At 7 a.m. on Nov. 15, around 11 police officers and at least as many Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation employees and contractors showed up at the Black Lives Memorial Garden (BLMG) in Cal Anderson Park. Their mission was to sweep the roughly 15 to 20 people living in nine tents around the garden; the city reported 14 people being present that morning. Many of the residents were snuggled in their sleeping bags; temperatures the previous night had dipped to 35°F.
Activists present at BLMG attempted to convince city workers to slow down, delaying the sweep until 8 a.m. The scene was quite contentious, with police and Parks personnel repeatedly pressuring the homeless people who were present to speed up their packing as they kept asking for more time. Advocates also scrambled to help people track and keep their belongings safe amid the sudden displacement.
City workers had arrived the day before to post sweep notices, but later withdrew the flyers, saying that they had other matters to attend to. Activists said that the delay may have been due to a large presence of anti-sweep advocates, which was smaller the morning of the sweep.
BLMG has been in a weeks-long dispute with the Parks Department. The city wants to restore the grass where the garden is located to use it for events, while activists staunchly oppose this, arguing that BLMG serves the community by providing a hub for mutual aid and education about food sovereignty. The sweep is just the latest escalation in this saga, which Real Change covered in depth for its Nov. 8 issue.
Marcus Henderson, a member of the collective Black Star Farmers, which helps steward the garden, said that they consider the homeless community members who camped next to BLMG an integral part of the garden.
“We are all one community,” Henderson said. “BLMG was built during the George Floyd protests. Many of the people who helped build the space were unhoused members who lived in this garden before BLMG even existed. This is one community; we don’t express any difference or separation [with] the folks that are in tents. These are residents that have to sleep outside because they don’t have access to housing and they’re part of this community. That’s why we’re all showing up to support them to defend this space.”
Mutual aid volunteers have been present at BLMG every day, distributing food and other supplies. One of the activists said that they had used naloxone to revive a number of people at the park who were overdosing the past month.
Jordan, who was one of the unhoused residents of BLMG, said that he really enjoyed the experience of living at the garden and the mutual aid from activists.
“They were super supportive and they made sure that if you were out here taking care of the garden — that if you were hurt — you would be getting better every day,” Jordan said.
Jordan added on the morning of Nov. 15 that he didn’t yet know where he’d move to. Several residents said that they would move to Broadway Hill Park, which is about four blocks north of Cal Anderson.
At about 9 a.m., two outreach workers arrived at the scene and started connecting with some of the residents. According to one of the anti-sweep activists, multiple people had been offered placement in tiny house shelters.
According to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s spokesperson Lori Baxter, the Unified Care Team (UCT) — the multi-departmental squad that conducts sweeps of unsheltered people — extended offers of shelter to all residents who were present. She added that four people accepted the shelter referrals.
Henderson said that the sweeps workers had originally not planned on sending outreach workers and that only after protests from activists did the city agree to try to connect residents with shelter.
“If there was no community here, a lot of these folks would have just not been offered services,” Henderson said. “They would have been forced to remove their things from the space — or if they didn’t remove their stuff, things would have been thrown away.”
The BLMG sweep is only one high-profile instance of Seattle’s unrelenting sweeps policy. Records obtained by Real Change earlier this year revealed that the city carried out more than 900 individual sweeps, with the vast majority coming with almost no prior notice.
Under Harrell, the city has poured millions of dollars into the UCT. In 2023, its budget grew from $9.8 million to $23.5 million.
Currently, the city of Seattle reserves the right to sweep any homeless people without prior notice as long as their encampment is considered an “obstruction” or a “hazard.” However, this may soon change with a recent lawsuit by the ACLU of Washington. The King County Superior Court has ruled that no-notice sweeps are unconstitutional; however, the city can still conduct them for now as the case makes its way through appellate courts.
For Henderson and other members of BSF, the sweep was a blow for the community they have cultivated at BLMG. They say that while the future of the garden is very much up in the air, activists will continue to show up to support each other.
“We’re gonna keep showing up to defend the space. The future will ultimately be decided by the community that wants to care about this space and come into it,” Henderson said. “The future of BLMG is more than just this garden. It’s a community of care that is growing in Capitol Hill and in Seattle.”
Read more of the Nov. 22–28, 2023 issue.