Elsiewhere in Abbotsford. THE SHERIFF (in New Westminster Court, December 17, 2013)
“The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine.” Nurse Ratched, in the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Court was already in session on Tuesday morning when you found the room in which Abbotsford City lawyers were attempting to convince a Supreme Court Judge to grant an injunction to remove a group of homeless persons camped in Jubilee Park.
The room reminded you a little of your childhood church in which men sat on the left, and women on the right. And so you took a seat on the right, noting three other women seated there, one the face of an Abbotsford News reporter, and the other two also reporters. All three were busy writing notes, the Abby News reporter multi-tasking: writing with the right hand, and scrolling on her phone with her left, though a sign on the glass partitioned seat (unoccupied) forbade that, a diagonal red slash running across the photo of a cellular phone, and also the word: Prohibited.
You were surprised at how blatantly she scrolled and texted, and emailed, after all, a youthful, Asian male Sheriff sat two metres away in a chair, his head turning this way and that, though rather slothfully, you thought, for someone who was to keep the peace in the courtroom. Perhaps the gun in his holster assured him he had control.
Another sheriff sat at the back of the room. Also a male. Also armed.
And a third, a female Sheriff, armed, too, sat on the opposite side of the room, next to a barrier a half metre or so from the people seated there. A huddle of seven people.
You recognized them immediately. Barry Shantz, whose face has been in the media (newspapers and tv news stations) since October 10, 2013, when he and a group of homeless persons occupied Jubilee Park. Barry’s not homeless; he represents the Abbotsford Chapter of Drug War Survivors. He’s a silver-haired fox of sorts, given to switching in a heart-beat from charmer to a rage-infested man with an agenda that’s not always clear. You’ve experienced it directly, several times, when visiting the camp — not to support him and his “cause” but to connect with the campers. But that’s another story, and has, in part, already been told on this facebook page.
This post is about the quartet of homeless seated around Barry in court. And two supporters who joined him today. But more-so, it’s about the Sheriff who sat within spitting distance of them all.
Picture this: The sheriff is in her early 40s. She has blonde hair that comes from a box. It is pulled back tightly, cinched into a pony tail. No hair escaping. Her lips are clearly glossed, and you can see from across the room that she’s lined her eyes with black, and has marscara-blackened her lashes. She is dressed in a uniform: Her beige, button-down shirt, with short-sleeves, is tucked into brown pants, cinched with a belt. On her right upper sleeve is a badge shaped like a piece of toast. Inside the “sliced bread” is a yellow-stitched word: Sheriff. The waist of her shirt puffs out on either side. She’s not obese, she’s slightly stout, with the girth of a person who indulges, evenings, in junk food: Salt and Vinegar chips; cupcakes, perhaps, with icing; or an entire frozen McCain chocolate cake purchased on the way home at Walmart, or Pricesmart, or the Canadian Stupid Store near her walk-up apartment that she shares with her boyfriend who, after getting laid off from a construction company, has just started working for a landscaping company that clears driveways of snow and hangs Christmas lights on houses. Work’s been slow, and sporadic, and he’s mildly depressed. Drinks too much beer. Watches too much tv. Smokes incessantly. Is quickly irritated. Talks about returning to trucking; and so what if it’s long-distance, and he has to pay for most of the gas. “Beats this!”
This, of course, is all and only conjecture about the Sheriff, as is what she thinks of while sitting in court, listening to the drone of lawyer reviewing how a group of homeless took over a park with their tents, the local children afraid, now, of playing there, and city workers prevented from refurbishing playground with monies from a provincial grant that will be withdrawn if not used by March 2014. “Fall and winter are prime time to work on city parks as there are less safety concerns with fewer people around,” says the lawyer. Though he’s contradicted that already by reading a city worker’s affidavit that states she sees no one using the park since the homeless people moved in, and implying that they, not the inclement weather, is the reason no one’s using the park.
You take notes as he talks, and note, also, the sheriff’s movements. Through optical observation, as well as with notes written on pad – just like the reporters’, though you aren’t a reporter, you’re a witness. Bearing witness. And a writer known for her details…
The Sheriff suddenly notices the audience in her proximity. A young woman with a pony tail the same colour as hers, has nodded off. She’s doing the roll; her head is lollygagging from chest to left shoulder, she wakes, straightens, then lists and head-drops again, and the roll. She sits up, places hand on the side of her face, and slumps, full-bodied, leftward.
Enough! No one will pass out during the sheriff’s watch! The sheriff rises, walks over to the sleeping woman, shakes her shoulder, and leaning over, whispers to her.
The sleeper awakes. Sits up. Nods to whatever the sheriff has said.
The sheriff, catching the eye of the other sheriff at the back of the room, nods and grim-faced, returns to her seat. Her chin touches the electronic device on her shoulder, and she mouths some words into it.
On your side of the room, the reporter ahead of you continues recording the lawyer’s words, interspersed with texting on her phone.
The sheriff ahead of her looks at her, and looks away.
You study the audience grouped at the front left. One, a first Nations man with hair gone wild, like that of a man who’s just ridden a horse a long distance, is holding a carved stick. A talking stick? If so, it’s not seen as such in this room. He’s dressed in a highway maintenance person’s attire. Overalls and long-sleeved jacket with neon stripes, and steel-toed boots. He’s bearded, too. As is the younger aboriginal to his right. Both are expressionless. You’ve met them both in the camp; they are quiet, respectful. Move slowly. Live in a T-P shared by five. Once, you heard drumming inside; and singing. Calvin is the one with the stick; Stan is the shorter, younger one.
