Unlike many of my other works, this piece is not about theory or ideology. It does not discuss evidence, or reasoning, or logic, as to the ideas that I believe about society. Rather, it is a confession, of the things I have witnessed, as I was a homeless person. There is some discussion of ideology and beliefs in the following pages. But, it must be understood that the topic of this paper is what I had personally witnessed while being homeless. The location of this was in southern Louisiana, in and around New Orleans (other towns include Metairie and Gretna). The time frame of this is December to March, including Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday"). And now, I tell my story...
My Time on the Streets
When a person becomes homeless, their relation to society is entirely changed. I had once been sitting on the sidewalk, with my friends who themselves were asking for change, and a person comes up and gives them a plastic compass, remarking, "Here, this is so you can get some direction in your life." The homeless themselves are a divided class. Among them, there are gutter punks (the class I belonged to), who were renowned for their particular taste of violence, sex, and alcohol. Gutter punks tended to be younger, but could range in age from 12 to age 50, and probably much older. Among the gutter punks, there were even more divisions, including street kids, street punks, and peace punks (sometimes called "Crass Kids," because that is one of the prominent bands of all peace punks). Street kids are just young homeless people. Street punks are street kids who like punk. And peace punks are anti-war, anti-America, Communist and Anarchist. Gutter punks typically had an image which society has portrayed as "violent." We had mohawks (often times spiked and dyed), leather jackets with studs in them, and boots that went up to our knees. Then there was the typical bum, or "home bum," who carried around an amount of property twice his own weight. That was one essential difference between the homebums and the gutter punks: the first sometimes never made the whole transition from homed to homeless. Since we are homeless, there must be an understanding, that there is no place to put your property. Thus, those who have more property must carry it, the weight becoming a burden to them. Essentially, those who have a limited amount of stuff will be most comfortable in the homeless lifestyle. If we gutter punks ever carried anything more than the clothes on our own back, it was a backpack that had a sleeping bag attached to the bottom of it.
It was walking down Gov Nicholls street in the French Quarter of New Orleans that I realized there was a true comradery among the homeless, the comradery typically being stronger among the home bums. I was walking with my friend Humble (and it must be understood, that almost all homeless people go by a nickname). After successfully shoplifting food from a Walgreen’s, he told me, "That's what I believe. Steal from the companies. Give to the people." And so that was our routine. I remember once, a truck came up to a restaurant, depositing two enormous bags of fresh bread and leaving it on the door. My friends and I grabbed the bags and took off. Since we had such a great surplus of subsistence, we immediately spread it out. Every homebum and gutter punk we came to, we gave them a great amount of bread. Even when we were walking through the ghettos to our squat, we gave bread to everyone we saw. The elderly African folk, sitting on their porches, their eyes probably having seen more conflict that I could imagine... they seemed old and tired, and we hoped that the bread we gave them would help give them the strength to dream again. It may seem odd to someone who is not homeless, how this may happen, how these transactions may occur. But, as we were walking down the street, one of us would notice a person living in poverty, and we would say, "Hey, you want some bread, brother?" They would smile and obligingly take some. I remember that day that we stole that bread from the restaurant. It was a good day, and food was had for the starving masses.
That was one thing about us in the ghetto though. Almost everyone in the ghetto was African in descent, and almost everyone there was working a shitty $5.35 job at some tourist store, just so that someone can take a plane to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and pay fucking $50 for a piece of shit tourist product, that initially cost $2.50 to make. And every single one of them shared a two-bedroom apartment with six individuals, if they happened to be lucky. Once I was invited to an apartment, to spend the night, and I was the fifth person sharing a single bed. I have seen, on occasion, 10 to 15 individuals sharing a "sleeping room," a single room which is approximately 10 feet long by 6 feet wide. It has a bed, and maybe a cupboard, depending on the particular sleeping room. You open the door, and there's your bed. Hence the term "sleeping room." Of course, the incident of 15 people sharing one of these rooms is an exception. The rule would be closer to 4 to 6 people sharing this room, as I have seen in numerous cases, including children as young as 10 years old. For the Africans who lived in the ghetto, maybe they weren't working at the local tourist shop, convincing foreigners to fork over an unreasonable amount of money for something that has no value. Maybe they weren't in the French Market, selling wooden chopsticks for $8 a pair. Maybe they were washing dishes for $3 an hour under the table, because their employer refused to hire them otherwise. Maybe they were holding a fucking sign that said, "Buy Furniture At Joe's!" on the freeway, convincing baby boomers to take that next exit to the Furniture Heaven.
