Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Privilege, Entitlement, and the Duty of Public Officials

On Monday, April 22, thirty-three members of the Eugene community, both housed and unhoused, spoke out at City Council against the camping ban, which has been in place for thirty years and denies those without a home the right to sleep in public. Among those who spoke out were members of the unhoused community who have been repeatedly harassed, woken up, cited, and/or arrested for sleeping.

One speaker, an unhoused activist by the name of Hedin Manus Brugh, who has been active in SLEEPS, Occupy Eugene, and similar efforts, spoke to the council about the history and patterns of discrimination against marginalized groups. In drawing a comparison between the historic cleansing of the Moors from Spain and the Eugene Police Department’s deliberate sweeping of the homeless before last summer’s Olympic Track Trials, Hedin looked towards the Mayor and Council in a moment of anger and stated, “I don’t know who the fuck decided that they were Queen Isabella.”

The reaction from Mayor Kitty Piercy and others on the Council was swift and harsh. Not only was Hedin interrupted by both the Mayor and Councilors in the middle of his testimony, who insisted numerous times that he “stop swearing” even thought he had only uttered the word once, but the Mayor further chastised Hedin after he walked away from the podium. “We try to let everyone speak their piece,” the Mayor said, “but we do demand a little bit of respect in the room.”

My gut reaction to her statement was also swift and harsh: She refuses to change a law that makes it illegal for this man to sleep, I thought to myself, and she’s acting all offended because he uttered a four-letter word? And now she’s demanding that HE treat HER with respect? Who does she think she is? What has she done to earn his respect? Does she really think that she automatically deserves his respect because she’s sitting up behind a podium?”

Was Hedin’s phrasing inappropriate? Perhaps. But the word itself wasn’t nearly as inappropriate and offensive as the reaction, which was a stunning demonstration of elitism and arrogance, uttered with an obvious blindness to privilege. By reacting as she did, the Mayor not only effectively interrupted and repressed the voice of someone who is regularly victimized as a result of policies and actions that the Mayor and Council are responsible for, but she demonstrated a greater concern for the comfort and feelings of the elected officials that Hedin was addressing than she did for Hedin’s plight. In that moment, the Mayor took more of a principled and public stance against the F-word than she ever has against the criminalization of homelessness.

Such behavior is antithetical to their duty and responsibility as public servants.

An elected official has no business publicly chastising a constituent who is expressing his anger at policies which are enacted by said elected officials and which infringe on basic human rights. The Mayor and City Council show no respect to Hedin, or any other unhoused person, when they approve and tolerate laws and policies that result in people being rousted, cited, and arrested for sleeping. If the Mayor wants Hedin Manus Brugh to show her respect, she should earn it by acting with honor in her capacity as a public servant. To “demand” respect from someone whom you are actively oppressing is beyond inappropriate.

This is not the first time that our local elected officials have portrayed themselves as victims who suffer from “hurt feelings” when faced with anger from their constituents. In December of 2011, after the Mayor and Council evicted the Occupy Eugene camp on Christmas Eve and after Councilor George Poling had deliberately denied homeless people the right to fires on freezing nights at the camp, several homeless Occupiers responded by pitching tents on Councilor Poling’s front yard on Christmas Day. Nobody was hurt, his property was not damaged, but Poling reacted with fury and righteous indignation, and accused the protesters of victimizing him. Poling claimed that he had been “terrorized”, and insisted that the City provide for his safety, which they did by installing a $7,000 iron fence around his property and posting police officers on his block to ensure that activists wouldn’t be able to make him and his family feel uncomfortable.

Poling played the victim in response to a justified (and harmless) display of citizen disapproval over a cruel action he took that literally harmed their physical welfare. And instead of moving to protect those vulnerable citizens who were harmed, the City moved to protect the privileged councilor who needed a fence because his brick home didn’t make him feel safe enough from the homeless people that he personally victimized. The Mayor and Council sternly chastised the activist community, making it clear that as far as they were concerned, going to the house of a public official to protest “crossed the line” and was “inappropriate”.

