The handheld video begins with the white colonnades of Oakland’s Lake Merritt Pergola, the sort of place that fills up with drum circles and slack rope walkers every weekend. It’s quiet in the video, though, save for the angry shirtless man with headphones on throwing a homeless person’s clothes and other possessions into the lake. Bystanders ask him what he’s doing and tell him to stop, but the man keeps tossing the items around.
“I’m picking up trash,” the man can be heard saying. “What do you want me to do?”
The video went viral last month for obvious reasons: Here was a white housed man throwing out the property of a black homeless man named Greg Markson who lives in Oakland’s central public space. You could toss a baseball from where this took place and where May’s “BBQ Becky” controversy erupted after a white woman called the cops on black men who were having a perfectly legal barbeque. It’s nearly impossible to conjure up a more succinct visual representation of gentrification—and the tensions that come with it— than the video. And so it got its own hashtag: #JoggerJoe.
Jogger Joe is not quite a perfect example of the new tech money that has flooded the region in recent years. His real name is Henry Sintay, and according to his Facebook profile, the 30-year-old supports Donald Trump and has experienced homelessness himself. Sintay was later arrested for suspicion of robbery after he returned to the scene and allegedly violently snatched away the phone of someone livestreaming him.
The Bay Area has recently seen an apparent uptick in incidents of anti-homeless rage. Earlier in June, police released video of a “well-dressed man” kicking a sleeping homeless person in the middle of the day before walking off; he was arrested two weeks later. That same week, the local press reported allegations made against music venue owner Jason Perkins, who was accused of pepper-spraying and delivering threatening notes to residents of a San Francisco tent encampment. The flyers ended with the threat:
THERE WILL BE NO QUARTER FOR ANYONE HERE TONIGHT AT SUN DOWN
SO TAKE YOUR SHIT AND GET THE FUCK OUT - OR WE WILL GLADLY BEAT YOU SILLY AND ENJOY THE PAYBACK.
- THE NEIGHBORS
Whether the allegations against Perkins are strong enough for the DA to press charges is unclear, but the general trend of anti-homeless letters and videos points to the strained relationship between the housed and homeless in one of the richest and most “progressive" regions in the world.
So where does this rash of vigilante violence come from? One cause may be that people see the homeless as threatening property values—or more abstractly, the reputation of the city. As detailed in the New York Times in April, “The Chamber of Commerce and the tourist board are calling for harsher measures to improve what is euphemistically called the ‘condition of the streets,’” after lower than expected tourism numbers in 2017. This may have been on acting Mayor Mark Ferrell’s mind when he called for aggressive crackdowns on encampments; judging by the rhetoric of new Mayor London Breed after her election, there’s no reason to expect that tactic to abate.
There’s also the growing affluence of the Bay Area as a whole, which may be breeding a new kind of distaste or even hatred of manifestations of poverty, advocates say. “Gentrification brings new expectations and disaffection for gentrifying residents, many of whom want their hip urban area with high rents to be sans explicit poverty. Businesses capitalizing on situation want the same,” said Jonathan Russell, vice president of programs at the Bay Area Rescue Mission homeless shelter. “As is always the case, those who suffer most are those that have become the ‘eyesores’ that many would rather have out of view.”
It can be difficult to keep the “eyesores” out of view. In New York, the city and state have a legal obligation to provide shelter for homeless individuals, but San Francisco has no such law, and so a huge majority of the city's homeless live outside. (The current waitlist for a 90-day shelter bed in San Francisco is 1,038.) Meanwhile, the increased building construction, hostile urban design, and the crackdowns on encampments all have the effect of pushing homeless residents into larger, and more visible, communities.
“I think these clashes represent the real fact that there just really aren’t nearly enough resources for those in need,” Russell said.
Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer for the San Francisco–based Coalition on Homelessness, said that none of this violence is new. People who live on the street are constantly vulnerable, and often seen as disposable, and are therefore the brunt of abuse. What’s new to the situation, according to Cutler, is how incidents of anti-homeless violence have been recorded and subsequently turned into public outcries.
A GoFundMe set up for Markson after “Jogger Joe” tossed his belongings into Lake Merritt raised more than $14,000. A little over a week after the video was taken, dozens of people showed up at the lake for a “Rally of Respect,” with discussions and speeches centered around the importance of diversity and community.
“Poor people didn’t create this crisis, yet that’s where often this anger and frustration goes.”
“[Jogger Joe] stole the belongings, and the people around made it their mission to report it. That’s what made it a story,” Cutler said. “Because, on a daily basis, the city is basically doing that with their homeless sweeps. Everyone we’ve talked to have had their belongings taken by [Department of Public Works]. The city is doing that already.”
In fact, Cutler told me, it’s members of the city governments who should be taking the brunt of the blame, not the homeless people themselves. “Poor people didn’t create this crisis, yet that’s where often this anger and frustration goes,” Cutler said. “It’s the people in power. And it’s not Democrats or Republicans. It’s both.”
And when those elected into positions of power don’t fix the problems, people attempt solutions on their own. But since they don’t have the power to change mechanisms of the state, they take matters into their own hands by, as “Jogger Joe” said in the video, “picking up trash.”
Cat Brooks, an activist and co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, told me Oakland residents should feel frustrated at the city governments. She's seen construction cranes building homes “for people to come here,” rather than for people who already live here. She has called the city of Oakland out for failing to spend the $2.2 million it had allocated for extended homeless services. And she derides the “chemically-treated” shed communities that temporarily house a miniscule percentage of the homeless.
“Our unhoused community members deserve dignity and respect, as the vast majority are out there due to circumstances they don’t have any control of,” said Brooks, who’s currently running for mayor of Oakland. “Who they should be frustrated of is [Oakland mayor] Libby Schaaf and the current administration.”
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