Category Archives: Nightcleaner essays

I got arrested today.

I got arrested today.  I didn’t hurt anyone or rob anyone or call anyone bad names or damage anything or threaten to damage anything.  I was calm and polite and did my best to cooperate in so far as I am able.  The officers stopped me from building a perfectly legal small safe campfire in a safe way in a safe place and with no one objecting to my proceeding except for the officers themselves.

To be fair they were very nice respectful officers who seemed to me to be more than a little embarrassed by having to arrest an old man who had only hoped to warm himself by a perfectly legal small safe campfire.  I understand they are public employees doing a difficult job under stressful circumstances and my own safety depends on them.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thankful on the streets of Duluth for an officer’s presence.  I do some social activism for the poor and homeless on the streets and my safety depends upon the calming of lots of hurt, damaged, and troubled human souls who have been shoved to life and death margins on the streets of our cities.  Some have even been driven to what I can only describe as purposeless violence which surely must deserve some psychiatric diagnosis.  But I am not qualified for that.

I am qualified to build small, safe campfires for warming and cooking purposes, and I have read every law and code and ordinance there-to pertaining, aside from having built probably thousands of such fires in my life off the grid.  That life is over for me now but I remember the utility and practice of small safe fires.  The fact is the law specifically forbids the imposition of regulation on this type of fire.  No one has to ask for a permit to warm themselves or to cook their food.

The fire department and the city parks department is right to be concerned about the building of any fire that is a danger to public safety.  Fires which are too large or are built near combustible materials or threaten to cause damage to property should indeed be suppressed in any safe community.  In fact, this is so strong an idea that the necessary conditions for a small safe fire are set down in the law and are not a matter of anyone’s opinion.  That law descends to us through the state and national fire codes and safety standards, which are word for word the same as that found in international codes as well.  Each of those sources states clearly that small safe fires are not to be subject to any regulatory permitting procedure.  Any person who needs a small safe campfire for warmth or food and who is capable of building such a fire in a good way with good fuel is actually protected by public law, and law enforcement officials have no jurisdiction to enforce imaginary laws against them.  So I assert, and it may be we shall see.

The question of the fire is actually the lessor one in my opinion.    More important to me is the question of officers trying to enforce not law, but their own opinions.  I believe my arrest was a case in point.  The nice officers may have decided my fire threatened somehow a danger to someone and so required their attention.

They told me I looked like I was about to ignite an illegal fire.  I explained to them that my intent was to light a small safe campfire which is perfectly legal.  They asked for my identification.  I asked if I was breaking a law.  They assured me that my fire was illegal by city ordinance.  I asked for the number of the ordinance so I could look it up.  They didn’t know of any.  So I asserted my right to a small safe blah blah blah campfire.  So they arrested me.  So.

They searched me of course.  My ID was in the wallet I generally keep in a zipped pocket.  They opened my wallet and searched through it for my ID.  They found my drivers license and began asking me questions about my name and address and all of that.  I decided I needed a lawyer and explained to the officers that I did not intend to answer any questions without a lawyer.

Since the officers could think of no law under which I should be arrested, they decided that refusing to give an officer identification is an offence in Superior.  So the ticket I eventually received from the nice counter lady at the jail was under the title “OBLIGATION TO PROVIDE IDENTIFICATION TO A POLICE OFFICER” sic.  The paper said it was a violation of Ordinance 86-7.

You can google it yourself.  My reading of it is that an officer can ask for ID if there is a crime or violation of ordinance, or if it appears such a violation is about to occur.  The supposed violation justifying the ID check was the fire.  But there is no law or ordinance against my fire.  So they asked for my ID, on the basis that a violation was about to be committed.  But how can there be a violation of the ID ordinance if there is in fact no ordinance against my fire?

The nice officers acted in a strictly professional manner and I can honestly say that nothing they did caused me any more discomfort than is offered any other citizen in the hard plastic back seat cell of a squad car.  The fact is there just is no way a person could sit comfortably there, even without the handcuffs.  Not only is the seat hard plastic but so also is the part of the cage in front of you, and I, at least, could find no way to ease myself in there without over-stressing joints, tendons, knees and elbows, nor either was there a way to keep my backbone perpendicular to the seat, but had to ride one hip or the other in turns, with the old disks grinding.  Luckily for me it was a short if uncomfortable ride.

