooked a film canister full of pot, and the next day after spending the night in jail we drove away laughing.)

I’ve also witnessed cops kicking the shit out of protesters at the Naval Yards when I was arrested at the WTO, and being interrogated for hours because of my political beliefs.

On the flip side, in Portland, we (fellow organizers) spent a lot of time working and negotiating with the police bureau trying to reach common ground on how laws where being enforced with people on the streets. Sometimes, you couldn’t help but think that the Commander, or the liaison for the police department was setting across from you thinking, “What the hell are we doing wasting our time with this fool?” Knowing full well that it didn’t matter what we said, or did, they where going to do what they wanted, and that was that. Other times we made real strides, and built the necessary relationships with the po po.

No doubt, the police in urban environments spend a lot of time being makeshift social workers for a system that is broken. I don’t believe that most police officers enjoy moving people on the streets from one place to another, or having to take a junkie into the station. They are good people. Of course like anything, you have your assholes, often times hardened from years on the job.

You see the same thing in the social service world. Sometimes social workers who treat poor people like they need to be fixed drives me batty. When I hear the word client, or customer in the social services it makes me want to cringe. We’ve built a system that acts as if people should be grateful for their own human rights.

And more so, when you talk on topics such as this with people in the field they freeze up, and get defensive. They start treating you like the crazy one. Then comes the lecture about how somebody somewhere is the reason that this is all happening, and people are just doing there job. Fair enough. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a loaded game, and it’s going to take more than good soldiers following blindly to create real change, pardon the pun. The political will to end fight poverty doesn’t start with the police, nor the social service industry – it starts with the people who are sucking wind.

It’s not a radical notion that being poor is a social product of a broken system. Continuing to treat both junkies, and poor people like clients and criminals, filling our county jails with people experiencing mental illness, and adding to the largest prison industry in the world is the real fraud that should be being investigated.

But hey, nobody asked me, that’s why I write to you on this humble little blog that could.


Kathrine said...

I'm a social-worker, and I resent the fact that you would compare social workers to the police. Your blog is short-sided, and lacks credibility. Have you ever been a social worker? What are you doing for the poor people you speak of? Attacking social workers doesn't move anything forward. While I respect that you work with a homeless newspaper, what has Street Roots done for anyone lately?

Israel said...


Wow. Talk about attacking.And, I don't work with Street Roots currently, I'm with Real Change.

I've had this discussion with social service providers before - questioning the ethics of street papers. Why do people have to buy the paper is the most frequent question? Followed by, isn't that taking advantage of poor people and do you really think selling a newspaper is getting people off the streets?

People buy the paper because they have co-ownership of the newspaper. Without a vendor program there's no newspaper. People who invest in a cooperative style newspaper for the most part are empowered by the idea they have a stake in a business model.

Do street newspapers look at themselves as a solution - depends on who you ask. I personally don't think so, but I don't think a street newspaper is a social service - I think it's newspaper, simple as that. And in a time when media is controlled by large sectors of the corporate world street papers offer a healthy alternative.

Have I worked as a social worker. Yes, at a Seven-Eleven, and at Peterson's in downtown Portland. Oh, and at Transition Projects, and for Janus Youth, both in Portland.

And, I would like to say that my piece is not about knocking anyone who works in the social services. I was trying to address how institutions have built a world in which poor people are blamed for being poor. I'm not pointing my finger at you Kathrine...

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