On Saturday evening, I received a phone call from Mike Kimberl of Sean’s Outpost. He had gotten a report that Escambia County sheriff’s deputies had walked through the back entrance of a homeless camp located on DOT property and cut down tarps that were hung to protect tents from the elements. The officers aggressively entered the camp from the back, though there were clear entrances in the front parts of the camps. The officers, later identified as Mark Smith and S. W. Melton, were allegedly wearing all black with no identification visible. According to eyewitness accounts, one of them had on a t-shirt that said POLICE printed on the back.
They then told the people camping there that they had to leave immediately or face arrest–with one threatening to bring a paddy wagon the following day if they hadn’t moved. After more intimidation, they changed the time to leave to 24 hours as it was already dark out and some of the residents had health problems. The first appearance of the officers was after dark around 5:45pm, but they reappeared around 10:35 pm to continue the intimidation.
The second time deputies Smith and Melton arrived, Mike and fellow Food Not Bombs activist Jimmy Brewski were there to talk to them and videotape the encounter. You can hear a portion of the audio of their exchange below.
It is interesting to note that this particular camp is occupied by men and women above the age of 50 who self-police to keep out drug and alcohol users. They have been in the area for over a year with some there for two years. The following day we went to the camps and interviewed them. Their names are John, Donna, Debra, George, Kelly, Gypsy, and Old School, though there are a few others near the camp that weren’t interviewed. We went down a dirt road to a secluded spot by some train tracks–far out of public view and tucked away in a wooded area. The campers were visibly distressed and fearful; regretting that they had missed church because they hadn’t been able to sleep after the police showed up.
There is some incongruity between their version of events and the officers’ in the recording.
Police repeatedly say they chopped down the tarps for officer safety, but then go on to say they were fearful of booby traps set by the residents to protect their space. Entering from the back of the camp, that could be a valid concern, but there were clear entryways in the front of the camps. The officers also mention they had been to the campsites before, but the residents all agreed that they had never seen these particular officers before that night. Other earlier encounters with different officers had been peaceful according to Jim and Donna.
When the police aggressively burst into the camps uninvited and unidentified, there was shock and confusion. George and Kelly had dogs that were restrained, and due to the track record of county deputies killing dogs, remained fearful of leaving the dogs to go find a new place to relocate. To set the record straight, the dogs in that linked story were running away from the deputies when they were shot and had not attacked them at all. Escambia County deputies also have a penchant for making up stories and using “officer safety” as an excuse for domestic terrorism. Below are the interviews we conducted.
Debra, John, and Donna
George and Kelly (this video also goes into their personal histories)
After we had interviewed Debra, John, Donna, George, and Kelly, the same officers showed back up to assess the camps. By this time, the residents had packed many of their belongings. We videotaped the encounter and the demeanor of the officers was very different than the previous night. They ignored Mike and I as we taped and were polite to those they talked to–even indicating they could stay longer since they were making progress. We kept following them and they left shortly thereafter. Here is the brief video from that interaction:
After the deputies left, we ran into Gypsy and Old School and they shared their thoughts on the event the night before. Gypsy was very upset and has health issues exacerbated by stress. She also shared some of her history. Her story was particularly sad, and is a reminder that homelessness is just one devastating life event away for anyone. With the attack on Old School several months ago resulting in the loss of nearly half of his skull, she was particularly on edge. He remained fairly quiet in the video, and even though they have submitted leads to the county on his attacker, they were not pursued.
Gypsy and Old School
Kelly had written some poignant thoughts on the matter that she asked me to publish. Here are the pictures of her handwritten note, and I also transcribed it for those interested in getting in touch with her and Gerald. She hits on several key points about how the homeless are treated in this country.
I’m not a homeless person, I am an American Refugee running from poverty. I work a job, I pay taxes, I buy food and support the local economy.
How many empty houses are there in Pensacola falling into disrepair? I cannot afford the $1600 it takes to move into a house never mind the utilities. Do you think maybe that’s why there are so many empty houses being vandalized by discontented people who are angry?
1939: Kristallnacht: the German SS broke windows and started rounding up the Jews. Aren’t we in the same boat? Did not America join in the fight against this kind of tyranny? Have we fallen so far? 70 years ago we stood up against intolerance, ignorance, and hatred; what has happened to us as a nation? We have turned into that which claim we are against–ignorant and tyrannical.
Wearing a badge does not make a person right and this kind of “round up” is against every principle in our Constitution.
Secretary of State John Kerry gave Syria $370 million dollars in their fight against oppression–how about funneling some of that money to your own country? It is not America’s job to fix the world, it is America’s job to care for its people. I’m angry that the American people have become apathetic about their government. It is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people–not special interests and lobbyists.
Poverty is NOT a crime; it is a circumstance. Everybody is but one paycheck away from being homeless–think about that. You yourself could be standing right next to me any day now.
I am an honest, law abiding citizen of the USA. I care about people; all people. I love my country. I still believe we are the best, last hope against oppression. I do not love bullying and strong arm tactics. I lost a lot of family in the wars throughout the years fighting against tyranny and injustice; and today I find myself in the midst of it. I think its a damn shame that American Citizens have become victims of Kristallnacht.
Kelly Marsden and George Wells
The campers shared their stories of how they got where they were, and it is important to remember that homeless people are human beings with the same rights as the rest of us. They don’t choose to be homeless to evade taxes, nor is their homelessness always a result of drug addiction. They have gotten caught up in the gears of life and struggle every day to get free. None of them ever expected to be homeless, and while there are some criminals, aren’t there criminals among us all? I can’t read through a comment section about homelessness in Pensacola without coming across hateful vitriol from the citizens, and they feel free to attack those most in need of love without acknowledging that war criminals and extortioners are free to walk among us.
The barriers to getting off the street are real. When you can’t even offer to fix up a dilapidated home so that you can have a chance to live in it or get a job because you have a felony for a victimless crime, how can you pull yourself up by your bootstraps? When you live in a city that has outlawed homelessness and even blankets to keep you warm, where can you go when the cops bust up your only place of refuge? The people interviewed admit that they knew they were on state property, but the irony is that people want the state to do something about these problems of poverty. Would not unused, undeveloped, hidden state property be the best place for them to stay until they find more permanent residency?
Father Nathan Monk, a local homeless advocate, created a petition to overturn a City of Pensacola ordinance that prohibits the homeless from attaining blankets that went viral. The petition is now over 10,000 signatures. We are seeing some progress from City Council and Mayor Ashton Hayward with the ordinance possibly being overturned, but some have expressed doubt at Mayor Hayward’s genuineness.
Sean’s Outpost attended a hearing earlier today to determine the status of the permitting process of Satoshi Forest and whether or not people would be allowed to camp there. The judge ruled that we could move forward with the permitting process and had to allow a health inspector and Escambia County code enforcement to enter the property during normal business hours once a week to monitor conditions. While it is still a concern that the county wants to prevent people from allowing others to camp on their private property, this ruling was a breath of fresh air. The next hearing with the county will be March 25th.
Original content by Meghan, copyleft, tips welcome