This past week, I joined a delegation from the New Poor People’s Campaign as we traveled to Grays Harbor County in rural Washington, about two hours from Seattle. The delegation included Idalin Bobe (Popular Education Project), Nijmie Dzurinko (Put People First-PA), and Willie Baptist (Kairos Center). Paul Boden (Western Regional Advocacy Project), Anthony Prince (National Lawyers’ Guild, Salinas Homeless Union), Monica Beemer (Social Welfare Action Alliance), Ibrahim Mubarak and Lisa Fay (both of Right 2 Survive Portland) joined us on our last day in a planning meeting towards a People’s Trial being planned for May on the conditions of poverty and homelessness in the county.
People from the area describe Grays Harbor County as the edge of the world. This sentiment reflects the deep isolation that many people experience in Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Westport, three of the towns that we visited in the county. Aberdeen used to be the lumber capital of the world; now towns like Westport are facing upwards of 70 percent of adults out of their labor force. As the lumber and mill industry began to move out of the county in the 1970s, the incarceration industry has become its replacement. Indeed, because poverty is so heavily criminalized, most of the population is already on the other side of the law. Washington state leads the nation in the number of times children are sent to jail for noncriminal offenses, like skipping school or running away or other status offenses; and Grays Harbor County has the highest rate of youth status-offender incarceration in the state. In small towns like Hoquiam, filling beds in the local jail translates into financial resources from Washington State Department of Corrections. Four hundred of Westport’s 2000 people have active warrants out for their arrest. The jails and prisons in the area become fertile grounds for recruitment into white supremacist prison gangs, preying on poor whites who seek some measure of protection on the inside and access to housing and income upon release. This is easily done in a very poor, predominantly white county where people with felony records have almost no access to legal employment upon release, and face stark discrimination when seeking housing..
The County also suffers from one of the highest rates of opioid addiction in the state, partially due to woefully inadequate and underfunded treatment and recovery programs in the area.
Child removal is endemic. One young mother we met with has lost all four of her children to Child Protective Services. Her youngest was taken away from her in the hospital, hours after she had given birth. This happened in the presence of her pastor, who was able to perform a quick baptism before they were separated. CPS in this same county had been under investigation for child trafficking.
This is not, however, how Grays Harbor County has always been. A part of its lumber history is connected to the Industrial Workers of the World, one of the largest poor people’s organizations in the United States. In those days, the IWW was filled with immigrants – mainly Scandinavian – who were organizing for free speech and living in some of the same places where homeless encampments have sprung up in recent years. Some of that history is still present in parts of Grays Harbor County, in people who can trace their lineage back to that movement and others who are recognizing the unjust cruelty of the conditions they’re facing today.
The small ministry of Chaplains on the Harbor has been working in this community for nearly three years and it has brought life back into the Westport church. The Episcopal Diocese had, in fact, closed the church because it only had four parishioners remaining, three of whom led the worship. Rev. Sarah Monroe requested that the Diocese re-open the building to house Chaplains on the Harbor. Through weekly meals, a clothing/hygiene bank, and cultural and educational programs, the church has since become a safe space for those in need, especially among the growing ranks of people experiencing homelessness. Community members regularly bring by donations of food, clothing, bedding, and more.
Their presence in Westport gained greater attention this past winter when, for 110 days, Chaplains was a sanctuary space for more than 20 people who had been camping in their back lot. Amid escalating physical threats and violence, the church opened its doors to welcome those for whom there was nowhere else to go a place to eat, sleep, bathe, and rest. This brought the church under fire, almost literally. At one city council meeting, open threats to fire bomb the church and appeals to vigilante action were made in front of local law enforcement. When Chaplains tried to file no-trespass orders, they were told the threats were not specific enough to warrant attention. In response, the church identified a night security team to keep watch.
It is a dismal situation, and yet, the light shines bright here. During our visit, a middle-aged man living in an encampment by the Chehalis River offered me his food stamps for my six-month old son, just in case we needed them. A community elder spoke to a mother and daughter over lunch in Westport, three generations of women catching up on the past week while we waited for lunch. A young man who has been living in the woods came to the church to play the piano. He left after dinner and returned later that night because he heard that someone had brought a guitar. While he strummed in the corner, a young couple drank hot cups of coffee and took turns taking showers. A young mother brought in a two bags of boxed macaroni and cheese to feed us all. During those 110 days, this is the community that began to take shape: one that shares its food stamps and WIC allotments to feed dozens of people, one that fiercely loves its children and babies who haven’t been taken away, one that is reaching out to join a national campaign of poor and dispossessed people to push them forward and out of the depths it is in.