What happens next?  I go to court in Douglas County Wisconsin on February Tenth.  I will submit a condensed form of this story to the judge and ask that the charge be dismissed.  I expect that is what will  happen.  Of course, I am open to any suggestions……

BTW I have no way of knowing who reads this or what they may think of it, unless you leave a little happy heart or a raspberry or something.  Please do.  It does get lonely sometimes in this big dark place.  Thanks.


And another thing…

Sometimes I wish the bureaucracy would let us alone to do our actions and have our public meetings and talk freely in a public place with as simple a human amenity as a small clean wood fire suitable for cooking or heating at any public park, if such an installation is available in steel or stone, and regardless if a citizen wants to build said small entirely legal fire in a device suitable to holding and containing any coals or ashes such that no permanent trace is left of where the fire has been.

Yes, it would be pleasent to avail oneself of warmth, hot beverages and food in public spaces large enough for an open discussion of current civic, political, and social issues.  But I don’t have access to such a space in my personal life, and access to relevant public spaces nearby is denied to our group by large armed police officers and suitably equipped fire crews, who come at the order of “some people in our town” who don’t want a fire at a publicly owned memorial.  More properly, I would venture our group believes “some people in our town”  don’t want at all any mixed groups of people gathering at a memorial for social and potentially political conversation with the neighbors, a chance to meet and get to know the people we ordinarily encounter only in passing on our streets.  If we give in to “some people” on our right to have a safe legal fire, they next will say we cannot share food, and if we give them that, they will say we can not smoke a cigarette or burn fragrant herbs for smudge.  They will go so far as to ban loitering if we make no protest. There  have even been suggestions to fence the memorial in, which is to fence ordinary neighborhood people out.


It doesn’t matter that the law is carefully written to express that simple clean fires for heating and cooking purposes do not require a permit in public parks and other public spaces.  The legality of such fires is not decided by the law, but by the opinions of “some people in our town,”  backed up at public expense by emergency personnel, even though there is no demonstrated emergency at all.


What if? What if?

Yesterday I was on the street approaching a cafe where some of us meet regularly to discuss social issues.  A disheveled young man was sitting on the curb next to the sidewalk just outside the door.  He was very clearly in an anxious and agitated state.  He moved in a jerky fashion, as if starting off on something definite, but losing sight of the purpose before completing the act.  Mostly he sat on the curb rocking forward and back.  I noticed him from half a block away and the group I moved with was walking at a leisurely pace, so I had some time to consider the situation.  We were going to walk past him to get to the cafe door, and I could see that he was trying to make human contact with every passer-by, and our group would surely not be immune.

So I considered what my course of action should be.  My options ranged from ignoring him entirely, obviously the least risky course, to perhaps a noncommittal glance and maybe a nod of the head, on to eye contact and engagement and the follow-on entanglement of contact with an irrational and needy mind.  I was looking forward to some meaningful discussions of pressing social issues with my friends, so I really didn’t want to devote the rest of my evening to the tight circles of limited reasoning and narrow topics available to most abandoned street folk.  I figured he must be intoxicated, either drunk or huffing on a shared pipe full of synthetic.

The others in my group were following the street dictate of avoiding eye contact with the needy, but I was caught in the noncommittal glance mode.  He latched onto that and jumped up as I was just about to pass… I know it is a stupid weakness but I just don’t use the cold shoulder tactic required in such situations.  He asked me for a dollar.  I said no, thinking of the two lonely soft worn dollar bills that I had been trying to keep in my wallet for the past week.

“Can I have three dollars?”  His eyes were clear and did not waver.  Drunks and stoners do not usually  have the clarity to maintain steady eye contact.  I looked away first.

“No,” I said, “I do not have three dollars.”  My friends were entering the café and the door was closing behind them.  I grabbed the handle reflexively.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“I can buy you a cup of coffee,” I said weakly, thinking for a moment that drunks and stoners want money for drugs and alcohol, not coffee and food.  Drunk and stoned, he would turn away from the offer of a cup of coffee.

But he did not.  “Ok,” he said.  “Buy me a sandwich?”