I moved here from New York City, and I used to be involved in union activism. When Mayor Bloomberg refuses to negotiate with labor unions, a large crowd of union members and activists show up outside his house with a 20-foot inflatable rat, and stage a protest all day long with the media hovering. Does Bloomberg express outrage at this kind of action? Of course not. He’s a public official in a big city, and its understood that if you’re an elected official and you piss off your constituents, they’re going to express it. Exercising your First Amendment rights on the front lawn of an elected official that is trying to violate your rights isn’t “crossing the line” any more than Hedin’s “F-bomb” crossed the line last Monday night. Such actions are not only appropriate at times, but often necessary to ensure and protect a free and open democratic society.

There is a core principle that Eugene’s elected officials repeatedly fail to grasp in terms of their responsibility as public officials. I offer my view in the form of an open statement:

You are public servants. Your job is to serve the people. And when you make decisions that negatively affect people’s well-being, endanger their livelihood, and violate their basic human rights, you are harming and victimizing the constituents that you are bound to serve. And in a representative democracy, when you act in a way that negatively affects the citizens you are supposed to be serving,
those citizens are going to hold you accountable. That’s the deal. That’s what it means to serve the people.

And if you can’t take the criticism, the anger, the consequences of your actions without crying about “hurt feelings” and singling out those who make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps elected politics is not the place for you.  If you want to feel like you are serving the people without ever having to face any heat or criticism, join a community service organization.  Apply for membership in the Rotary Club. Volunteer with the United Way. Build houses with Habitat for Humanity. But if you can’t deal with occasionally being pulled out of your comfort zone in the face of human suffering, and if you are going to react to that discomfort by oppressing and chastising someone who has already been marginalized as a result of your actions, with all due respect stay the fuck out of local politics.

Respect is a two-way street. If you want someone like Hedin Manus Brugh to show “respect” to you by refraining from four-letter words, you can start by showing a little respect by refraining from violating the basic rights of thousands of people like Hedin. And if you deliberately and consistently refuse to show Hedin and others that respect, then you need to be able to face the music. That being said, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

I also ask that you keep in mind that the same citizens that you are demanding respect from while high up on your ivory tower, the same citizens who are currently making you feel uncomfortable and hurting your feelings, are the same citizens who will also make sure that you are voted out of office if you continue to paint yourselves as victims and refuse to act with the courage of your convictions.


  1. Excellent morality lesson. In parenting, it's called teaching through natural consequences. As Palestinian human rights activists, we had a comparable experience. Following Israel's Mavi Marmara attack of piracy, massacre, abduction, grand theft and illegal imprisonment of Free Gaza boatlift volunteers, including the murder of one American, we petitioned the Eugene Human Rights Commission to issue a letter of condemnation. They agreed to do so until stormed by a small army of local Zionists, who intimidated them into "tabling" the letter. If you're not willing to stand up for human rights in the face of those who violate them, then get off the Human Rights Commission.

  2. Alley, Jay Tea here, the dirty looking DJ kid. Bless your Heart, thanks for your words. I have to point out that Hedin's statement is probably counterproductive in this situation. We're dealing with the "establishment" (Established power people): As much as we want to believe these humans are making human decisions, I feel they are blinded by the social politics of their situation. If anyone uses slang or curse words they are likely to be dismissed because they are not using the proper "cultural capital". The only way people understand each other is when they are speaking the same language, and as precisely as possible. I've struggled with this a lot, what is the proper use and placement of culturally specific language. The conclusion I've come to (For now lol!), is that we need to make a conscious effort to use language carefully with these people, and in public. NLP is no joke, everyone responds to language use subconsciously. Your point is well taken, if their crew can't handle the heat they need to switch to washing the dishes. We on the other hand have our work cut out for us understanding the way that class in society uses and expects language. <3

    1. (In short, sign reads: "DON'T FEED THE BEARS" <3)