There was indeed a certain prejudice between the blacks and the whites of the south. The ghetto may have contained one white person for every one hundred blacks. This I can confirm, from the various ghettos that we traveled to and about. Sometimes Africans were hateful towards whites, because they could tell that they were getting a bitter deal. On the other hand, there were many Africans who didn't care and were brotherly and fair with all they had met. But, to those Africans who were vengeful towards whites, for any past aggressions that may have been incurred, among 100 of them, fewer than 5 would still hold aggressions towards the gutter punks. The reasons for this are easy to decipher... Gutter punks were homeless. We were poor, probably a thousand times poorer than any African in the ghetto. We got fucked by the system, too. They didn't look to us suspiciously, because they knew who we were, what we wanted, and what we were looking for.
Image: Crass, Peace Punk Band
Why were we in the ghetto? For the most part, we went to the ghetto to get in a squat -- an abandoned building which we would retire to sleep in once we had become tired and intoxicated enough. I remember those cold nights, the wind whipping at my back, as I clenched my trench coat over my body, marching to get to that abandoned building, where I may sleep... And I remember what everyone had said about walking in the ghetto at night. "You'll get robbed, raped, and killed, and not in that order." It didn't matter to a gutter punk, ever. Because violence to a gutter punk could be its own reward. I never held this personal view, but it was something I had to deal with if it arose. And, I confess, there were some instances where I would have engaged in violence, but I refused to, on account of my rationalization of Pacifism and peace. When walking through these ghettos, I could not help but remember pictures of the Warsaw Ghetto. These people have no means to leave, except to become homeless. Worse of all, probably their greatest problem may be drug addiction. Walking down the street, one is liable to see at least one syringe on the ground for every block. Crack users/dealers typically hold their $10, 2-minute piece of heaven in their mouth. There is also a tactic among crackheads on obtaining items, that involves smacking someone in the hand, and capturing what they drop -- which typically works well with money or drugs. That is why crackheads hold crack in their mouth. And, if cops are to obtain them, they swallow it.
Squats... Apply whatever romantic idea to it you want that you got from literature, but there's nothing enjoyable about sleeping on shards of broken glass, because if you slept on the pavement, you would be arrested. There's nothing appealing about the idea of climbing onto the roof of a building, and smashing the window so that you can gain access, your heart pumping a thousand miles an hour, listening intently for sirens so that you can know when to run, so you can know that you failed. There's no happiness, when the temperature goes down to 17 degrees, and all you have is the clothes on your back and walls to stop the wind. I have, on occasion, laid on the wooden floor of a squat, in a ball, trying to capture that fleeting mystic hope of sleep... and I would reach to pull on my clothes, and as I touched my skin, I would feel the damp coldness of my own flesh. I would ignore it, because it didn't matter. Not to anyone else, anyway. And that is one aspect that is completely destroyed from the psychology of a street person -- you never get depressed, no matter how shitty things get, unless you have a reason to be depressed. And homelessness is certainly no reason.