I stopped.  “No,” I said.  “I only have enough for coffee.”  I was still holding the door.

“Ok,” he said and walked through the door and into the café.  He followed my friends to a booth and slid in beside them.  I groaned inwardly.  I had just entirely spoiled what would have been an interesting conversation, adding a person to the mix who would inevitably drag us down to street level.  I tried to think how to salvage the evening.

“You shouldn’t be in here,” I said to him weakly.  “They will call the police.”

But he ignored me.  “Can I have a dollar?” he said to the table.  My friends all said no.

“Look,” I said, “do you want a dollar?  I’ll give you a dollar.  But you have to go outside.”  I took my wallet out and pulled one of the sad worn bills out, showing it to him.  He grabbed for it, but I held it back.  “You have to go outside.  We don’t want the police to come.  Will you go outside?”

“Yeah,” he said and reached for the bill again, but I turned and walked toward the exit.

“Come on,” I said, “I’ll give it to you outside.  Ok?”  I turned and walked away.  Half way to the door I glanced back to see if he was going to follow me.  He got up from the booth reluctantly, but then hurried to catch up to me.

“Buy me a sandwich?” he asked as we passed the counter.

“No, I can’t, but here is a dollar.”  I showed it to him and stepped outside, and he followed.  “What’s your name?” I asked him.

He looked a bit surprised and said “Mike”, as if I should already know that.

“Mike,” I repeated.  And then, conversationally, I asked him where his family lived.  I stood quite close to him and there was no odor of alcohol on him.

“Colorado,” he said.  “Anishinabek.”  His motions still seemed jerky and random, quick starts of glances, fingers, hands and arms moving toward nothing, falling back again to his sides without purpose.  I gave him the dollar.  “Thanks!” he said.  “Can you give me two dollars?”

I had been observing him close up, and his clothes were clean if not neat, and much closer to being new than worn out, but rumpled and ill-fitting.  His face and hair were clean, so I knew he was not homeless.  On the back of his left hand someone had drawn an “X” in black marker, and there were symbols, maybe numbers, in each angle of the “X”.  It looked like the signs first responders spray paint on the fronts of flooded houses to let each other know the place has already been searched.  The numbers tell what’s inside based on their position in the “X”, how many based on the value of the symbol.  So many dead, so many injured, so many needing to be evacuated.  On his other wrist was what looked like a hospital admissions ID bracelet, but it was looking like he’d been wearing it for quite a while, maybe even taped back on.  I couldn’t make out the writing.

“Have you been in hospital?” I asked him.  He shrugged my question away.  “Have you been smoking synthetic today?”  His eyes were amused by the question, and for a tiny second seemed to be askance, as if he were telling me I should know better.  But he smiled.

“No,” he said, simple and direct.

I started to move back toward the café door….

“Wait,” he said, and his eyes locked on mine.  I noticed again that they were clear and steady.  “Do you like me?”

It didn’t seem like an offer, and his eyes were open and round as those of a child, waiting, uncertain, hopeful.  “Sure, Mike, you are an ok guy.  I can see that in you.  Just a little messed up on the outside.”

He seemed satisfied by that.  I went back in the café and he did not follow me.  I re-joined my friends at the booth.  Some explanation seemed to be required.  “He isn’t drunk,” I said.  “He doesn’t smell of alcohol.  He told me he hasn’t been smoking synthetic, and I believe him.”  My friends made some non-committal noises.

“What if,” I said, “What if….he isn’t using.  He just is that way, every day, all the time?  What if he has brain damage or a disability?  What then?”  No one even made a mumble.

After a few uncomfortable moments, the group member who is most organized and who usually tries to keep us on the conversational track cleared her throat and said “We were talking about what’s coming up in the next few weeks.  It’s holidays and everyone is busy.  Tuesday is the Honor the Earth dinner at UMD, and Thursday is the Commission meeting, Friday we have the Taco sale, Saturday is the holiday show.  You guys can come hang with us at the show if you want, I am making soup and Richard is on setup and cleanup, so we will be busy, but there will be live music, and the art show in the gallery, and good food.  It should be a good time.”

