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I was born here

July 20, 2009

Landless African descendant elder fights Amerikkkan just-us and wins!

by Tiny, aka Lisa Gray-Garcia, poverty scholar and daughter of Dee

Described as very large and loud by the lawyer who accused her of threatening him, Rhonda Patterson is actually a small woman who speaks so quietly she can barely be heard. – Photo: PNN
Described as very large and loud by the lawyer who accused her of threatening him, Rhonda Patterson is actually a small woman who speaks so quietly she can barely be heard. – Photo: PNN
“I was born here.” Mrs. Patterson didn’t look up as she spoke, her voice inaudible, lost in the cement, concrete, doorways, truck exhaust, honking horns, brick walls and glass storefronts of downtown San Francisco. Her skin, the color of earth and wind, land and nature, was camouflaged in long ago lost clothing, shredded blankets and plastic ware.

“Mrs. Patterson,” I whispered to her as she crouched in a tiny closed liquor store doorway. “We are going to win this case, I promise.” Rhonda Patterson, a landless African descendent elder who has resided on the street at 605 Market St. for over 20 years after being redlined out of and evicted from her home in San Francisco, barely looked up.

It had been one week since Michael Hall, an attorney whose office was located on the ninth floor of an office building at 605 Market St., had begun harassing Mrs. Patterson, culminating in the filing of a stay away order against her – a stay away order that accused her of threatening him with violence.

For years Mrs. Patterson had tucked her shopping cart tightly against the side of the building near the Second Street wall of 605 Market St., until the Men’s Wearhouse, the store that occupies the storefront there, with help from Mr. Hall, got an injunction against Mrs. Patterson, requiring her to move.

The morning she appeared in front of the 605 Market St. building, sitting close to the curb so as not to block the sidewalk, I witnessed Mr. Hall yelling at Mrs. Patterson: “You need to move. You are blocking the sidewalk. You are a bum and just cause trash.” First he took pictures. Then he began shouting at her. Then he filed false charges. Pleading paper with lines on it. Lines and numbers and legal language erasing, eradicating, butchering, destroying all humans in their path.

“I’m not going to do anything about Mrs. Patterson. I have known her for many years and she has never hurt anybody,” Officer Chiu, a San Francisco police officer, told me while shaking his head after he was called out to arrest Mrs. Patterson based on requirements of the stay away order.

I first found out about the false claims filed by Mr. Hall when I received a call from the hard working maintenance staff at 605 Market St., who knew I was worried about Mrs. Patterson’s safety. They told me the police were called to “take action” on the stay away order.

Mrs. Patterson, evicted from her home over 20 years ago, has lived ever since near the corner of Market and Second in downtown San Francisco. – Photo: PNN
Mrs. Patterson, evicted from her home over 20 years ago, has lived ever since near the corner of Market and Second in downtown San Francisco. – Photo: PNN
What then took place was perhaps even more jarring and confusing for me as a prison industrial complex survivor and police terror victim. The first officer who was called out, Officer Chiu, refused to do anything and knew the charges were false based on his knowledge of Mrs. Patterson. He was followed by yet another SFPD officer who noted that the stay away order which demanded that Mrs. Patterson stay 50 yards away was based on Mr. Hall’s office, which, as the SFPD officer clarified, “is on the ninth floor of the building. And therefore Mrs. Patterson was, in fact, 50 yards away from Mr. Hall.”

In the end Mr. Hall, who owned the access to paper, land, phone lines, Amerikkkan just-us, rental leases, time, organization, linguistic domination skills etc., “won.” The third and final police call generated four officers in addition to the original ones and Mrs. Patterson was removed from her constitutionally protected location based on completely false charges that she threatened Mr. Hall with a weapon on the day he took pictures of her.

As soon as I heard about the false charges on the stay away order, I called several people in the community who work to ensure that unprotected people are taken care of, unheard heroes of the revolution who realize that we must work interdependently at all times to keep our injured brothers and sisters safe. One of these unsung heroes is Bob Offer-Westort, who works tirelessly in support of criminalized, landless peoples at the Coalition on Homelessness.