There seemed to be a semi-friendly atmosphere among gutter punks. They would share among each other the location of squats, how to get into them. There also seemed to be the secret code among all gutter punks, the word "oi!" Upon entering a suspected squat, yell out "oi!" If you hear it back, then it's a squat with squatters. There are also unspoken rules among squatters. For instance, if you find an abandoned building, and someone is squatting there, and they don't want you there, you have to leave. Why is this? Because the streets tend to be a violent place. I am not denying that gutter punks could be violent. On the contrary, many of them indulged in violence, the way a person may indulge in drug use. So, there is an understanding between gutter punks. Without knowing anything about another gutter punk, you know this one fact: they could pull out a knife or a baton, and hurt you physically in a matter of 15 seconds, so to those who one is not acquainted with, they usually prefer a distance -- at least, when you're in the place that your sleeping. Plus, squat sizes are preferred to be small. No more than six people at most. The reason for this is to keep the noise to an absolute minimum. In the Diary of Anne Frank, for instance, the family that was hiding from the Jews had to keep absolutely quiet during the day. For us, there was another rule: never go to your squat until dark and leave once the sun rises. Cops and police officers raid squats only during the daytime, unless there is too much noise or disturbance at one.
That brings us to the greatest conflict of every homeless person: the law. It may have been ably stated by every writer of the past millennium, that the law exists not to end crime, but to persecute the poor and elevate the rich. There are laws, on the law books of this date, which a person can be arrested for, including: Obstruction of a Public Passage, Intent to Impersonate a Sidewalk, Leaning with Intent to Fall, Obstruction of the Flight Path of a Pigeon, Begging, Vagrancy (not having photo identification on you), Transience (not having a home), Disrespecting a Police Officer, Disorderly Conduct, Disturbing the Peace, Obstruction of the Due Process of Law, the list goes on, with a law existing that prohibits almost every erroneous activity. At the height of this police state, we find the crime of Vagrancy, that it is illegal to not have either money (which will be quickly appropriated by any investigating officer) or photo ID, which shows shades of 1984 and F451. The police do not arrest people on violating these crimes. That is the popular misconception of the rule. If you walk on the sidewalk, you are fulfilling the requirements for the crime of "Obstruction of a Public Passage." I have personally seen people arrested for this crime. I have been told from a friend, that when he was walking down the street in Oklahoma City, the police stopped him and asked him if he had any sharp objects on him, before arresting him. As you can tell, any person who uses the sidewalk is effectively breaking the law. It would be too obvious if the law were to make it illegal to breath air, but that is essentially what it is implying: that they may arrest you, and imprison you, for terms of years of the aforementioned crimes. What is it then that the police do? They make "sweeps," going from street to street, sometimes with vans, arresting as many homeless people as they can, on the before mentioned charges. Those who are committing the same crimes, but are not homeless, are not questioned. The prerequisite of being homeless or homed tends to be the clothes you wear. Gutter punks and homebums stand out.
Image: From Anarchist Black Cross
When I was arrested, it was perhaps the most horrific experience of my entire life. I can compare it with nothing else. They took me, fingerprinted me, booked me, and then threw me in a holding cell. In here, I was standing with about thirty others, at least 95% of them black, and 20% of them enduring through a psychotic episode (those who are diagnosed by a psychiatrist for mental disorders are often withheld their medication for a period of time up to months). The room itself was about twice the size of a sleeping room, and proportionately to the amount of people, it was smaller. There was not enough room for everyone to sit down -- which reminded me of the descriptions of conditions on slave ships. I was in this room for a total of 13 hours straight, where we were once fed soggy, tuna fish sandwiches. I had been accustomed to, at this point, eating dumpster food. And even this prison food was comparatively inedible. Finally, we were thrown in our cells, and awaiting to see the judge. Here, in prison, we waited, under the greatest hypocrisy known to us. INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY! Fucking tell that to my face when I was sitting in a jail cell with nothing but the accusation of a cop who likes to beat up children. In jail, I did not personally see anyone beaten by a cop. I had seen, however, a cop do an inspection of the Holding Cell, and a suspect started cussing him out. He said, "Get the fuck out of here, you motherfucking pig!" The cop responded, "Asshole... You wait until night time comes and you're behind those prison bars," waving his baton. The cop would leave. A minute would pass, and another cop would call out that same inmate. Thirty minutes would pass till we see him again. He was limping. Nobody else seemed to really notice, but it wasn't that. It was just so common, so obvious, so typical of every cop that it's not even a shock anymore. The cops don't exist to protect and serve. They are the American Gestapo, persecuting, beating, arresting, beating, and raping. They spend years learning to attack and kill people, and then they are given free reign over the life and liberty of every person in society.