One of the other members of the group asked about the holiday show and our organized member was answering him, when Mike came back in through the door from the street.  My heart sank, sure he would be right on us, but instead he stopped at the counter and spoke with the attendant.  There was a bit of exchange and Mike turned around and entered another booth.  But in a moment he was at the counter again picking up condiments and re-arranging the menus and take-home fliers.  The conversation at our table went on about schedule details, then turned to pipelines and big holes in the ground and piles of waste rock alongside them, and what happens to our water when the holding ponds overflow.

I saw the counter man give Mike a small wrapped package, and Mike opened it and dumped the contents of a condiment bottle on whatever was in it.  The counter man said something to him which I could not hear, and then to my relief Mike left the store with his prize.  He was back a moment later.  He said something to the counter guy who was wiping the shelves behind the counter with a rag.  The counter guy ignored him.  Then Mike went to the booth where he had been sitting, but did not find what he wanted, and in a moment he was at my elbow, shoving into the booth to sit down.  He had a wad of napkins in his hand and was rubbing his mouth and tongue and making troubled faces.  The napkins were stained orange-brown with some kind of sauce, and the stains were also on Mikes face around his mouth, and on his hands.  “Hurt,” he said with intensity and strain in his voice.  “Hurt.”

None of us knew what to say.  He dabbed at his face some more and then dropped the wad of napkins on the table.  “Can I have some water?”  He pointed at my water glass and I pushed it toward him.  He grabbed it with both hands and dumped the water into his mouth while gulping.  When he set the glass back down on the table it was nearly empty, and he pushed it back next to my coffee cup again.  Then he grabbed a packet of sugar from the bowl on the table and ripped it in half, dumping the contents, partly into his mouth but mostly onto the table and the booth and himself.

I watched him calmly while he did this, and then he noticed that one of our members had a half-eaten sandwich on a plate.  “Can I have some?” he said to her.

“No” she said.

“Can I have some?  Can I have some?  Please?”

“No,” she repeated.

Mike pointed to some scraps that had fallen out of the sandwich and onto her plate.  “Can I have that?”

She did not reply but took another bite.  Mike began to bark like a dog.  “Woof” he said.  “Woof woof woof.

In exasperation she gave him the scrap.  He accepted it happily and gobbled it down.  “Can I have more?  More?”

“No,” she said, forcefully this time.

“Can I have a sandwich?”  She ignored him.  “Can I have a sandwich?”  But his resolve was weakening.

“She won’t give you any,” I said.  “She is very stubborn.”

“Stubborn,” he said without malice.  Then he got up and walked away along the counter and out the door to the street.

We talked some more about coming events and a little about tactics, and Mike did not return.  The counter man continued cleaning up and it was evident that he wanted to close.  Eventually I finished my coffee and everyone else was done, so we concluded our conversations and then got up and left the building.  Outside, we stood on the sidewalk and talked for a while longer.  Mike was nowhere in sight.  On the curb where he had been sitting when I first saw him was a Styrofoam take-out box, open, containing what looked like a half-eaten Ruben sandwich.  Maybe someone he had talked to earlier had left it for him.  What if, I thought as we said our good byes.  What if.



11 April 2015

Last night Occupy Duluth met at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, where we often do if the weather is ok. Sometimes we have other business elsewhere, or things we need to discuss in a more controlled environment, but we prefer to be in the open and in public. Occupy is meant to be for everybody, and we try to make sure that anyone who wants to talk to us can join in our circle.

Something happened last night that could be progress. We settled in our circle and were soon joined by the usual neighborhood folk, many of them intoxicated, sick, injured, homeless and facing a future likely filled with more and more serious disasters, until sooner or later, the one that will void their ticket and show them to the gaping emptiness of the final egress. Some weep, some laugh over their cries of pain, some blame someone else, some seek revenge or satisfaction or escape. Some sit in stoney silence, trying to wall out the terrible scenes they have visited, but walling in the screaming, horrified, helpless prisoner within them, and sit staring, silent or sullen, at the coals of the fire.

But last night, a group of children wandered down the hill and sat on the concrete staring at all of us. Several of them carried long, skinny black baseball bats, punctuating their conversation with playful feints and jabs, raising or swinging the bats as if at each other or at passing birds or at the trees, then striking the pavement or the concrete wall with a satisfactory warning thump.

