Sunday, July 3, 2016

Unpacking the Rhetoric of the Master Plan

Memorial Day, 2016 (Rob Fraser)
Since news of the Shady Acres (Shady Brook) purchase and sale agreement became public on April 20, the Board of County Commissioners’ primary justification for the planned mass eviction of over thirty low income, overwhelmingly Latino families has been the public document (evidently finalized on February 26, 2016) known as, “The Kittitas Valley Event Center Master Plan,” on line at

Commissioner Paul Jewell has repeatedly stated on the record that the Board simply acted opportunistically, in accordance with the Master Plan document, when Jerry and Diane Barton, the property’s owners, approached the County and indicated their willingness to sell.  It is therefore helpful, as we try to make sense of the roots of the current crisis, to do a close reading of the Master Plan’s 148 word discussion of Shady Acres (Shady Brook), on page 10:

“Shady Brook Mobile Village – is a private property located between
East University Way on the north and Iron Horse State Park on the
south, and North Alder Street on the west and the irrigation canal to
the east. The property includes commercial uses fronting onto East
University Way (Last Chance Saloon). The County owns 2 residential
lots located at the southeast corner of the site. Wilson Creek flows
south from University Way through the property.

The property is not well maintained and includes a large number of
derelict and deteriorating singlewide mobile homes and lean-to
structures configured in in close quarters and directly abutting
Wilson Creek.

The County has made an offer on the mobile village portion of the
property and is currently conducting due diligence on the condition
of the site and the assistance that would be necessary and
appropriate to relocate the low-income tenants.”

As an anthropologist who studies language and power, it strikes me that the wording of this passage betrays a significant array of cultural, class and racial biases, which the authors were probably not consciously aware of. (Such is the nature of most bias.) 

To begin with, in contrast to the phrase, “manufactured home park,” the term preferred in modern planning and in Washington state statues, the Shady Brooks location is only termed in the text a “mobile village,” occupied by “mobile homes.” (The adjective “mobile” incorrectly coneys the sense that these houses can be easily relocated --which simply is not true technologically in most instances. Also, in modern American English the term "mobile home" carries a rather pejorative connotation.) The use of the term “tenants” incorrectly renders the Shady Acres residents the equivalent of the short-term, largely student, tenants who have been displaced over the years by the County’s acquisition of private residences as the Fairgrounds have expanded. In fact, the great majority of the resident families at Shady Acres own their own manufactured homes, which are their primary financial asset. These assets would be wiped out by the park’s closing, since the houses simply cannot survive relocation, so far as most external technical observers can tell. (The residents are only “tenants” in the narrow sense that they rent the small pad of  land on which rest their homes, of which they are the legal owners.) They are not transient residents; some have lived in their homes for over seventeen years and the average time of occupancy is about eight years.  Even a cursory conversation with the residents by the Plan's authors would have revealed that many of these homeowners have invested thousands of dollars, and a great deal of labor,  into improving their manufactured homes, through interior and external additions, and that this additional financial investment and sweat equity would be entirely lost were “relocation” required.

A curious structural blindness is conveyed by the final phrase, “The County is currently conducting due diligence on the condition  of the  site and the assistance that would be necessary and  appropriate to relocate the low-income tenants.”  The language here renders the resident families simply objects of government action, with no indication that the residents’ own perceptions and decision-making capacities might need to be factored into policy-making. Commissioner Paul Jewell, a primary architect of the plan, has acknowledged that no efforts were made by the County to contact the resident families or converse with them in Spanish before the Master Plan was finalized or before the Board voted to execute the purchase and sale agreement.  As of this writing, the Board has not held any kind of collective public or private meeting with the resident families or with the board of their homeowners association. Mr. Jewell simply distributed, ten days after the news broke, a letter to the various households, informing them that mass eviction was not “imminent.” This failure to consult the families, or even to see them as having the capacity for independent judgement or as partners in the planning process, is consistent with the master plan’s language, which portrays the “tenants” simply as those in need of “assistance” by an ostensibly benevolent government entity.

