Last Friday I was speaking at an event on hunger in Atlanta. Also at that event was the Director of Human Resources for the city of Atlanta. Her name is Mitzi and she is basically in charge of distributing federal funds to agencies that work with the homeless. We engaged in conversation about, what appeared like, the immanent closing of the largest shelter in Atlanta located in the community where we do our main work. The shelter is currently housing over 500 men and that number is growing as the night temperatures begin to fall. At the height of the winter they will house nearly 1,000 men.
A bit of back story might be helpful here: In brief, the shelter has been under constant siege for over the past decade from business organizations, government agencies, etc. These antagonists are against the shelter for many reasons including its location on prime real estate, the omnipresence of the homeless in this prime area, the perceived lack of good management, different philosophies of service, etc. All the homeless agencies and individuals that work in these agencies that I speak with directly see the essential need for the shelter, but refrain from speaking out on their behalf. I suspect because they are afraid of being targeted as well. Another long story short, a judge, at this point in the story, had ordered the eviction of the shelter. The leadership of the shelter, many friends of the shelter (including Occupy Atlanta), and some of the homeless who live there had no intentions of following that order.
Mitzi and I, and others, had a very interesting conversation. She let us know that it is not the city that will be closing the shelter, rather it will be the court at the hands of their marshals. But it must be pointed out that the city has been granted the power to shut the shelter down at the end of the month of they so choose. In this conversation she assured me that the Mayor had no intention of using said power. Nonetheless, the city does have an interest in caring for these men if the shelter is closed down by the court. You could tell the urgency and feeling of helplessness that Mitzi was reflecting. The city has a general plan (though insufficient for the need) in place but it depends on the cooperation of the men and the leadership of the shelter; neither of which they can count on. At the end of the conversation Mitzi invited me to come on Monday to speak with her and the Mayor about the issue, hoping that I could share some of my insight from the street level. I was glad to oblige.
At 2:30pm I would meet with Mitzi, then at 3pm we would meet with the Mayor together. Over the weekend I spent time on the streets talking with my friends about what they were hearing and thinking. I met with Anita, the executive director of the shelter, to hear from her what was going on and what might be done to avert a show down. We had a very constructive conversation. In the meantime the judge rescinded his order to evict for a time likely until he can get the legal argument in order. (His order was likely to be overturned if he had not rescinded.) Since the closing of the shelter had simply been postponed I still thought it extremely important to meet in order to help avert this inevitable show down.
On Monday I met Mitzi in the lobby of City Hall and we walked up to the board room in the Mayors section of the building. She informed me on the walk that she was not sure who all was going to be there or what the agenda was going to be. I was confused. I asked who else was going to be there. She did not know for sure, but thought that Bernice King was going to show up (Bernice is the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) I wasn’t sure what Ms. King new about the homeless problem but I was ready to advise the Mayor on what was happening on the streets and how he could help the homeless and avoid a world of trouble.
When we entered the conference room there was an impressive spread of food and refreshments. Two other pastors I had never met were already there. Soon more and more clergy showed up. All in all around 20 or so pastors were there. I knew two. This meant that something wasn’t quite right because I knew that most of these folks did not work on the streets. It also meant that it was unlikely we would have any kind of serious conversation.
Finally the time came for us to meet with the Mayor. We were all ushered into another room and seated in a large circle. The Mayor entered, greeted everyone, and then began the meeting. He informed us that we were meeting about Occupy Atlanta. It appeared to me that everyone there already knew this, but it was news to me. He told us that he had gathered us together because he was about to start a new course of action and wanted to get our feedback. I thought it a bit strange that he gathered this group together to talk about this subject, but there we were.
He told us that up to this point he had been tolerant of the movement. In deference to the rich tradition in Atlanta of non-violent protest he felt that he would allow them to protest without disruption as long as they stayed within the “Kingian” parameters of non-violent protest. He also claimed that he was sympathetic to their cause. Mayor Reed had issued an executive order that allowed the protestors to remain in the park after hours. He then informed us that they had crossed the “Kingian” line and promised to escalate their actions even more to garner attention. He shared with us a few incidents that happened over the weekend that he found unacceptable. (As a side note, it is worth pointing out that these incidents were widely reported on in the news including how the Mayor had tried to meet with them in his mobile command unit where he seemed to at least nearly lose his temper. The stories were not flattering to the Mayor.) These incidents included promoting a hip-hop concert in the park without permit or security plan while falsely advertising acts that would be there to perform, but in actuality were never slated. (The Mayor claims Occupy Atlanta said the acts would be there, Occupy Atlanta claims they just said they would be honored there. I think the concert’s add was at least misleading.) Other incidents were occupying an upscale mall, using a generator the fire chief determined a fire hazard, and shouting down the Mayor’s spokesperson. According to the Mayor, because of these incidents and the promise of escalation, he was going to change course.
