The park belongs to who?

Monday afternoon, around 1, I was riding my bike by the school and saw Yamhill between 34th and 35th blocked by 5, then 6 police cars. I stopped.

I rode my bike inside the park and started talking to folks across the fence. I hadn’t been by there recently and looking at the fence line, it was objectively a mess. There were multiple temps and makeshift shelters built off of the construction materials against the curb. About a dozen houseless folks had been sheltering there and this was a unique presence of police to get them to move. Don’t get me wrong, this is a familiar problem, but I’d never seen this response.

As I stood in the park and got the story, “They’re just running everybody’s name. They’ve got two people in cuffs and there was some yelling down there but mostly it’s just what they do.”

D, a houseless guy, comes up on his bike next to me and asks the same questions I did 2 minutes before. Within 30 seconds of his arrival an officer makes a b-line to the fence, looking straight at him and in a deep directive voice says, “Out. Get out of the park. You aren’t going to be here while the kids are here.” D apologized, started turning around, “I didn’t know. Sorry” I was 3 feet away. The officer looked over at me and mumbled something dismissive. “Do I have to leave?” I asked. He turned back and said, “No you look fine.” Woah! He looked over at my bike, changed into friendly dad tone of voice and said, “That’s cool. You like that bike? I’ve got a trailer for my kid and feel like I am carrying an anchor up the hills.” Woah!!!

I stayed in the park. D left. The IDs kept running, people seemed wet and tired and resigned. And the kids, at recess while all this was going on, played—some taking close notice of the police, others oblivious and engaged in their own games.

That afternoon 3 people were arrested. Two had open warrants—so they get cuffed, taken to jail, arraigned, and released with a new court date. Most open warrants are for not appearing in court…they stack on top of each other and are reason to be cuffed any time one’s name is run through the system in a stop like this. The third person had what the officer told me was meth in his pocket. Possession. Yes, get that shit away from a school..but also, possession.

I was left wondering a few things: Was there a disturbance that started all this? No, the officer told me. Just complaints from the neighbors. Why then all the cars? We got told to patrol around here extra hard right now. Is that normal? Nothing’s normal right now, this neighborhood is the craziest one right now. He told me he never gets yelled at as much as in this neighborhood. For what? 50-50 people who want us to leave people alone and people who want us to “arrest everybody and ship them out to sea”.

The officer asked to sit down with me sometime, share perspectives…absolutely. I look forward to the meeting. Because lots felt off about this situation, from the different ways of approaching D and myself in the park because of looks, the number of cars and officers present, the impact that has on children at play, and why did it have to be right then? If there was no disturbance, why in the middle of a school day?

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The next day, Tuesday, I got word that a very similar event happened around 11 am. This time up to 8 police cars converged at the same time and the District Attorney made himself known. The DA? At a homeless camp at Sunnyside? This one scared a number of children, according to officials at the school. Some members of the school administration complained in the moment and in writing afterwords about the impact of such operations on the kids and how hard it is to get a response from police when they are worried about a student’s safety, but all of a sudden, two days in a row of such heavy police presence without any coordination or communication with the school they are ostensibly protecting.

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Later the same day, while we were serving sandwiches to our friends, a Park Ranger approached…”What are you doing here?” “Feeding some homeless folks,” my partner responded. “You need a permit for that!” he said with some aggression. I approached and asked what the line is…what are we doing that needs a permit. “Homeless feeds need a permit.”

“Okay, we can do that, but it’s like a dozen of my friends, I know everybody’s name here sharing sandwiches. I didn’t think you needed a permit for a picnic.”

“It’s code 20.08.010. You can look it up. Call that number for questions” He handed me a card. I was so thankful for this information. Just what I needed. It seemed strange to feel like in an argument to get this info, but so be it. I called the phone number that the Ranger gave me and had a conversation with a parks official on the spot to help interpret code 20.08.010. Turns out you need a permit for a lot of things: commerce, using electricity, serving alchohol, amplified music, large crowds, etc. I described the scene in our park at the moment: a dozen people, a table set up, sharing coffee, sandwiches, sweets; no money, no booze, no electricity. “No that sounds great. Oh but you did say a table is set up. Technically that is equipment and would require a permit, but if you just use the table in the park, you’re golden.” I hung up the phone and relayed my understanding to the Park Ranger.

“So the line seems to be that if we have a table set up, we need a permit, but if we remove the table, we’re good.” “Yes. That’s right.” We shook hands and talked about stewarding the park. He complimented us on picking up all our trash and packing it out. We shook hands again and exchanged information.

As we were finishing our conversation, a neighbor approached from down the block. “I called in this complaint! They should not be her!. They are not welcome here!!!”

Woah! The ranger told the neighbor to give him a moment, and he would chat with him on the opposite corner. They did. I didn’t follow. The Ranger came back about 20 minutes later, thanked us again for how clean it was and said, “If you ever need any help with the park or with any sort of mediation in the neighborhood, let me know. I’ll help if I can.”

We finished our picnic, took down the table and I was left wondering why we were so offensive to this neighbor. I know he will never be pleased with homeless folks in his neighborhood, but neither am I. I just think the way to deal is to make relationships, not cast them out like garbage.

And in fact, we are all allowed in the park. It is there for all of us. We show the park love and the park loves us back.

Finally, on Wednesday, around 130, a single police car showed up during recess for the third day in a row. They stood and watched while the lone camper left packed up his stuff and moved on. When I asked him if he was okay, he said, “Yeah…just same old same old. Got to keep moving.”

That night the principal of Sunnyside called to tell me that her daughter reported that people “with badges were at the school again.” Some of her friends are asking if homeless people are okay. Some of them are wondering where they are going and why the police are doing it. I imagine some also feel safer.

But really, does it always have to be like this? Isn’t there any support other than ‘move’? Even if there isn’t a better answer, isn’t there a better time to give the message than during recess? And even if there isn’t a better time, isn’t there a better way than without communication with the school? than without consistent rules enforcement for all classes of people? than without some help on the other end?

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On Thursday I sat with my buddy S. He was late for lunch and missed a sandwich so we walked up and got pizza together. While we waited for the pie, he told me about the dislocation he had experienced during the week. His tent and sleeping bag went missing, his personal bag was taken by Rapid Response even though he was present, he felt threatened by police who kept telling him, “hurry up” and “get out of here.” He was worried about the safety of a birthday gift he got for his dad because he had to stash it in some bushes and hope it was still there. As he finished his story he shook his head and said, “It’s starting to feel like a hate crime the way we get treated.” My stomach turned.

I don’t have the magic answer but it’s got to be better than this. I will meet next week with the officer from Monday. I look forward to it. It has to start with sharing perspectives, patience, and a willingness to step into the problem. Let’s keep showing up for each other.

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