Nor does the wording indicate any awareness that Shady Acres is a vibrant neighborhood that provides many social services to its residents, and functions as a kind of informal mutual aid society.  In the words of noted writer Phillip Garrison, widely considered the leading authority on the county’s low-income Mexicano communities, “Shady Acres really is a neighborhood…The residents babysit each other’s kids, lend each other money, look in on each other when sick and otherwise perform the duties imposed by decades-long relations with people you live near…[T]here are very few other collections of 30 families in the county that care for and depend on each other as much as my friends in Shady Acres.”  6/28/16, Letter to the Editor, Daily Record, )

In contrast, all that is conveyed by the writing of the Master Plan is the spectacle of an ugly slum, an eyesore, a blight—-filled with “derelict and deteriorating…structures configured in close quarters.”  Here is a space of squalor devoid of full, flesh and blood human beings, only occupied by “low income tenants,” who, implicitly, lack any “right to the city,” in Henri Lefebvre’s  (1968) telling phrase (further developed in David Harvey 2008).

The passage's final term, “relocate the low income tenants” is problematic in several other regards. First of all, there is no acknowledgement of the well-known shortage of affordable housing in Ellensburg and Kittitas County, that  renders it impossible to “relocate” the families in question, without massive investments, acquiring or building  new low income housing. There is no mention of how much the homeowners pay each month to rent the land on which their houses sit, how truly close to the edge these families are financially, and how devastating higher rent would be for them and their children. 

Since the Shady Acres controversy erupted in late April 2016, the Commissioners have repeatedly stated that there is in fact no “crisis,” since the County will not close the park until a “housing solution” has been found. Yet, they have consistently refused to articulate what such a “solution” might entail. The Commissioners remain unwilling to guarantee that the integrity and coherency of the neighborhood will be preserved in any new location, or even to promise that all the families will be kept together. That unwillingness is clearly prefigured in the Master Plan’s rhetoric: the phrase “relocate the low income tenants” makes it sound as if the only challenge faced by the County will be housing individual people or families, rather than accommodating an entire interdependent neighborhood. Nor is there any acknowledgement of the staggering anxiety that the purchase and sale will unleash on over 100 adults and children--as they face many months, or perhaps years, under a Sword of Damocles, uncertain when the mass eviction countdown will commence. To put it lightly,  the Plan's wording dramatically renders the residents as less than full partners in the democratic process.

Perhaps most important, from a legal and constitutional standpoint, there is no acknowledgement in this passage that Shady Acres is an overwhelmingly Latino neighborhood in a majority white county. Within Shady Acres, residents proudly rely on the Spanish language and are bound together by their shared Mexican cultural heritage, anchored in the western states of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Jalisco.  Children refer to elders, regardless of biological relationship or ethnicity as abuelo (grandfather) or abuela (grandmother). This degree of cultural coherence is, as many have noted, key to the positive functions of this neighborhood, which helps its adults and children maintain a strong, resilient sense of identity in the midst of an often hostile external environment.                            

Finally, it simply does not appear to have occurred to the Plan's authors that were the County to become the owner of the park and shut it down, and thus  trigger the mass eviction (euphemistically termed “relocation”) of about thirty minority families, that a government entity would be acting to disperse an ethnic minority community.  Given that a number of these residents are actual, eligible or soon to be eligible voters, a government entity would be acting, as well, to undercut or disperse a degree of actual or potential Hispanic voting power.  The legal and constitutional pitfalls would seem to be obvious.

Re-reading the Survey 

Much has been made of the fact that the County-wide survey, on which the Master Plan is based was methodologically flawed in multiple ways.  The salient question, often cited to justify the closing of Shady Acres and the mass eviction of thirty families, is a clear instance of a “push poll” question, designed to elicit a largely positive, or at least, neutral response:

[Question 40]: Mobile Home Park - acquire the mobile home park to resolve
code and safety issues;  facilitate better low cost housing options for occupants; and  restore and adequately buffer Wilson Creek. (p. 31)

No indication is given in the question that the park is going to be closed or that an entire, well-functioning neighborhood is going to be destroyed for the purpose of constructing 30-35 RV parking spaces.

The survey response rate was about 4%, normally considered too low a rate to base public policy upon. The survey’s distribution was limited to registered voters, and neither the initial postcard mailing nor the on-line survey was available in Spanish. Nor was there any consideration of the fact that a number of the Shady Acres residents do not read or write in any language, at least not at a level sufficient to complete the survey, and lack internet access in most instances.