Two of the neighborhood women took offense at the testing territorial rough play the children were engaged in, and one woman, the one whose laugh sounded just like weeping, started yelling at them to get out of the memorial or she would call “119” (sic). The kids cursed and laughed, pointed and jeered, raised their bats in the air in defiance. One of the boys jumped up, came closer to our circle, and then swung his bat with homerun abandon at one of our trash baskets. Instantly he turned and raced back to the protection of the cohort.

The laughing-crying woman yelled out that she knew who he was, and she knew who his mother was. “You know my mother? What’s her name, bitch? You don’t know my mother.” Laughing-crying woman struggled out of her chair and stood wobbling on her ankles, hand up in the air, showing the children the full face of her cell phone. She screamed at them and cursed them.

I try not to interfere much with what goes on at the memorial. You hear every kind of story from people. Many of them are just attempts to use emotion to wrench a few coins out of you. I never carry any money to the memorial. I could give them every penny I own and they would still have nothing. I don’t have much, but even if I were rich as a Koch or a Walton, all my money would not lift them up. Instead I do not judge them. I listen. I offer them the little comfort of a spot at the fire, a p-nut butter sandwich, a cup of coffee or a glass of apple juice. Simple human respect, not only for their desperate situation, but also for their inability to find any door out of the mess they are in. I don’t know of any way out for them. The egress yawns into darkness for all of us.

But these kids, jeering and rough as they are, are the future we as a culture are making for ourselves. I stood up from my place at the fire and walked over toward them. Several of them jumped up and waved their bats excitedly. I smiled and shrugged and approached the edge of their group. One of them panicked and took off fleeing across the intersection. Several others followed, all of them screaming in adrenal delight. “He’s chasing us! He’s chasing us!” I sat down on the wall and the rest of them ran off also, all but one.

I sat down on the wall a couple arm’s lengths away from him. “Hows it going? You doing ok?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m ok.” He spun the bat with it’s tip on the sidewalk, like a top in his hands.

I figured he was nine, ten years old, but I am not a good judge of ages either. His eyes were calm and his clothes and face were clean. I decided he probably was not homeless. He spoke evenly and clearly, was polite and not threatening in any way. Just a kid with a baseball bat.

“You hungry? We got sandwiches, apple juice, hot soup.”

“Nah. I had supper.”

“Ok, that’s cool. Why did the other kids run away?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

I don’t do small chat well, so I sat quietly and looked around at the memorial and the neighborhood. The evening was so mild, the air sweet, even though the neighborhood was in ruins. The building across the street was a burned out eyesore, and the buildings next to the memorial were abandoned and dilapidated. The sky, a little corner to the northwest, was visible, and the settling sun shone with brilliance and beauty on high whispering feathery clouds.

“It’s a beautiful world,” I commented. “Parts of it anyway.”

“Yeah,” he said, “and it is surprising where the beauty shows.”

I smiled. It was an independent thought, added to the discussion, and showed intelligence.

Just then one of the other kids called from up the street, “Hey, come on, lets get out of here. They are chasing us.”

My young man looked up the hill. His friend was half hiding behind the corner of the alley building. “Come on! Come on!” his friend yelled again. “What are you doing?”

He shrugged and didn’t get up or reply. The friend half hidden behind the building looked down the alley, away from our line of sight, and he seemed torn between running and curiosity. Curiosity won. He came out from behind the building and walked toward us, still yelling “Come on! Let’s get out of here!” In a moment or two he was crossing the street, he was in the memorial, he was sitting on the wall next to his friend. “What’s going on?” he said.

I smiled and asked the alley kid if he was hungry. He shook his head but his large wide open eyes were pulled to the table where we set out food and drinks for the neighborhood. He glanced at me and back at the table again. “It’s ok,” I said. “We got p-nut butter and jelly sandwiches. Apple juice.

“Apple juice?” The alley kid was thin, roughly dressed, probably homeless I thought.

“Sure,” I said. “You are welcome to have some if you want.”

He shook his head again but his eyes kept going back to the table.

“Can I bring you something?” The alley boy said no again, eyes wider than ever.

