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The Criminalization of Dissent

A statement about the Santa Cruz Camping Ban & Conduct Ordinances

We of the Santa Cruz I.W.W. hold that recent attacks on poor, homeless and activist street communities are not merely the result of a local aberration. These attacks are part of a national effort to manage the radicalization and social protest of an increasing number of people experiencing poverty.

A Brief Introduction

Gentrification, meaning redevelopment, increasing rent, and costly "beautification," (efforts aimed at attracting a more upper-class tourist base) provides the backdrop and justification for intensified social control. With the creation of several new categories of petty crime, such as sitting, asking for spare change or sleeping in public, a powerful City-Business-Developer alliance is emerging to ensconce police harassment in the necessary judicial legitimation. Explicit use of selective enforcement, condoned police brutality, the absense of jury trials and the imposition of costly fines for convicted offenders are all elements of the recently re-worked public "conduct ordinances."

Criminalization of the "Lifestyle choice"; Managing Social Dissent

While proponents argue that the new legislation targets behavior and not specific classes or communities of people, we of the I.W.W. maintain that the targeted "behaviors" are those which characterize certain social classes. Sitting on the sidewalk, peacefully asking for spare change, or sleeping in public are all aspects of a social condition. Yet city power players and the capitalist press have been very successful in their unrelenting portrayal of homelessness and poverty as an individual "lifestyle choice." In Santa Cruz this assertion functions as the lynchpin of moral justification for ever-increasing criminalization of homelessness. We charge that it is extremely false to assert that any majority of the nation's homeless are "homeless by choice." Yet the disgust and hatred that is exhibited towards those perceived as choosing not to participate in the current economic system seems telling. Why should the assertion that a particular "lifestyle" was chosen be valid grounds for its subsequent suppression? Perhaps because that "choice" is perceived as a tremendous threat to the current status quo in Santa Cruz, a status quo predicated upon cheap, available, very low paid labor bound to the second highest rents in the nation. What would happen if the option to avoid rent and wage slavery by sleeping outdoors were to become more desirable and/or possible for a large number of people? The bosses and landlords in town, however "progressive" they claim to be, would then have to face the level to which their privileges and comfort depend on the subordination of others. Thus we assert that criminalizing a certain social condition because it is perceived as a choice, demonstrates the purposeful effort to manufacture consent and enforce bondage to the highly exploitative work/rent system. The criminalization of the "choice" not to participate in "the system," demonstrates the fascist strategy of current anti-homeless campaigns: to attack, manage, regulate and ultimately destroy perceived or actual social dissent.

Anti-poor Campaigns and Class Struggle

The Camping Ban, the "conduct" ordinances and the surrounding neo-liberal discourse about "behavior" and "right-to-be-rich" are targeted not only at street populations but also those who are currently housed and employed. All low paid waged laborers: copy/coffee/food service workers, retail laborers, office workers, temporaries, light industry productionists etc. are essentially being warned by anti-homeless legislation to "play it safe" on the job so as not to end up on the street. The effort to stigmatize and outright vilify an economic circumstance that all waged workers must constantly struggle to avoid is a very useful strategy for keeping labor in line. In Santa Cruz a worker's existence is primarily defined by the constant struggle to maintain legal housing where over half of one's monthly wages may go towards rent. The criminalization of the condition of being unable to pay rent functions as a very real demand that workers remain ever-grateful for current employment, regardless of working conditions or pay. By securing access to a subdued and fearful service-industry work force supporters of anti-homeless legislation (almost entirely bosses) seek to simultaneously sweep the streets of the homeless while assuring that there will always be a willing employee to hold the broom.

To fully accomplish this indirect threat to the working class the current pro-ordinance campaign must completely segregate those who might have common interests, such as waged workers and the unemployed, as well as different communities of homeless people. To criminalize the disenfranchised without garnering sympathy or outrage from similarly situated groups, pro-ordinance discourse has cast the homeless into two predictable categories: "hapless (passive) victims" and the "life stylists," the aggressive, ugly, dirty and thoroughly unworthy. The "good" homeless go to the (very few) shelter spaces while the "bad" life stylists "choose" to put their poverty in the public eye. In this way it becomes obnoxious and indeed "agressive" merely to exist as poor, dirty, ugly etc. in public. These undeserving "aggressive" poor are then found to be quite at odds with the sought after "nice-ness" of an upper-class pacific garden mall, replete with wide "unmarred" sidewalks, costly decorations, and smiling ever-replaceable service. Homelessness is then successfully re-defined as a "public nuisance" and even a danger to "public safety." This re-definition makes explicit the class assumptions at play in the current use of the word "public." It also clarifies the position that any good employee who serves "the (upper-class) public" should occupy. Divisions like these operate as an ideological stigmatization and indeed a material threat against any alliance or organization between those who are currently on the streets and those who are one paycheck away.

For this reason the I.W.W. intends to organize right over the ruling class division of "producer" vs. "derelict." In the IWW we understand that the employed and unemployed are both a part of the same labor pool subject to the tides of the capitalist economy and other webs of exploitation regardless of whether we currently have a job. Solidarity between employed and unemployed workers means the difference between an employed class with teeth, and an expendable work force easily replaced by unorganized labor. This sort of solidarity can also mean the difference between ineffective short term resistance and more sustainable revolutionary movement. We will only be effective against those in power when we have built our solidarity between those that the ruling elite depends on, as well as those it is willing to discard.

The Santa Cruz Camping Ban

Thus our goal in the upcoming months is the abolishment of the SC Camping Ban. Like the conduct ordinances the SC Camping Ban criminalizes homelessness by making illegal that which largely defines it: sleeping without a shelter. This law, while older and less present in the media than the newly passed six "conduct" ordinances, was the very law under contestation (via public sleeping Peace Vigil demonstrations) when the new ordinances began to be seriously considered. The new "conduct" laws are in large part a reaction to legal protest and freedom of speech against the older, more established Camping Ban. Yet rather than be admonished through freedom s of speech protected under the constitution, the City Council, with the forceful backing of the Downtown Business Association and the Santa Cruz Police Department decided to pre-empt the ability to protest this particular law by criminalizing the various elements of such protest. This was accomplished with the outlawing of signs on the sidewalk after dark and the re-definition of shelter materials, backpacks or sleeping bags as obstructions, or "public nuisance."

While we do not intend to ignore the current "conduct" ordinances the IWW would like to advocate a shift in focus and a renewal of activism aimed at the Camping Ban in particular as well as the entirety of gentrification and social regulation underway in Santa Cruz. So let's get organized! Let's beat the bosses with a solidarity the likes of which they've never seen!

A message from your local General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Produced by I.U. 450 Santa Cruz Local