Environmental Racism: Criminalizing The Poor For Sleeping Outside

April 3, 2021 By Danielli Marzouca

Last month, Los Angeles City Council member Mitch O’Farrell deployed over 600 police officers, five LAPD helicopters, and four truckloads of SWAT teams onto an unhoused community at Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles for simply being houseless.

I was there that night, among hundreds of other activists who aimed to defend the community and prevent residents from being displaced once again. As I looked above at the helicopter fleet flying low overhead, the hundreds of officers pointing weapons at us as they kettled us; as I took in this well-funded, militarized violence against the most vulnerable populations of Los Angeles, I wasn’t thinking about the environment. I was thinking of Ayman and the other unhoused residents, who were now in handcuffs.

In the months leading up to the park closure, O’Farrell cut off the water to the “homeless side” of the lake and told Sanitation to stop picking up “homeless trash.” The community came together to pick up trash, extend a hose from their homes to build showers, and set up a community fridge. 

Environmental Racism Is Designed

It wasn’t until days later while I was packing for a camping trip the following day, the shock was replaced with anger. How is it that I could pay $12 to pitch a tent on occupied Native land and be supplied with a picnic bench and firepit for recreation, but land use designation is structured to criminalize homelessness during a pandemic?

I have the privilege of a car, money for gas, camping gear and the time to enjoy the Los Angeles National Forest, which is less than 50 miles from the war zone that was #EchoParkRiseUp. The parks and recreation authorities that designate land use are the same ones that continue to capitalize off the genocide of Indigenous nations. 

The system is designed to be a playground for the rich and a hellscape for the poor. NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) has become so much a part of American culture, some housed folks continue to claim victimhood for the emotional strain of bearing witness to extreme poverty. While I don’t discount the suffering of empaths, it certainly cannot be compared to the experiences of a community treated like trash by the government. 

But what can we do to help?

The first place revolution begins is in our own hearts and minds. Keep in mind the rise of luxury apartment building construction while an estimated 67,000 Angelinos are living on the streets, in tents, or in their cars. Consider asking yourself these questions:

  • What conceptions do I have about the unhoused have I been taught to believe? Which are my own?
  • What intersection does homelessness have with environmental justice?
  • Unhoused people exist. Why is it illegal for them to put up a tent?

For any of my fellow outdoor recreators, consider befriending one of your unhoused neighbors. Ask them what they need. Rehome any unused camping gear you have to folks who will use it everyday. Defend your neighbors. Question everything.

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