One of the other neighborhood men got up and walked toward us. The alley boy was nervous as a bird but he did not run. The neighborhood man, a person we see nearly every time we go to the memorial, had been drinking but was not stone drunk. He came too close, stood towering over them, addressed the boys gruffly. “What do you kids think you are doing? Why you bring those baseball bats here? Huh? Why you so mouthy?”

“Nothing. We ain’t hurting no body. We was playing baseball a while ago.” The alley kid was trying to shape his immediate future by making up a plausible story. But it wasn’t well turned. It wasn’t going over and the neighborhood man wasn’t buying any. He frowned and tried to look severe, took a moment to think what else he could say to dominate them. The alley kid’s large eyes turned toward me. “Will you protect us?” he said.

That was a crucial moment, and I failed the test. Intellectual instead of in the moment, I thought of safety and the horrible truth that there isn’t any. Sometimes things are tolerable enough to pretend you are safe. Sometimes the cops and the armies and the guns and the drones and the bombs can make you think you are safe. Just as often they are the source of the terror. And no one is really safe, as long as such things are in the world. Will I protect them? With all my heart if I knew any way to do it. “No,” I said. “I can’t. But you are welcome in our circle any time. You are welcome to sit and warm up, have something to eat, talk to us a while if you want to talk.” It wasn’t enough but it is all I have to offer. I will not lie to them.

The neighborhood man made another stern demand and I stepped back, but not far. “I’m right here if you need anything,” I said to the boys. I could see that the man was trying to hold his gruff, but trying even harder not to smile or let the boys off his hook. I went back to the fire. I heard others of the kid gang up the hill, calling to our boys. The two children broke and ran, taking the safety of flight.

The neighborhood man stayed a little while longer and then decided to walk on down the street, away from the direction where the kids had gone. I listened to the laughing-crying woman a while. I listened to the other woman too, the one with the broken rib of many causes. “I fell down the stairs” she said. “I fell asleep in the parking ramp on the stairs, and I fell.” An hour ago she had been telling me her boyfriend was in jail for beating her up, but he didn’t beat her, she just accidently walked into a wall, scuffing up her cheek and forehead, breaking her rib. Ok. I neither believe nor disbelieve the stories I hear at the memorial. Everyone here knows the details are interchangeable. They don’t matter anyway, if they make any sense or no; the terror, the grief, the pain, the helplessness….they are real. They are all real.

After a little while, the kids came back again. This time they approached the table, wary as sparrows, certain that someone would jump up and catch them or chase them away. Then they worked up their nerve. “Can I have a sandwich?” one of them asked. “Certainly. You take what you need.”

It was the alley boy, with several of the others standing near by, but keeping an open path for retreat if need be. He looked with his large eyes wide at the stack of sandwiches. Then he grabbed one and jumped back. No one tried to grab him. He watched us warily as he devoured the food in his hand. The other kids also edged forward, moved in for a sandwich. Someone had brought warm vegetable stew, another had placed triangular sweet flakey rolls on a tray. The kids took what they wanted and moved away to consume it. The alley boy came back again. “Can I have another one for my brother?”

“Sure.” He took one sandwich, looked around, back at the stack. “Take some more if you want,” I said. He took two more and ran. I would have given him all of them. I would have given him so much more. But truth stares hard into my eyes, not mocking me or threatening in any way. Strangely beautiful and oddly placed. I would have given him anything. I would have given him everything. I can’t. If we all lifted together, we could pick up this neighborhood, rebuild and enrich and beautify everything here, including the people. No one can do it alone. But all together, we could work miracles.

Not a single grain of rice.

I just came from a meeting of the citizen’s advisory council for determining the rules on which waters are to be protected from sulfite pollution caused by mining. It was the usual bureaucratic standoff. The rules of compromise make it certain that nothing useful can be done. Instead the participants are ushered into a hopelessly tangled conversation in which amateur activists try to protect a little of what is left, while company shills circle around them and make sure their companies are in no way restricted from business as usual. Same old story of death by a thousand cuts.

In this case it starts with the unchallenged assertion that it is impractical to protect every grain of rice in every pool of water. Who would find all those little water pockets? Who would survey them, who would conduct the almost countless number of tests that would have to be done, to prove that they are not already polluted, or prove that there is a chance they will become polluted? Is a whole lake or river to be protected because years ago someone says they saw a single stalk of rice out there?