His plan is simple. He will rescind his executive order that made it legal for them to stay in the park after hours, but not before a contingent of clergy go to the park and try to negotiate with the leaders. When the order to vacate the park comes male police officers will then arrest males, and females will arrest the females.
After presenting this to the group those gathered were given the opportunity to comment. Because of the large number gathered this took the form of going around the circle and if your hand was raised you got to give your two cents. This was not a time for discussion, rather simply a time to share abbreviated thoughts. Most, but not all shared something. There were many in the room that were in support of the Occupy movement, but who were also sympathetic to the pressures and issues the Mayor was considering, especially given the way the Mayor couched the current situation. There were some others in the room that may not have explicitly stated their opposition to Occupy Atlanta, but their comments or suggestions betrayed their position.
One veteran of the Civil Rights movement stated emphatically that he was supportive of the Occupy Atlanta group and needed more assurances from the Mayor that this was absolutely in the best interest of the common good before he felt comfortable with the idea. Another pastor suggested that any negotiations be public and transparent.
My concerns that I communicated to the Mayor were threefold: First, I told him that I didn’t think the clearing of the park would go as easily as he suggested. Not due to a violent reaction, but simply because that is the nature of a large police action. Second, I asked what the plan would be after they cleared the park. There was no way that clearing the park was ending the movement and thus not the end of police involvement. And third, which I felt was most important, I asked how this related to the shelter since there is now no daylight between the shelter and the Occupy Atlanta movement. I was curious if this was also an opportunity for him to try and defang a situation before it could begin. In other words, I was wondering if now he would move to close the shelter. There was no response, which I was not surprised about. He had not been responding to most others either. He was just listening and taking it in. But what I was surprised about was that no one else even once mentioned the shelter or reiterated my concern. This was a clear indication that those gathered did not fully comprehend the implications and scope of what they were being presented.
Perhaps the most anticipated voice was that of Bernice King. She waited until everyone was given the chance to speak, then she gave a thoughtful and measured response. She said that if we were going to be talking about Kingian non-violence then it may be helpful to be reminded of what those principles were. She rehearsed them for us, then, among other comments, stated that if there was to be a negotiation then perhaps it is wise that those who have already determined what should happen should not be involved. This way the negotiations could be undertaken in good faith. I thought this was helpful in at least pointing out that there should actually be a negotiation and that a decision should be made after they have been given a fair chance to come to terms. My concern was that Kingian non-violence is not intended to be a tool of the powerful, but rather of the weak. I’m not sure the state can ever be agents of non-violence against those who call the status-quo and the powers themselves into question.
After everyone had been heard a note pad was sent around the room for those who were willing to be part of the negotiation team to give their contact information. I let it pass me by. I first of all believed that there could be no honest negotiation. The dye had been cast. Second, I had no intention of being an agent of the state, dressed up in clergy garb, to stand against the outcry of the poor. It doesn’t matter how I feel about the movement itself. Besides, the Occupy Atlanta group exists to not negotiate, at least not in the way or with the people the Mayor suggested. They exist to highlight injustice and the collusion of the powerful against the interests of the poor and the common good. Although I’ve not heard this articulated, greed and indifference are just as damaging to those who practice them as those who are their victims: judgment brings repentance and healing.
At this point the Mayor informed us that there would be a press conference and he would like those who were present and willing to stand with him when he made the announcement about rescinding his order. When asked when the press conference would be he informed us that it would be right now, there was already a cadre of cameras ready. As we were preparing to exit I huddled with a few of my colleagues who work closely with our friends on the street. We felt this had all been stagecraft.
The police chief and fire chief joined for the press conference. The clergy followed behind the Mayor. The Mayor gave his already prepared remarks.
When I left the building I called Mitzi. She didn’t answer but later returned my call. I told her that this was not why I was there and that it all seemed like a P.R. stunt. I also informed her that if she ever wanted to talk about the shelter I would be willing to help find an agreeable outcome. She said she would call me soon.