Homeless folks and their advocates from Camp 210 (the Lottie Street address of city hall), finally spoke clearly and without apology to Mayor Fleetwood and the Bellingham City Council last night, Monday, Jan 25. In an epic Zoom meeting, Hannah Stone, president of the council, never lost her cool as she calmly called one speaker after the next, who each told the council and mayor how badly the city was screwing up the homeless situation.
I’m an old white guy, and was texting with another old white guy as we watched the meeting. We both mostly agreed with the points the speakers were making. Although we did not know their ages, and couldn’t see their faces (why not, city I.T.?), the voices were those of educated people in their 20s. Well spoken, coherent sentences, facts and criticisms well worded. My point in mentioning that the speakers seemed young is merely to let readers know there is no dismissing the comments last night by saying they were just a rabble of kids. They were well spoken and they knew the facts as they existed outside City Hall.
Some early commenters slipped in a “fuck” or “asshole” and their microphones were cut off by the clerk - seemed a silly thing to do. Eventually, speakers turned it into a game, inserting more erudite obscenities into their closing sentences, where being cut off was no longer a threat. Elder council members were outraged; Knutson and Vargas in particular. Pinky spoke after Gene and seemed to be trying to escalate the indignation, “out outrage” him. Not a chance. Had either been wearing a pearl necklace, they would have been clutching it. They were so infuriated by the unimportant obscenities, it was obvious they could not hear what the speakers were actually telling them. One council member expressed regret that young students may be watching as part of homework assignments. It was kind of funny; middle school students not only know all the phrases used last night, they use them themselves, regularly. I expect when the video of last night’s meeting is posted online today, all the colorful language will be bleeped out. Too bad, as the comments were reinforced by everything the speakers said.
A repeated complaint from officials at City Hall was that these young speakers could not be bothered to sit through council meetings to learn how much City Hall has been doing for homelessness, and thus, were speaking from ignorance. In my experience of over 40 years of frustrated experiences speaking to City Council, that accusation is empty. Last night’s speakers knew the situation on-the-ground with the homeless campers; they knew of the unannounced and brutal police sweeps; they were aware of the secrecy and lack of transparency by the City on this issue; and they were well versed in the lack of response from the council, mayor, and department managers in spite of years of polite pleading that we actually take homelessness seriously.
Yet City Council has a long history of dissimulation: Back in the day, they couldn’t accuse me of not knowing the details of an issue, so they found other excuses. We are currently witnessing similar treatment of Jon Humphrey, whom the entire city hall is trying hard to ignore. He is an expert. Telling speakers they are not informed is disingenuous, at best.
So my compliments to the speakers. I urge you to not back down. Having been an activist for decades, I will share what gets results. In my 40s, I spoke politely to council and they would pat me on the head and tell me what a fine citizen I was, and how well I spoke. And then they would totally ignore what I’d said. By my late 40s I switched, and spoke harshly to the council. Then they cut me off and chastised me for being rude and angry - sort of like last night. But that’s when I got results! So, speakers from last night, continue to be direct to the council. Let them have it.
After the comment period closed, Mayor Seth Fleetwood gave a rambling commentary where he apparently tried to convince himself that the comments were all off-target, and that he and City Hall were doing great work. Seth looked like he was trying to wash ideas from his brain; like he couldn’t reconcile what he’d heard with his version of reality. He looked like he desperately wanted to return to his normal touchy-feely realm. It was a perfect snapshot of the cognitive dissonance between City Hall’s biggest concern, which is its image, and its actual willingness to help its citizens.
So thank you, young speakers from last night, you have positively impressed. You have given the council and the mayor a wake up call and they ignore it to their future regret. Thank you for telling city hall the facts and pointing out that they are not doing their jobs of taking care of the homeless. To have an impact, you need to stay engaged. City Hall is counting on not ever seeing most of you again. City Hall wants to sit tight for a couple weeks until the storm passes and then go back to the old routine of local government by PR. Bellingham is more of a Token Town than an environmental or liberal or progressive town. Lots of press releases and a lot of administrative time and expense spent to get absurd “awards” - but little concern for doing things right.
I was first contracted as a consultant for the city in 1980 to advise on waterfront redevelopment and saw first hand how horribly City Hall operated and how much taxpayer money was wantonly and knowlingly wasted. Just wasted. I was appalled. In the 40 years since, I have been a very active citizen and, with others, we have stopped City Hall and WWU from some neighborhood wrecking schemes. Yes, you can beat city hall. I was the first to raise the alarm in 1996 that the Chuckanut Forest was going to be bulldozed and have several tall apartment buildings constructed - and we have through over 20 years of effort helped save this natural treasure. I am, in closing, a white male, with a college degree, living in Bellingham since 1967 and am in the last weeks of being 79 years old. Other older folks might benefit from watching the video of the council meeting. I’ll post the link below this article after city hall has edited the video and bowdlerized it.