Stop the Sweeps! Defending Houseless Comrades with Coalition Organizing

Stop the Sweeps Coalition - 02.10.2021
Stop the Sweeps was also successful because of our revolutionary perspective. We know that capitalism is the problem, and so we must fight capitalism at its roots.

On January 20th, 2021, Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen sided with San Lorenzo park residents and protestors in their filing of a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the city of Santa Cruz to stop their planned sweep of the encampment. This has resulted in campers winning a stable place to live until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will be re-evaluated by the court on March 16th. The success of this campaign has been unprecedented in the history of houseless organizing in Santa Cruz. How was this accomplished? To find out, we reached out to our fellow comrades from Stop the Sweeps.

What did it take to achieve this win? Why was it successful?

Above all, Stop the Sweeps (STS), won because of community support.

It required a few groups of people who were willing to bottom-line the organizing work against the sweeps. It was successful because we attacked the sweep from every angle: physical, legal, and political. Most folks are passionate about at least one of those angles and can really work long-term on it without burnout. We were able to take advantage of that by having one group of people (mostly Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom / HUFF folks) working on legal stuff while another group strategized and coordinated  with the legal people when needed. People could find a spot where they could best use their skills. This distribution of tasks allowed us to attack the sweep from every angle, gaining advantage over the weakness of the city’s position.

We gained absolutely amazing public support, and because of our work all eyes were on the city. The cops could have arrested everyone on day one, but SCPD is a political police force, and they had the media and the public right there watching.

These three angles complimented each other. We wouldn’t have been able to hold off the sweep with blockades forever, and we knew that. That’s why the political and legal avenues were (and still are) so important. The blockaders provided time for the political pressure to grow, including public outrage, and the legal case developed along side. The legal case produced a mid-term solution so protesters and everyone else can rest and build more community networks instead of exhausting energy on the blockade.

The wider public support was greatly assisted by the context of COVID. We could grab the attention and sympathy of liberals because we could point to the obvious harm sweeps do in worsening pandemic conditions. This wider community support provided people on the ground with food and survival resources, which helped to truly network and build loving connections that strengthened all of our work. It’s easier to stand your ground against the state when you’re fortified by the bonds of love, so we made loved ones out of each other.

The organizing was also very horizontal. The folks who spearheaded STS knew that you can't and you shouldn’t control what happens at a protest. Everything is a suggestion, inviting the consent of the community. It was important to have a group who could discuss strategy in-depth, but the actual work and decisions were really a collective effort. Residents of the park who aren’t in that small group of strategists were consulted and brought into discussion every step of the way. This built trust and community and also provided a wide variety of perspectives with which  brainstorm. Though a smaller group of strategists may have facilitated the creation of the Comrade Café, for example, the community felt comfortable stepping in to run it. There are no real leaders, and that has been a huge strength.

Our structure also allowed us to make split-second decisions and "be water"--as activists in Hong Kong say, inspired by Bruce Lee--not only on the blockade, but in the rest of our work. Our structure provided a crucial flexibility, and the community building we did, and continue to do, let us come to quick consensus on the fly.

One example of this flexibility was when a few cops (out of about 30 present) beginning phase 2 of their sweep walked onto the duck pond bridge. They were met with a group of people who blockaded their exit. Within I’d say, 15 seconds, the crowd split to send enough people to the both sides of the bridge to trap those few cops while simultaneously surrounding the remaining police. This was a crucial moment in this fight, and the police retreated from that moment on until the temporary restraining order was filed, which is what eventually stopped the sweep.

Stop the Sweeps was also successful because of our revolutionary perspective. We know that capitalism is the problem, and so we must fight capitalism at its roots. We know that this must include long-term goals. We see this work at San Lorenzo park as one step in that direction. It’s something to help our community, to gain immediate benefits, and to love and care for each other along the way.  At the same time we see it as part of the ultimate work of building a revolution to take down capitalism, and creating the mutual aid networks to replace what we’re taking down. These two perspectives are not contradictory, but complimentary.

What's different from past sweeps?

I’ll keep it short since this is mostly reiteration.

The fight against past sweeps either didn’t have enough people to truly organize a multi-dimensional resistance, or it didn't have people with enough energy. Sweeps and capitalism exhaust everyone to the bone, so it's hard to find the energy to organize a strong and durable resistance. The optics of a sweep during COVID-19 are also in our favor, garnering mass support for the fight against cruel policies, which has helped bring us the resources we needed, the numbers we needed, and the political pressure.

What's next for Stop the Sweeps?

We all have our own ideas, and we're talking about that right now. We don't really know for sure, and that's okay. We're probably going to do a lot of networking and working on solidarity with other groups around the county and state to build a mass movement for radical transformation.

We have also discussed finding land for a more permanent camp, upping our propaganda game, building wider support for unhoused people, and radicalizing people so that more folks will be able to understand the deeper conditions that produce houselessness: capitalism. We also want to hold know-your-rights events (Cop Watch), de-escalation trainings and other workshops, and maybe moving on to a whole other project altogether.

We'll see what happens in the coming days and months!

Stop the Sweeps (@stopthesweepssc) is a coalition group of folks experiencing houselessness and those struggling in solidarity with them. STS would not be possible without the solidarity work provided by groups like...

If you are interested in being a part of future actions against camp sweeps, stay up to date on planned actions by following @stopthesweeps on Instagram.

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