Activists call for action, call sweeps 'violent and traumatic'
This is a story about an ongoing event. We will be updating this story as new information is made available, and will also be releasing more stories in the future covering the issues in-depth.
By Faith Owens
The City of Bellingham issued a notice Tuesday that it will sweep Camp 210’s new site at the Civic Field Complex on Friday, Feb. 5, prompting protest from activist groups. The notice states the encampment in the lower Geri Field parking lot is an unlawful, prohibited health and safety risk. Anyone remaining on site after 4 p.m. Friday is subject to being arrested for trespassing, the city warned. Because of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control currently advises against the forced displacement of unhoused people.
Bellingham Occupied Protest (BOP) Mutual Aid demanded in an Instagram post on Wednesday that the sweep be stopped. The post called on people to be ready to show up and physically block the sweep as they did a week ago when the original camp was removed from the lawns of the library.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic and Mayor Fleetwood chooses to utilize taxpayer funds to chase a community of houseless folks around the city, brutally tearing down their homes and causing trauma each time,” the post said. Members of the collective that has organized the protest have declined interviews, citing their decision not to have any individual speak on behalf of the protest or camp residents as a group. Instead, they referred reporters to their social media posts, which they said represent the views of the majority of the camp residents.
The notice came just days after the city suddenly swept the lawns of City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 28, a day earlier than expected. Throughout the day, at least 80 law enforcement officers in tactical gear faced off against protestors, who formed human barricades to block the sweep as other volunteers cleared tents and gathered residents’ possessions. By late afternoon, all tents were removed using construction equipment. Following the sweep, many people immediately relocated to Civic Field Complex.
In a media briefing on Jan. 28, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood said the city took early action to reduce the increased risk of injury and violence.
“Our civic center was becoming the target of agitators far more intent on mayhem than working toward any social good,” Fleetwood said. “More specifically, we received information regarding certain groups known to have a history of confrontation. They put out a call throughout the Northwest to gather in Bellingham on Friday.”
Bellingham Police Chief Flo Simon said in the Jan. 28 briefing that outside aggressors claiming to be from antifa were calling for people as far away as Portland to come to Bellingham during the sweep. When asked for evidence, they cited the BOP Mutual Aid group’s social posts, which asked people to come to protest and “bloc up,” a reference to Black Bloc protest tactics.
According to a BOP Mutual Aid Instagram post made Jan. 26, “the ‘outside agitator’ narrative is extremely demeaning to residents at camp, and de-legitimizes the radical history of housing justice efforts, minimizing the coalition-building work we are partaking in.”
A Bellingham resident, who asked not to be identified for privacy and safety reasons, helped her son, who was a resident at Camp 210, pack his belongings as the Jan. 28 sweep began. Neither of them knew what their plan was, although they subsequently secured a short-term storage unit for her son’s possessions. She stated that she feels she has done everything possible for her son and lives in housing with regulations that prevent her from taking him in.
“The only thing you can do as a citizen is roll up your sleeves and come down here and do something because it goes to a certain point, and nothing's being done,” she said. “This is absolutely terrorizing these people.”
Many residents of the City Hall site who spoke with The Western Front did not know what they were going to do or where they were going to go.
“These people are already disparaged,” said Ebom, a security volunteer at Camp 210 during last week’s sweep, who asked not to be identified by his full name for privacy and safety reasons. “To move them around or to tell them they gotta leave and not tell them where they can go, it’s crap.”
The new encampment is set up in the lower parking lot of Civic Field, near Geri Field. As of Wednesday, Feb. 3, there were approximately 55 tents and shelters set up downhill from the city-approved SwiftHaven tiny home site created in cooperation with HomesNow! Not Later.
City Hall reopened and resumed services Feb. 1. Both the central public library and municipal court remain closed.
The city asked the public in the notice to encourage campers to find shelter outside of Camp 210 and stated there is space available at Base Camp and its overflow shelter, located at 1530 Cornwall Ave.
According to an Instagram post made by BOP Mutual Aid on Monday, many residents of Camp 210 compared Base Camp to prison, “with its inability to respect individual autonomy and consistently creating unsafe and uncomfortable situations for those most unserved.” The post added that Base Camp’s non-profit model “excludes many.”
“You know, don't complain about anything unless you offer a solution,” the Bellingham resident who was helping her son move his belongings from city hall said. “But there's gotta be a better solution than this.”