The amateur activists reluctantly agree that a single stalk of rice in an entire river system should not have to be protected by an expensive regimen of testing and regulation. What about two stalks? No. So to determine which lakes have a right to be protected, the panel tries to define what acreage a lake must have to be to be included, and what density of rice plants is sufficient to make it a viable rice bed?

The company shills are able to laugh heartily when they see the old squeeze working for them again. They know that whatever ‘compromise’ is worked out, they will have won the right to pollute the water. Then they accidently pollute a little more, crossing the agreed upon lines, and after years of legal effort, some activist may be able to get a fine imposed. The company pays up happily. Cost of doing business. To a billion dollar industry, the little fine is no more than a traffic ticket would be to you or me. Meanwhile they keep breaking little rules here, middle size rules there, until the land is so polluted that no one will care anymore what they choose to dump there. The environment the activists thought they had protected is lost.

The battle was lost from the first salvo. The main focus of the committee is trained upon determining how many lakes can be defined into the protection equation. It is assumed, long before the meeting starts, that the problem is to protect the rice. That is why the environmentalists are pinned to the ropes. That is why we have been fighting a losing battle for generations. Corporate interests set the agenda. Environmentalists are on the defense, trying to protect what little remains. Corporations are happy to dance around and pick us apart.

Why do we have to protect the right of rice to grow where it can? Why is it not the task of the mining corporation to prove that their activities will cause no harm, no harm of any kind, not even a little maybe potential harm? They expect to make huge profits or they wouldn’t be here. Let them prove they are not going to harm the rice, not a single stalk, not a single grain. Then when they prove themselves harmless, they can ask us, they can ask the rice, for the right to do what they want.


So a homeless man was famously given an expensive pair of boots, then could not wear them because the world he lives in is so harsh that someone would very likely kill him to steal those boots. His brother says the bootless man is homeless by choice. “By choice” is code for ”he won’t quit drinking and/or using drugs”. If only he would stay clean, he wouldn’t be homeless.

It is widely accepted that addiction is a disease, that it can be successfully treated, and that it is not the result of moral deficiencies in the addict. An addict can no more choose to quit than a legless person can just get up and walk. It is not enough to cure an individual’s addiction if they are then dumped right back on the street which addicted them in the first place. Do we save someone from drowning, then throw them back in the water?

I have seen the choice argument used to stop many a conversation about homelessness. Usually the words are accompanied by a pose that says “I care,” while allowing the poser to drop the subject and lose no sleep over it. After all, we cannot help people who refuse to “accept help,” another code for pathological inability to follow social behavior expectations. Sure, you can come live at my house, if you quit drinking and fighting, quit smoking, quit using drugs and stealing, take a bath and brush your teeth every day, go to bed and get up at reasonable hours, get a job, and follow whatever rules I give you, no matter how restrictive or illogical they may be.

Fact is, the shelters are often crowded, dirty, dangerous and humiliating places where you may expect to be raped, robbed, pressured to do immoral acts, and, if you do get any sleep, you will be dumped back out on the dark sidewalk before dawn. Of course not every shelter is always like this, and many good people strive endlessly to keep the shelters safe, clean, and decent. It is not through their lack of attention or diligence that the shelters are too dangerous for some people. The workers there have no magic power to solve or even much affect the social ills that drive people into the street, and which keep them there.

These are the facts which stare me in the face as I watch vulnerable adults “choose” to walk off into the night, cold and wet and hungry as they may be, to look for a bush in which to sleep. I have watched a twenty-seven year old near-term pregnant woman walk away like that. I could not help her. I have watched people who are seriously ill or injured walk away like that. I have had to watch frail and elderly men and women walk away into the darkness. I have watched people who are clearly mentally ill go away like that.

These are matters fit to the slogan written on the wall at the Clayton, Jackson McGhie Memorial…matters about which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to remain silent. We can do better as a society. It is not the behaviors of the men, women, and children who are trapped and drowning in our sewers that are unacceptable. It is our insane desire as a culture to punish and abandon those who are most in need. Few of them or none ‘choose’ to live in the gutter. That is all we have left to them.