Why do they arrest us? The answer is obvious to any homeless person. We are arrested because we make the city ugly. Especially in such a tourist trap town as New Orleans, we are jailed up by police officers because we make the city ugly. I can easily prove this. Around Christmas (when I was arrested) and Mardi Gras, as well as New Years or any other tourist time, arrests will jump by at least 10 times. I have seen, in jail, up to four or five people, sharing a single cell that was built for only two. There have also been homeless people to freeze to death in jail. This cannot be so hard to believe. Since the walls are made of stone, there's a typical coldness to it all. And since you are never given a blanket (though there's a 50% chance you'll find something resembling a blanket in your cell), it can be easy to see how someone would freeze to death in prison. So, this one goes out to a downed comrade: RIP "Cornbread." It was too cold that night, he was in HOD (House of Detention) on the top floor, where it was the coldest, and they found him stiff the next morning.
My friend, Bear, was arrested by the police for Aggravated Assault, because he attacked someone with a knife. I called the police department, and asked about him. He had to serve 45 to 60 days before he would see a judge. Two fucking months, with nothing but an accusation. But, only two weeks would pass, and I would see him on the street again. They had released him early, because the prison was too packed with people who had committed crimes like, "Obstruction of a Public Passage," and the "The First Amendment Doesn't Really Exist/Disrespecting a Police Officer." When I was arrested, I was not read my rights. All I heard was, "If you try to run, I will shoot and kill you." All I saw was a gun pointing in my face. Nobody saw a lawyer. In fact, the idea that you get to see a lawyer is absolute fucking bullshit. If you plead not guilty to any crime, you must automatically serve 21 days in prison, so that a trial can be set up. The crime, however, of "Criminal Trespassing," carries with it only 10 days. If you plead guilty, you serve 10 days. If you plead not guilty, you serve 21 days. If you can make bail, that's great. You don't have to serve 21 days. But what does this reconfirm? The law exists for the rich, and not for the poor. If you think that a homeless person can make a $5000, think again. And, even after those 21 days, if you fail to prove you're innocent, and you ask for "Time Served" -- which means those 21 days of waiting for trial will be deducted from your sentence -- there's a good chance you'll be denied it. So, those days you spent in prison, not convicted of anything, outweigh however long you'll spend in prison, for the actual sentence. And it is the job of the police to snatch up as many people as they can on the streets. When I was waiting to see the judge so I could give a plea, a seven-day waiting period, I had seen people leave and reenter the prison system. "You were here when I was released, and you still haven't talked to the judge?" one home bum would ask me, as I saw him again on the inside. I saw one person say to the judge, "But I was never read my rights," and the judge responded, "When you had cuffs put on, you should have been able to tell you were being arrested." And finally, when before the judge, he asks you two questions, "Do you have a job or are you in school? Do you have a home?" That is all he needs to know before he gives you a sentence.
I remember after my trial, we had all been lined up. One of the guards decided it was her duty to lecture us. "You're all a garbage," she said, "You all need to get a job and learn to respect yourselves. I can't even stand to look at you. You all need to start paying taxes and stop stealing. You're just making it harder on everyone else." I didn't say anything. I "knew my place," as they might say, but this only translates to: if you voice your opinion, you won't be breathing after five minutes of their reaction. An Anarcho-Communist doesn't last long in jail, when he makes his opinions prevalent. If I said, "Maybe we wouldn't be stealing if we were paid a living wage," I could guarantee you that I would have more scars to show you than I do now. Aside from all that, the most disappointing fact about prison was that when I asked if there was a prison library, I was given some Christian propaganda. I was hoping for some Thomas Paine at least. I remember my friend Humble getting arrested. He saw his two friends arrested, so he gave each of them a cigarette while they were in cuffs. As he was walking away, he was grabbed by a cop and arrested. But what crime could he possibly commit? Simple: Obstruction of a Public Passage, Begging, and Vagrancy. After all, giving cigarettes to your friend ought to be a felony offense. If you can't see the obvious nature of that, try telling that to the next cop you see, and then spend the next 6,000 hours in jail wishing that the First Amendment actually meant something. I had seen friends driving the most beat up pickup truck, with the words "FUCK THE POLICE" spray-painted on the side. They had been stopped three times in as many miles, until they were arrested.