After my plea to the community that Mrs. Patterson needed a lawyer by any means necessary, Bob made several calls and secured the help of Sarah Barnes with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

One week later Sarah and I found Mrs. Patterson in the darkened doorway of the liquor store several blocks away from Second and Market. I had told Sarah that we would have to meet Mrs. Patterson outside as she was living with poverty trauma stress syndrome (my version of the Western Euro-centric psychiatric diagnosis of PTSD) and she would not be able to go anywhere, much less a lawyer’s office. Sarah understood. She’s got skills like that.

On July 1, Sarah Barnes, myself, co-editor and fellow revolutionary for the people Tony Robles, and staff writer and poverty scholar Ruyata Akio McGlothlin went to court to fight the fake stay away order.

The courtroom was packed. Every seat filled. Every human silenced by the implied power of that space. The laws of Amerikkkan just-us built, promoted and adjudicated. While the fake solemnity of the courtroom purred along, there was an odd metaphor taking place outside the one plate glass window to the left of the judge’s bench. A large concrete crane moved dirt and steel and the remnants of a vacant building into a pile of rubble.

“She has been there with a large shopping cart for many years.” Mr. Hall spoke first, presenting a series of photographs of Mrs. Patterson as she sat quietly on Second Street. Of course Mr. Hall never asked Mrs. Patterson if he could take her picture. Fleshing out the racist fetishized stereotype of the large and dangerous “homeless Black woman,” Mr. Hall painted a picture of a woman standing over 5 foot 8 inches tall, weighing over 260 pounds with a loud, booming voice. He proceeded with a laundry list of Mrs. Patterson’s “crimes” of poverty.

“She has a tendency to take recyclables and use them as sleeping material and leave them after she uses them.”

“This graffiti appeared after she stood there.” “I’m not saying she caused the graffiti, but she has a tendency to attract this kind of behavior.”

The crane moved up and down outside the window as he spoke, biting the edges of the earth with every lunge. The earth, tired, quiet, forlorn, had nothing to say. No energy left to fight, its strength long ago crushed

And then he concluded, with the saddest statement of all, which he attributed to Mrs. Patterson, “She said there was no place for her to go and if she went she would take me with her.”

It was at this point that the judge exclaimed with a certain amount of frustration, “Can we hear from Mrs. Patterson’s attorney?”

Sarah began by asking me, as witness to the “incident,” to describe Mrs. Patterson. I told the court how she was actually shorter than me, barely audible at any given time, had never hurt anyone and, like most people who are landless/houseless, appeared “large” because she was covered in many layers of clothing.

She then asked me to recount my recollection of the day of the alleged “threat.” I described how Mrs. Patterson had never uttered any threats to anyone, much less brandished weapons at folks, and the only “crime” she could be accused of is the crime of living without a home in San Francisco. I explained that Mr. Hall had actually taken pictures of Mrs. Patterson and harassed her without reason and that Mr. Hall had a history of doing that since he opened his law office there.

Outside the window the crane stopped pumping in and out of the earth. It seemed to be taking a break from its tireless destruction. And then the judge spoke: “I understand how this situation can be frustrating for you Mr. Hall, but I am going to decline this stay away order as I find there is no credible threat of violence.”

There is no credible threat of violence. In those simple words, the fabric of Amerikkkan just-us, weighted by how much money you have, how white your skin is, how much credit you have access to, how many degrees you hold from formal institutions of learning, tore ever so slightly, and Mrs. Patterson, me, Tony, Ruyata and Sarah jumped through. We won.

Mrs. Patterson didn’t win land, reparations, a roof, proper care, love or respect. She just won the truth. The truth that she was a landless African descendent elder who had the right, albeit not much of a right, but a right nonetheless, to reside houselessly on public land in one of the richest cities in the world.

Postscript: When I told Mrs. Patterson about what happened in court, she smiled, one of the only times I have ever seen her smile. And then very quietly she added, “Thank you.” I asked if she would be willing to have me write her story and take a picture of her. And she said, “Yes,” granting me one more smile. I felt truly blessed.

Tiny and Dee, her late mother, are the founders of Poor Magazine and Poor News Network. Read more about issues of poverty and race written by the people who face them daily at www.poormagazine.org.

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