In any event, as many have noted, what possible survey, no matter how well designed, could justify the active destruction of an entire neighborhood, unless for an overwhelming public benefit? (Presumably, even if the 90% white population of the County surveyed unanimously supported the forced expulsion of the  County's 10% Latino population, no Court in the land would consider that survey data as legitimate for the purpose of dictating public policy, if only because of due process and equal protection concerns.)

Added to that, the public hearings that informed the Plan's development were only in English. No interpretation services offered, and no serious efforts were made to include the Shady Acres resident families in the planning process. Furthermore, as we have seen, he wording of the Master Plan itself is replete with cultural limitations that betray profound ignorance about the community that it proposes annihilating. The Master Plan, in other words, must be recognized as a “poisoned fruit,” that simply cannot function as the legitimate basis for public policy, in reference to the future of the Shady Acres neighborhood.

Sources of Bias?

I am not an attorney, but I gather that from a strictly legal standpoint that the most salient factors in this kind of case may not be evidence of intentional bias as such. The most important questions, rather,  probably related to the impact of the planned mass evictions in terms of fair housing issues and in terms of the coherency and integrity of an ethnic minority neighborhood.

Still, the question of the source of underlying discrimination or bias, so clearly manifest in the rhetorical construction of the Master Plan, is a fascinating one for social scientists. Why were the above points, which strike so many observers as rather obvious, not taken into consideration by the authors of the Master Plan? Why do they remain opaque to the current members of the Board of County Commissioners, who insist that race and racial bias are entirely irrelevant to the case?

Here, we enter into the realm not of conscious racism per se but rather the complex, rather murky territory of “white privilege,” a largely unconscious, taken for granted set of expectations about the world that render invisible, in many key respects, both the life circumstances of people of color and the operations of race-based social hierarchies. These orientations intersect with set of (largely unconscious) assumptions about social class that are often held by white middle class actors. Thus, a white person who consciously believes him or herself free of racial bias, and who is in principle committed to principles of equal justice under law, may nonetheless act in ways that reproduce an overall structure of implicit  racial hierarchy or race-correlated bias. (As a “recovering white person,” I fully recognize that I have in the past, and still continue at times, to operate in ways that are informed by my own tacit, unexamined sense of white privilege; I am, at the end of the day, deeply grateful to my friends and interlocutors who honestly and forthrightly point out out these limitations and suggest better pathways forward, as much as such critiques inevitably sting at first.)

The very first newspaper article on the Shady Acres crisis reported what many of us regarded as a textbook example of unrecognized white privilege, in a quote by Commissioner Paul Jewell.:

The county plans to continue leasing property to the First and Last Chance tavern.

"It's kind of an icon," Jewell said.

SOURCE: “ County to buy mobile home park”, Jesse Major and Julia Martinez, Daily Record, Apr 20, 2016

The Tavern in question is frequented almost entirely white people.  It is widely regarded as a threatening place by people of color in the area, especially by the Latino children who reside at Shady Acres. It is widely associated with many incidents of public drunkenness and public urination on the residential grounds of Shady Acres, in particularly during the Rodeo.  How, many of us wondered, could the Tavern be seen as an "icon', but not the homes and the neighborhood of thirty Latino families?  Many of the homes, as noted, have lovingly constructed interiors and carefully put-together decor, and the whole neighborhood is manifestly "iconic" of Mexican-American cultural vitality.  (Many of these homes, ironically have beautifully crafted home altars, centered on actual icons of the Virgin and the Saints.)  Here, it seemed to us, was an implicitly racially biased rhetorical construction:  only the white-operated and frequented establishment was an "icon,'" worthy of continued protection.

When an email that I wrote to university colleagues on this seeming instance of racially-inflected white privilege was surreptitiously forwarded to Commissioner Jewell, he angrily phoned me in my office and berated me for accusing him of being a “racist.”  Our many mutual acquaintances inform me that he continues, ten long weeks later, to be deeply offended by what he regards as an entirely unfounded allegation of racial bias. I am fully prepared to accept to accept him at this word that he harbors no conscious racial animus towards anyone, and I am personally distressed that he feels subjected to an hominen attack, which is very far from my intention. Yet it is fascinating that when Mr. Jewell was offered the opportunity, at a recent joint meeting of the BOCC and the Homelessness and Affordable Housing Committee, to repudiate his now infamous phrase, he didn’t take that opportunity.  Rather, he is so greatly pained by the purported charge of racial bias that he refuses to walk back the statement; he has angrily interrupted me during public comment period at Board hearings and refuses to exchange civil greetings with me.