Shoplifting became my trade. It was how I acquired the name "Robin Hood." It seemed to be rather romantic in itself, if everything else was wretched. Every day, I would go to a Walgreen’s or a grocery store, and steal, rip-off, five finger discount, shoplift, whatever the fuck you want to call it. Then I would go throughout the city, distributing food to the poor families. My attitude was, "I did it yesterday, I did it today, and I can know when I wake up tomorrow, I'll be doing it again." But sometimes, it was too hard. I remember walking out of the door of a store, and hearing the alarm, and then just bolting down the street, running as fast as I possibly could. I remember running from the cops with my street brother Pockets. It was him, his dog, and me. We ran zigzagging blocks, the only way that you can possibly escape from the police. And we got away. I remember having to run from mounted police. The only thing I could do was run into a crowd and disappear as best as I possibly could. I remember my friend Johnny. He ran from cops when some squatters in their tents were busted. As the cops moved in, all of the squatters ran. Never in your life had you seen so many people running from cops, struggling to be free, and often times being beaten in the face with a baton, as I had seen. That is what it's like no the streets of America. Screaming "stop hitting me!" to the police officer who is smashing your face, and then getting a Disturbing the Peace charge because of it. Maybe it was because in Maine, thousands of dairy farmers dumped milk into the ground, just to raise the price of all dairy products, of which we still couldn't afford at the moment. Not to mention that my friend Pockets or Humble or Twitch may have been working at $5 a day (the going rate for a homeless person) delivering or producing that milk, only so that they can starve to the point where they have to steal food to feed themselves and their family. And then they can go to jail, and serve two months in prison, the way my friend George served for stealing two cans of soda, and you can't show the judge any records of employment, because you won't be hired unless you will be paid under the table. None of this, which, the police give a shit about, because they're making a bonus on EVERY ARREST -- legal and illegal -- that they get, so to them it's a matter of spotting someone who has no financial means of defending themselves in court, so the homeless are the primary target. Meanwhile, my other friends are paid minimum wage so they can build a statue of the mayor on the waterfront, and so that they can go home at night to an overcrowded apartment with maybe rice or peanut butter as their only food.
Earlier, when I talked about myself and Pockets running from the cops, he told me later that he considered letting the dog loose. Why is this? Police are notorious for killing pets and dogs that belong to homeless people. There is, in actuality, no real penalty incurred upon them for doing this. Since it's not a human being, they reason, it has no rights. I have, personally, seen dogs shot by cops. It is an old pastime of police officers to burn down squats, or to shoot up squats. I remember seeing one dog who had been shot by a police officer. There was an entry wound in the chest and an exit wound on the side. It had never seen anything so tragic, so terrible... Fortunately, there was a veterinarian in New Orleans who took care of the animals of homeless people free of charge mostly. His name was Dr. Mike, and he set up shop on North Rampart. How is it, one may inquire, that the poorest of the poor, can obtain and sustain animals? Mostly, these dogs are better fed than their masters. I remember Pockets describing the two dogs that he had owned. "It's gonna be 20 fucking degrees man, but I'll have one dog on my chest and one dog on my legs, and we'll keep each other warm," he told me. Pockets was a Humanitarian. Both of his dogs he had found running loose in the ghetto, without a collar or a leash. He had taken them to the vet, though, and registered them, and paying for shots and vaccination -- all with money that he had obtained through spanging, or asking people for spare change. I remember a middle class man threatening us to get out of the dog park, because he didn't like homeless people -- and after all, who the fuck would? He threatened to tell the police that Pockets knowingly had a dog on Rabies and that the dog had to be killed. Of course, Pockets carried the vaccination proof on him at all times. Though he seemed to lose everything else, he never lost that. But the cop would have no problem with shooting the dogs, anyway. I wouldn't be surprised for shit if that was part of the job description: "Must aid in the liquidation of all animals, human and non-human." My friend Humble had a kitten, who was adoringly named "squat," who he had found homeless in a junk yard, much like another friend had obtained a gerbil, still in its cage, in the dumpster.
