Aaron Colyer had built a little shack to house the pink tent that the organizers of Nickelsville gave him. He had painted part of the shack pink to match, and he was sitting out front Friday afternoon as he waited for the police to come.
When they did, Colyer, a fresh-faced young veteran of the Marine Corps., wasn't shy about trying to talk the officers out of arresting him and a fellow Nickelodeon sitting at a tent nearby.
"The Constitution says we have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Colyer began while the officers were still a few tents away. "You know you guys have a choice in the matter. You can chose not to do this. What are they going to do, fire you?"
The officers paid no mind, continuing to lift and look in tents for any unseen stragglers. Then they came to Colyer's shack, following the same procedure as the five other arrests they had already made. An officer bent over and asked Colyer if he understood that, if he didn't leave, he would be charged with criminal trespass. Colyer said yes. Like the others, officers lifted him to his feet and took him away in the hot sun to the applause and cheers of Nickelodeons and onlookers on the other side of a 26-officer line of blue that slowly, but surely, was clearing the occupants who took the city lot along W. Marginal Way SW five days before, dubbing it Nickelsville in honor of the mayor and his policy of sweeping homeless camps on public property.
The arrests, all 22 of them, went on for an hour. But when the blue line finally topped a little hill overlooking a parking lot just west of Nickelsville, they stopped. It was a small but notable victory for the homeless and their advocates, who had been on the phone that morning asking Gov. Christine Gregoire to intervene -- and she did. Sometime after 1 p.m., after a city worker had announced that the field was Seattle Department of Transportation property and the Nickelodeons would have to leave, after the police had already made their first arrests at the east end of the field, Ron Judd, a senior aide to the governor, charged onto the field, telling the Seattle officers that the governor had given her permission for the tent dwellers to stay five more days in the tiny parking lot, which is owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation, not the city.
It's a move that the 140 or so Nickelodeons, who put up the renegade tent city in the early morning hours of Sept. 22, had hoped and planned for. Before dawn, in a desperate attempt to stand their ground, many had dragged their tents through the field and up over the hill to the parking lot in hopes the governor would come through -- a desperate measure that worked. But only temporarily. On Oct. 1, Nickelsville's time will be up again. Its residents have already written a letter to the governor asking permission to move to another piece of state land, but have promised to be out of the parking lot by midnight Wednesday. Many say they came to Nickelsville because the city's shelters are full and overflowing.
Nickels' spokesperson Karin Zaugg Black says shelter is available, adding that 14 people had accepted a shelter placement from three outreach workers dispatched to Nickelsville by the city's Department of Human Services.
But, "If they get a referral, someone has to get kicked out of that bed to make room for them," says Real Change vendor and Nickelodeon Richard White. "There are no shelter beds."
Many who remain at Nickelsville -- including several who returned after being arrested and released from the city's Southwest Precinct -- say they'd rather stay at a tent city over a shelter, where rules are strict, conditions crowded, and where people can't come and go on their own schedule, a problem for those with a job. "I got tired of being bitten by bugs at the shelters and I got tired of the repugnant attitude of some of those shelter workers," says Alfredo Torres, a 50-year-old Coast Guard veteran who's out of work. "They give you a place to sleep, but they humiliate and talk down to us all the time."