The Unfolding Hypocrisy of Sonoma County
Yes it’s ‘too soon.’ Firefighters are working overtime to put their lives on the line to stop these infernos, communities are rallying and scores of shelters are in full operation. Donations are pouring in, uplifting slogans are being printed on t-shirts, and everyone is on the lookout for ways to help. This is great. I am so pleased to see so many people dedicating time and energy to confronting this disaster. Really, I am. But this doesn't mean we can't see beyond the feel-good stories, beyond the self-congratulatory back-patting and high fives. There's too much hypocrisy floating around, too much willful ignorance. And at least right now, while the fires are still largely uncontained and the winds are rising, we can see it clearly. The evidence cannot be hidden, spun, skewed, kicked down the road, or denied. It is in front of us. Furthermore, it is depressing and ultimately telling that I feel ashamed to write this. This said, I can’t not see what I see.
While making a supply run yesterday I passed the 6th and Morgan intersection in downtown Santa Rosa. This is the intersection where 6th bends around the mall parking lot to the east and runs straight to Railroad Square to the west. Underneath the overpass were twenty-some homeless people, a sight that is not unusual by any means, and few were wearing masks. All were obviously outside and unprotected. Santa Rosa has an estimated 1,900 homeless people and just a couple months ago began moving forward with a plan to further criminalize homelessness.
While volunteering at the Guerneville shelter I noticed many of the people coming in and out were homeless from the area. They were getting food, an item of clothing or two, but few were staying in the shelter itself. Guerneville is currently fighting—yet again—an attempt to construct an actual homeless shelter. Thinking on these two items it is hard not to wonder how many of these people are veterans, in need of medical attention, have mental health needs, or are survivors of sexual assault: all people we claim to care about. How many had homes at some point? Are they so different than the evacuees?
A couple days ago I wondered about how many inmates are fighting these fires and I received my answer when a friend posted this article today. In it, we learn that around thirty percent of the brave firefighters are inmates (they receive two dollars a day and two dollars an hour while on fire lines). We also learn from a different article that around two hundred female inmates are fighting these fires on our behalf and are being paid a dollar an hour. During the revolutionary war slaves were forced to fight for, and often times in place of, slave owners. The quality of this analogy is disturbing. Are we so shallow that this comes down to a uniform? What is the difference between a slave and a slave in a military uniform? What is the difference between an inmate in a jumpsuit and one in a firefighter's uniform?
Yet these events aside, perhaps what pushed me to write this morning was when I read this article. What we learn here is that ICE has “suspended operations” in the disaster areas. They will only “pick someone up” if said person is a “serious criminal presenting a current public safety threat.” The irony of ICE being a public safety threat aside, the fact that it took five days for this to happen—and in a “sanctuary state” no less—is noteworthy. Likely thousands of non-citizens are working in vineyards and farms right now without adequate safety in this toxic air; many lost their residences in the fires. Yet here our government effectively says that a dead immigrant is the same as a deported one. Such a perspective is not new, it's been official US policy in regards to American Indians for centuries.
Speaking of American Indians, has there been any coverage on the status of reservations and the Indian population during these fires? California has the largest self-identified indigenous population at just under 700,000, and there exist around a hundred reservations in the state. How many are threatened or damaged by the fires? It's hard to say because there has been no coverage on this topic, yet we will jump at the opportunity to donate a generator to the Snoopy Ice Rink that was in 'danger' of melting. Is an ice skating rink more important than indigenous peoples? Sadly, it would seem so.
All told, I am disheartened by the fact that we will collectively bend over backwards to house, cloth, feed, shelter, and support thousands of people who had homes and lost them, while we scream and cry and dig our heels in refusing to address the fact that thousands of people don’t have homes. Why will we help people who had but not those who have not? What, exactly, is the difference between the two? The answer seems to be nothing other than judgement on our part. The truth is that people always need shelter but we collectively see and act upon this fact only in certain situations: those in which we feel morally comfortable. This is called hypocrisy.