Many gutter punks and homeless people, including the home bums, are all politically minded. I had heard one of them talking to another, "Yeah, I was arrested with my girlfriend for sleeping in the park," -- "Yeah, that's because it's tourist season, and you look bad for the industry," -- "And the fucked part is that I fucking live here. They throw my ass in jail so that someone from two thousand fucking miles away can spend their money." They may have lacked the language that had been used by every poet and writer of the past centuries, but what they had was what no philosopher or statesmen could possibly have discovered. Everywhere I went, I saw the words, "FIGHT WAR NOT WARS" and "DESTROY POWER NOT PEOPLE." These were slogans inscribed by peace punks. The last thing I remember writing on a wall with a sharpie in New Orleans was, "They drop fire on people, but they won't let them write 'fuck' on their airplanes, because it is obscene!" A classic quote from "Apocalypse Now," and rather fitting. I remember seeing a newspaper machine, and in thick sharpie was written the word, "PROPAGANDA!!!" I remember seeing a poster that said, "It's a bigger problem than you think," and at the bottom reading, "Premature birth." But that had been scratched out, and the word "GOVERNMENT" had been placed there. Pockets was particularly fond of poetry that dealt with meaning and purpose; he was an avid reader of Kahlil Gabrahm. My friend Beast went to the free poetry slams and read his material. He had a backpack and the only thing he kept in it was notebooks of poetry. And I remember leaving a homeless hangout, and reading on the wall, "I made a god, out of blood, not superiority, I killed the king, of deceit, raise me up, in anarchy." And they were but lyrics to the song "Anarchy," by KMFDM.
Image: From Anarchist Black Cross
Those were my days, among the "wretched refuse" that we may be called. I wish we didn't have to face the dangers that we did, but I'm glad that at least we had each other. So, maybe we did find something that was worth eternity, even though we're the poorest class. I tried to explain it to a friend of mine. I told her... Because we had to face the danger of street life together, our bonds were all the stronger. We did not develop a unity by some imaginary foe, the way a government may use propaganda in a war. We created a family through working together, with the constraints that we have under the present regime. We could survive through anything together, because we were as one. Take the greatest draught, the worst famine, the most horrific plague, and you will find a squatter shivering, skin tightly wrapped around bone and lack of nourishment, and a diseased body, but you will find him surviving, because if there is one thing we can do, that is it. But maybe that's not entirely true. It wasn't so much that we could survive, but with what we had found, with each other, it didn't matter if we did or not... because we had something that made each day an eternity. We refused to bargain with society. We made no compromises. Even if it kills us, we will be free. And so it has killed some of us. But they are not the martyrs of freedom, so much as they are the casualties in the battle for liberty.
Update, February 14, 2007: Four Years Later
In the case of Greta Cazenave, et al., v. Sheriff Charles C. Foti, Jr., et al., the New Orleans Police Department's sheriff was sued for violating the rights of inmates, including unconstitutional strip searches and for long-term detainment in prison before a court appearance. The suggested settlement is $9.3 million; whether the court accepts this proposal will be determined on September 13, 2007. This case only represents the tip of the iceburg, as reports about police brutality and police abuse in New Orleans have been as evidenced and numerous as any other time period. There's even been video tape evidence of a group of police officers beating an elderly man in public shown on national television, and then arresting and attacking individuals who were taping, photographing, or trying to object. (CNN, with video by APTN, October 9th, 2005.) If you were strip searched for a minor offense or imprisoned before a court appearance, between the dates of April 25, 1999 and May 31, 2003, then you may be entitled to part of that money. For more information, see www.nolastripsearch.com.