"Trespassing laws, exclusion zones, offensive litteringÉ there's a whole series of laws targeting homeless," explained Joshua Cinelli, a reporter for street roots and one of the organizers of the "Obstruction as Nuisance Festival."
Starting last Friday evening, a group of 20-or-so homeless activists camped out at various sites around the city over the course of the weekend. Their protest was intended to go head-to-head with city ordinances--in particular, the so-called "sit-lie ordinance." A year ago, Mayor Vera Katz passed the ordinance behind closed doors. Under that city code, anyone loitering downtown is subject to a hefty fine or arrest. It also allows police to tell homeless men and women to move along. This summer, Katz revisited that ordinance, implementing changes that make it easier for police to enforce the rule.
But despite the recent toughening of the ordinance, there are still a few loopholes. For example, anyone playing a musical instrument is exempt. Also, unlike common loiterers, anyone attending a festival may sit, lie, or stand in one place downtown for as long as eight hours without violating the city ordinance.
By calling their protest an "Obstruction as Nuisance Festival," the group exploited this loophole. Over the weekend, they relocated every eight hours or so, and, for the most part, stayed at least a half-step ahead of the police.
The protest began at 5 pm on Friday in front of the gold-gilded doors of the Portland Business Alliance. Many believe the Alliance, along with other downtown businesses, lobbied city council for the original ordinance as a means to push homeless men and women out of the shopping district.
Late Friday night, the accusation that some downtown business owners are hostile toward homeless persons became a graphic reality, according to demonstrators. After leaving the sidewalk in front of the Alliance, the group moved further downtown, to a sidewalk near the Greek Cusina.
At about 2 am, Mike D., a participant in the Nuisance Festival, was handing out fliers. He was standing on the sidewalk near the Greek Cusina when a security guard from the restaurant allegedly ordered him to vacate the area.
"They flat-out told me to leave," Mike D. said.
When he continued to stand on the sidewalk and hand out fliers, the security guard went inside and fetched another guard.
Mike D. claims that within minutes he was surrounded by seven guards from the Greek Cusina. "One made it a point to be humiliating," says Mike D., who is a longtime civil rights rabble-rouser.
He says he was more than happy to leave the area, but the demeaning attitude was unacceptable; moreover, he was clearly within free-speech allowances to hand out fliers on a public sidewalk. But perhaps most surprisingly, Mike D. claims he was verbally harassed by the owner of the Greek Cusina himself.
"If he had come over and said, 'Look, I'm trying to run a business and you're interfering,' [I would have left]," Mike D. says. "But he came off as, 'You don't have a right to be here.'"
Although Mike D. states that he asked the security guards not to touch him, one grabbed him, holding him in a half-nelson. According to several witnesses, Mike D. immediately threw his arms in the air to show he wasn't struggling. "They roughhoused me off the sidewalk and into the street," he says.
As the scuffle moved into the street, one of the other Nuisance Festival participants called 911. "What was interesting," says Cinelli, "is that the owner of the Greek Cusina was blatantly laughing at the whole situation."
Ted Papas, one of Greek Cusina's owners, refused to answer questions from the Mercury, instead saying that "everything is in the police report." In fact, although 911 was called and three squad cars arrived on the scene, no police report was filed. Immediately following the altercation, witnesses said they suspected that police did not bother to interview the victim, witnesses or the security guards on the scene. (The Greek Cusina is a popular hangout for off-duty officers. Two summers ago, two off-duty officers were beaten up by six alleged former gang members underneath the purple, inflated octopus that marks the building. Although the officers in the incident claimed they were jumped, several witnesses say the police were taunting the young black men before the fight broke out.)
Mike D. was transported to a nearby hospital where he was treated and released. He plans to contact Greek Cusina and request that they pay his hospital bill. If they refuse, he said he would consider a civil suit.
When informed by the Mercury about the pending litigation, Papas responded, "Like any other citizen, he's free to do what he wants."
In spite of the friction with the Greek Cusina, Cinelli was enthused about the success of the Nuisance Festival. They handed out more than 1000 fliers and talked with dozens of people.
"We wanted to engage people about the stereotypes of homeless," Cinelli explained. "We heard, 'They're all drunk' and 'They're all lazy.'"
One police officer told Cinelli that 85 percent of the people on the streets want to be homeless, and that the majority of neighborhoods want a tougher stance on homeless men and women.
But Cinelli points out that criminalizing homeless people only traps them in a cycle and does nothing to remedy the epidemic of homelessness. A violation of the sit-lie ordinance, explains Cinelli, is a misdemeanor. In turn, many homeless shelters won't admit anyone who has a criminal record, which includes misdemeanors.
After leaving the downtown area late Friday night, Cinelli and one of the other organizers led the group to the East Bank Esplanade, where they tried to sleep for a few hours. However, they were soon awakened by a police officer. Cinelli was slapped with a $100 ticket for camping on public property.
"It's not a great thing to wake up to," Cinelli said. "Two shiny black shoes telling you not to sleep there."
For more information about homeless issues and future demonstrations, see www.crossroadspdx.org