This reaction would seem to be consistent with the phenomenon termed by Robin DiAngelo as “white fragility”:

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation.”   (International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3, No 3 (2011)

We see another instance of unacknowledged white privilege and white fragility, in Commissioner Laura  Osiadacz’s much-discussed denunciation at the most recent BOCC meeting of the Friends of Shady Acres, as stirring up fear among the Shady Acres residents: 

“I think that’s very unfair for those residents having fear placed on them that isn’t there,” Osiadacz said. “And I think that it’s selfish. I think these people are doing it for their own personal reasons.”

For Shady Acres residents and their allies, Commissioner Osiadacz’s statement was baffling.  How could families, having learned that their entire neighborhood was going to destroyed, and that they would likely be torn away from their closest friends, not feel a legitimate degree of fear?  How could anyone not suffer anxiety upon learning that their principal financial asset, the house that they own, was in all likelihood going to be demolished without them receiving any compensation?  For Ms. Osiadacz, fear is an irrational response, since she and the other two Commissioners have stated that the countdown to mass eviction will not be started until a housing “solution” had been found. The residents should simply trust their official pronouncements, even though the shape of the ultimate solution has not been shared with the residents and they are simply told to await for more “data collection” by a consulting firm.

Ms. Osiadacz's unfortunate wording was widely seen as deeply condescending towards the residents. Were they, as low income, people of color, incapable of objectively interpreting the predicament into which the Commissioners had placed them, as worthy of a fearful response?   Rather, fear can only have been “placed” upon the residents by external (overwhelmingly white) activists.  In making this claim, critics noted, Ms  Osiadacz echoed  the racially-charged rhetoric of arch-segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who infamously attributed Civil Rights demands by local African Americans to “outside agitators.” Here, we see, once again,  the implicit racial politics of this entire tragic case rising to the surface: real opposition to white people in power must, it is being assumed, come only from the predominantly white activists, rather from oppressed people of color themselves.  Yet the Commissioners still refuse to meet directly with the Shady Acres Homeowners Association in a public meeting, but only rely upon an intermediary consulting company to gather data about the families in question. They hint that they may form a "taskforce" to determine the future of the residents, but have not even committed to include the board of the homeowners association on such an entity. (As with the survey concept, the entire idea of a "taskforce" to justify the destruction of an entire neighborhood strikes many as flawed from the start.)

Moving Forward?

For many of us, the most moving aspect of this unfolding social drama is the way in which it has catalyzed new friendships and alliances that cut across across divisions of class, language, ethnicity and race from throughout Kittitas County.  People of good will, across the county’s wide  political and religious spectrum, have been drawn together to stand with the Shady Acres families. Speaking for myself, I hardly knew my neighbors in many Protestant, Catholic or LDS congregations, as well as many fiscally conservative Republicans (especially in the Upper County) until Shady Acres brought us all together. We’ve gardened together, prayed together and spent long hours together trying to decipher relevant county documents and state laws.  All of us involved in this struggle have had our horizons enormously expanded.

To be sure, none of us have enjoyed facing, again and again, the overwhelmingly chilly reception we’ve faced from the County Commissioners at public meetings, but we’ve been more than compensated by the expanding circle of warmth, fellowship and solidarity we’ve felt, which is now spreading to the other Manufactured Home Parks in the county, as their residents follow the example of their Shady Acres brethren and form their own homeowners associations to protect their rights. We are seeing, perhaps, the rebirth of a new model for inter-racial solidarity and pluralistic community in the County. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the Commissioners and their allies could find a way into this growing circle of tolerance and commonly-recognized shared humanity, and we could all move forward together in the spirit of mutual respect and partnership? Wouldn't it be miraculous if the threatened annihilation of a small, vulnerable neighborhood served to remind us that we are all, in the most fundamental sense, our brothers' and sisters' keepers?

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