Clamor: Your DIY Guide to Everyday Revolution.

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Issue 33

Organized (against) Crime

By Abby Sewel

Portland, Oregon is a two-faced city.

On the one hand, it is known for being a happy little hippie paradise, full of co-ops and collectively run coffee shops, bike culture, permaculture, and cob benches. On the other hand, it’s a depressed city full of unemployment and homelessness, racial tension, strip clubs, heroin, and crystal meth. And like most major cities in the U.S., it is gentrifying quickly, with the poor and people of color being pushed out of the city center into the suburbs while vintage clothing stores and trendy bars spring up in the neighborhoods where drive-by shootings used to be a daily occurrence. I got caught in a bizarre intersection of these worlds when my own collective coffee shop was essentially taken over by a crowd of heroin dealers this past winter. Since then, we, and the neighborhood in general, have been struggling to find a way to keep our community safe for those who live and work there without relying on the police or contributing to the forces of gentrification already in motion.

Lower East Burnside has always had, as far as I can tell, sketchy tendencies, but things got much worse this winter. I had been “working” at the Back to Back Café since the previous spring. (I say “working,” because through most of that time, I was not getting paid. The Back to Back is a worker-owned collective, and due to a combination of being located on Skid Row and the worker-owners not knowing how to run a business, the café was always struggling to stay open.)  By the time I came around, the collective members had given up on paying themselves even a token wage and were essentially working for tips and free food. Everyone was working a second job or living off unemployment. We hung on in a stubborn belief that with enough dedication, we could turn the business around. I think most of us started there out of idealism, but we hung on out of obstinacy, and by the time I had been there six months, we had finally figured out how to keep our books straight and balance our expenses. It began to pay off.

In addition to the free food and beer and the hopes of better times to come, Burnside was always a fascinating place to work. East 6th and Burnside is la esquina, the corner where day laborers wait for work. Day laborers, or jornaleros, are mostly immigrants from Latin America. They exist in essentially every metropolitan area in the United States. In most cities, as in Portland, they gather to wait for work in a public space; but in some cities, groups of jornaleros have succeeded in getting a city-sanctioned building space to serve as a center. This has definite advantages in terms of safety and shelter from the weather, and it also tends to cut down on the occurrence of employer scam (the fairly common occurrence of a contractor hiring a laborer and then refusing to pay all or part of the promised wages). Many of the jornaleros are undocumented, but others are legal residents or citizens who can’t find a regular job — which, in Portland, is a lot of people.

The day laborers were some of the café’s most reliable customers. When I started at the Back to Back, I barely knew Spanish outside of the curse words I picked up in high school. Now I speak pretty functionally. There have been days at the café when I went my whole eight-hour shift without uttering more than ten words of English.

There were also a fair share of junkies and prostitutes around the Back to Back, too. We used to have an open-door policy on the bathroom, out of pity for the homeless population in the area. Gradually, between the exorbitant cost of our water bill and the fact that we weren’t getting paid to pick up syringes and clean splattered blood off the wall, we went over to the Dark Side with the other businesses on the block and instituted a “customers only” policy. The rule really wasn’t much of a deterrent to anybody, however. Heroin addicts already spend most of their time hustling to get money for their fix. It’s not hard to scrounge up an extra dollar so you can buy a coffee and lock yourself in a bathroom for ten minutes. The café workers would come bang on the door eventually, but that didn’t matter, either. They knew we weren’t going to call the police. Our relations with the police were not what you would call cordial. We were a bunch of uppity anarchists who would occasionally come out and ask snotty questions when an officer was frisking someone outside. That was probably the source of half our problems later.

Winter is not a good time for construction work in Portland, and a lot of the day laborers leave for that portion of the year. But this year, new faces began cropping up in the fall. Suddenly, we had a crowd of regulars coming in to drink beer every day. Initially we were happy for the business and didn’t question its source — our Pabst sales for December meant that we paid ourselves in January.

It didn’t immediately dawn on us that these people were selling drugs out of our business. What did become abundantly clear was that they were extremely unpleasant drunks. Our quiet little café had become the neighborhood bar for a bunch of thugs, who started fights outside, made a mess, harassed the female café workers, and were nearly impossible to get rid of at the end of the night.

A lot of the day laborers stopped coming around at this point. As I found out later from some of the laborers, the drug dealing on the corner was getting so bad that it was driving contractors away. Sometimes, my friend Jaime told me, a contractor would pull up and there would literally be a race between laborers and dealers to see who could get to the car first. I also found out later that three day laborers had died overdosing that winter. But the laborers, even those who wanted to get the drugs off the corner, for the most part weren’t willing to confront the dealers: for one thing, it is dangerous to make drug dealers angry, especially when you have to share a street with them; and for another thing, many dealers and workers alike were undocumented immigrants, and neither of them wanted to bring more police attention to the area.

The situation finally came to a head in January when the police came in threatening to shut us down because of drug dealing on the premises. The first time this happened, we were indignant. Why were the police expecting us to do their job for them? If we caught someone in the act of selling drugs, of course we would kick them out, but we couldn’t go accusing people indiscriminately, could we? And in any case, the sidewalk in front of the café was nearly impossible to keep an eye on during busy shifts. Not knowing quite what to do, we wrote up a flier in English and Spanish to hand out to our customers, explaining that the police were threatening to shut us down and asking that they refrain from illegal activities on the premises. It didn’t work, of course. Neither did our attempts to communicate with the police and convince them, in the spirit of “community policing,” that they should get out of their squad cars and walk around the block every now and then.

A few weeks later, the officers were still not returning our phone calls, and the lawlessness on the block was, if anything, worse than ever. The next we heard from the police was when they came in to arrest a drug dealer from inside the café and to tell us for a second time that if we didn’t put a stop to the drug trafficking, we were going to be shut down. This time really scared, we began performing a sort of purge of our customers, banning anyone who seemed at all suspicious. This turned out to be about half of our regulars. Things were tense for a while. A couple of us received death threats. But for the most part, the dealers went quietly. If they couldn’t sit around drinking beer while they did their deals, well, that was too bad, but they could still make their money on the corner. It was the café, not the dealers, that lost business.

To read the rest of this piece and other great Clamor features, please pick up a copy of the new issue, or subscribe now.

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