This nascent community is now planning a People’s Trial to tell the untold stories of Westport and Grays Harbor County at large. They want to put a system that legalizes poverty and homelessness and brutalizes the poor and homeless on trial. They want to talk about the twelve people in their community who have died in the past fifteen months from police brutality, medical neglect, eviction, and suicide. They want to put these deaths and the other conditions in the county in the context of incarceration – including youth incarceration – as the only industry in town, budgets that prioritize state violence over human rights, and corporate profiteering off the suffering that ensues. They want to talk about how they’ve fought back through projects of survival and dignity, sharing their knowledge and skills with each other, sanctuary defense and the free exercise of religion, and reaching out to poor communities across the United States to learn how others have fought and won for themselves.
This awakening is to be expected after the long winter that has been ongoing in Grays Harbor County. It is a revival of the fighting spirit of its past. And in a context that says, if you can’t afford it, you don’t deserve it, Chaplains’ response is: you are wrong. We do deserve it and we will work relentlessly to build the world where we can have it.
This all brings new meaning to the spring festival of Holi that is widely celebrated as a “festival of colors” in India and among Hindu communities around the world, and Krishna, an incarnate of God who is also one of the central figures in the mythology of Holi.
Krishna is, by all means, an unusual God who challenges conventional notions of divinity. He was born in a prison, under the threat of death by a jealous king. He was raised by an adopted family and was a troublemaker who would steal butter from the village women, make mischief with the village girls, and was often running away from a beating by his mother or others in the community. He was a cowherd, a poor and humble station in life, and spends his later years battling against an unjust rule.
As with the parables of Jesus in the Bible, each of these stories has deeper meaning behind them. The butter that he steals was being produced to sell in the next town over and the proceeds from those sales were being taxed by the King – the same king who wanted to kill Krishna at his birth – but the taxes were not being used to benefit the village. The income generation from the butter was, in fact, impoverishing the community. Krishna leads the children in a charge to reclaim that butter and eat it themselves. This both sabotages the King’s tax collection and asserts that the riches of a community ought to be used for its general welfare.
The story around Holi is that Krishna had his eyes on a young woman, Radha. Unlike Krishna, whose name actually means dark or black, Radha was fair-skinned, a sign of beauty in many parts of India. He was insecure about his skin color and wondered desperately to his mother if Radha would ever like him. His mother, tired of her son’s anxiety, told him to paint Radha’s face any color he liked. Krishna then approaches Radha and colors her skin. Thus begins the love story we celebrate on Holi by dousing each other with colored water and powder.
Krishna later becomes a central figure in a main text of Hindu religion, the Bhagavad Gita. In this text, he counsels a warrior on the battlefield. The warrior, Arjun, is suddenly struck by how much is at stake – his family, his community, the kingdom that is in place, the only society, values and order that anyone has ever known will be upended by the battle that is about to unfold. He cannot continue knowing what lies ahead and puts down his bow and arrow and refuses to fight. Krishna reminds him that this battle isn’t about death, but life. It is about fighting for what is good and right and just in a cruel and unjust world. And Krishna tells him that it is responsibility to fight against that injustice – that this fight is what God demands of us all – and that God stays in that fight until the world is set right.
It is most likely that the Krishna as God figure assumed the histories and characteristics of many different “Krishnas” who did in fact live on earth. At least one of these people grew up in village, got in a lot of trouble, and fought in a great war. Even if he was an heroic figure, he would have remembered what it was like to have been raised under a threatening rule, in constant trouble, and feeling insecure about how he looked and who loved him. And if that Krishna – or these many Krishnas – carried those experiences into his divine form, then of course Krishna the deity would fight on the side of those who are being wronged by an unjust system.
Holi must, therefore, also be about this love: a love that refuses to be isolated, that shows and tells the truth of what is at stake when injustice reigns, and that is awakening in the Westports and Grays Harbor Counties across this country.