PHOTO: Activists unfurl a banner reading “Housekeys not Handcuffs” from the second level of Elkhorn Brewery.
By Andrew Meins
On Saturday, February 6, at around 6:00pm, a group of activists with Stop Death on the Streets, Eugene (SDSE) invaded the dinner rush at Elkhorn Brewery, a restaurant located in the West University neighborhood, to call attention to the anti-homeless platform and law and order agenda of Elkhorn Brewery owner, Stephen Sheehan, and his group, Eugene Wake Up.
Activists occupied two levels of the restaurant, handing out flyers, unfurling a banner that read “Housekeys not Handcuffs” and delivered speeches while standing on dinner tables. The group found little sympathy among the staff and patrons, but their direct tactics shook Sheehan, who posted a video on Eugene Wake Up’s facebook page, commenting, “We just had 18 protesters shut down our business at Elk Horn saying we are criminalizing homelessness! […] What do we do Eugene???? This is out of hand!!!”
Despite Sheehan’s hysteria, the restaurant continued operations once the activists left, but the action put Eugene Wake Up on notice and local bourgeois media filled its role to run stories painting business-owner Sheehan as a victim.
The action by SDSE came after several forced evictions of homeless encampments in downtown Eugene and in the surrounding areas in the weeks prior. “We are sick of politely waiting in line at City Council only to be ignored,” Alex Goldman, a spokesperson for SDSE told Incendiary, “This is why we decided to stir shit up in the conversation, targeting the loudest voice and founder of Eugene Wake Up, Stephen Sheehan.”
Since last week’s action, Sheehan has announced he will be stepping back as the public face of Eugene Wake Up, telling a local news outlet that the protest, “broke me.” He says he will continue to support the group’s efforts “behind the scenes.”
While Sheehan now seeks to reinforce bourgeois law, in 2005, Sheehan was convicted for embezzlement and forgery as a former employee of the international finance firm J.P. Morgan. Following this, he was a fugitive and living on the streets, a fact he now uses to justify his reactionary campaign against the poor.
Last year in October 2019, Elkhorn Brewery had its windows smashed by a member of the local homeless population. In response, Sheehan rapidly founded Eugene Wake Up, a self-described “pro small business non-partisan group” which has framed its agenda as “keeping out lawlessness.”
At Eugene City Council meetings, Eugene Wake Up has zealously advocated for zero-tolerance policies which target the homeless population, including the creation of a new Street Crimes Unit within the Eugene Police Department (EPD), seeking to expand the bed capacity of Lane County Jail, and calling to increase funding for the Lane County Prosecutors Office.
As the average price of rent continues to skyrocket in Eugene, and availability of housing for workers and the poor has dwindled, the homeless population in Lane County has increased drastically in recent years, with a reported 32% jump from 2018 to 2019 with the trend continuing into 2020.
This mirrors nationwide trends, and the bourgeois response elsewhere has followed a similar pattern of scaremongering and severe repression of the homeless. As seen in recent legislation in Las Vegas, some city governments have moved to outlaw any forms of camping or even lying down in the city limits.
Homelessness itself is a tragedy inflicted by capitalism, which could not persist in socialist society, and at the same time it serves capitalism by remaining a constant threat to working people, a reminder that they are forced between wage slavery and starvation, exposure to the elements, etc. Capitalism relies on having a section of society unable to find work forced to compete for lower and lower wages, and homelessness is a direct byproduct of this. At the same time, capitalism has privatized mental health access, creating a population of people whose health has deteriorated to the point of being near permanently unemployable.
The purely repressive response to the crisis of homelessness further enforces bourgeois order, and caters to the interests of reactionary segments of the petty bourgeoisie. They press their appeals to politicians, who address the homelessness crisis in relation to the comfort of their petty bourgeois voting base, but primarily, to legitimize its drives for tighter social control in the form of police expansion and militarization. Capitalism uses the very problems it invents to justify normalized increase of the state repressive function.
On the other side of the bourgeois process are the liberal segments of the petty bourgeois, embodied in groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who pursue reforms or policy solutions that seek to ignore class struggle, shifting the blame from class to other factors which appear easier to solve. The distraction of calling for more shelters and decriminalization will not actually abolish the root causes of homelessness, and in the long run only serve to quell the anger of the people who can no longer tolerate a system which forces a section of its people into abject destitution.
In comparison, actions such as the dinner disruption are a step towards giving a more militant energy to the struggle against homelessness, bringing the rage of the workers and poor directly to reactionary business owners and many of their well-off customers who are more offended by broken windows than they are interested in overthrowing the society that keeps the poor, mentally ill, and growing numbers of workers in the streets.