Ahead of them, to Barry’s right, sits a head-shaven giant, with a hoodie over a shirt not long enough to cover his belly when he rises, the glare of white skin made whiter by the black sweat pants he pulls up as he walks to the back of the room, exits, and shortly after, returns, standing at the back of the room, then, noisily, with throat-clearing, heading back to his front-row seat. Beside Barry, the “leader” of this protest group. Barry’s head is mostly bowed, though occasionally he grimaces, and shakes his head in disagreement to what’s being said. Quite a few references to him; his interference with city workers, swearing, and things he’s said to reporters: print and television. You’d think, from the lawyer’s arguments, that this entire case was about Abbotsford versus Barry Shantz, not the homeless, and the city’s years of bad – no, illegal – dealings with them.
To Barry’s left is another wild-hair-ed man, though his hair, unlike Barry’s and the man with the talking stick, isn’t confined like a horse’s tail; it’s free, but matted. He, too, is dressed like a construction site worker. In oversized clothes that make swishy noises whenever he moves. His eyes are swollen today, as if he’s not slept in days. And his skin in need of a bath. You’ve met him in camp, too; his name is Harvey.
You see all this as you listen to the lawyer’s non-stop talk, and suddenly notice the female sheriff watching you. What is she thinking now? You don’t look away.
She stares again at the group, grimaces, shakes her head, as if in disbelief, indignant even, then rises, and once again, has a word with the sleepy young woman who’s doing the head-to-shoulder dance again. Over and over. You yourself worry she might fall out of her seat, but note another woman to her left, who sits erect. If need be, she will help.
And then, the judge notes the time, and announces a break, and “All rise”, and “Please clear the courtroom.”
And out you go, into the hallway, where you talk to Barry, who thanks you for attending, and more and more. What’s said in the hallway, stays in the hallway. But what’s said outside to the reporters with cameras will appear on the news later that night.
The break ends, and you elect to change sides. You sit with the group, to the left of Calvin, who continues to hold his talking stick upright. You notice the inlaid green and red pendants, and a small carved scorpion beneath. Ask Calvin if he made it himself; he didn’t. You breathe and with each subsequent breath are taken back in time to campfire summers. Camping with family, beachside, in provincial forests, firewood provided, free. “You smell nice,” you say. “Did you have a fire last night?” “Every night,” he answers.
The sheriff is watching you closely now, too. You ask Calvin if it’s ok to take a picture of his stick, and “sure,” he says. You know it’s illegal, but court’s not in session yet, so why not. You raise your iphone, focus, and click. In a heart’s beat time, the sheriff from the back of the room is standing behind you, pointing. “No phones allowed,” he says. “Sorry,” you mutter, and pocket your iphone.
Across the room, the reporter is busy on her iphone. Not surreptitiously, in full view. “I knew that,” you whisper to Calvin, and he smiles. Nods. Turns to the front where the judge is walking again, and “All Rise” and you do, and then sit.
Let’s say the female sheriff’s name is Barb, short for Barbara. Barb’s eyes are fixed forward briefly, then dodge between the sheriff opposite her and your group. Repeatedly, she catches your eye, and you move closer to Calvin, sit shoulder to shoulder. You want her to know “I’m with them, so, back off. They’re not doing anything wrong.”
The sheriff’s gaze turns downward. She has removed all her rings from both hands, and placed them on the table. She has applied lotion to her hands, and is rubbing her palms together, then tents her fingers and rubs and rubs for a long, long time. Then replaces the rings, one at a time, and begins to clean her fingernails with a fingernail from opposite hand. You watch in amazement, eyes drawn to her gun. What is her training? Would she pull the trigger on you if you leaned forward and she assumed you were about to steal her gun? Would she shoot one of the group if she felt threatened in any way. Say, if she thought they would try to sneak one of her rings off the table while she was looking the other way, catching the eye of one of the other two sheriffs, comparing impressions?
Ahead of you, sleepy girl is more alert, and Harvey, too, seems more attentive, and the big guy to Barry’s right, sips from a stainless steel thermos. And coughs loudly. Sighs. Rises, exits, returns, several times.
You strain to hear Abbotsford’s lawyer. He doesn’t speak into the mic before him, and, as earlier, he’s talking at rapid-fire speed. As if to ensure he utters every last word he came here to speak. More about Barry, many photos of the camp, and repeated definitions of the word “homeless” and doing the math, claiming the number of beds for the homeless exceed the actual numbers of homeless. “People say, but if you evict them, where will they go? If the injunction is granted, a number of social service providers will be on site to offer them shelter. So no one will have no where to go.”
And with that, he sits down, and there is a collective output of breath. Exasperation. The lawyer’s math was at odds with your own, and though no one else said a word, with theirs as well, as the beds he added up are second stage beds, which means exactly that: second stage, not emergency, and one facility is for youth only, which none of the Jubilee Park campers are either.
Fifteen minutes till noon, says the judge. “Shall we break early?” he asks of the Pivot Legal Society team.
“No, your Honor. We prefer to continue until noon,” is the reply.
The male team member rises, and requests that the city’s application for an injunction be dismissed on the grounds of…. He’s no nonsense, articulate, though slower in speech. And with more tonal shifts. Also, he obviously doesn’t attend the same hair salon as the Abbotsford’s lawyer who spoke for almost the entire morning.
Then DJ Larkin rises. She is short, shorter than you. Her hair short, too, but dark, naturally dark. She’s in a black suit. Size four? Looks prim. Proper. Formidable.
She takes her time, shuffles her papers. Talks slowly. Poses a question. “Who are Jane and John Doe, Your Honor? Let me introduce you to them.
And then she tells the story of four persons, two of whom sit in the front row: Faye, the sleepy one; and Harvey, the sad-eyed. And two who aren’t present: Dale and Nick. She uses first AND last names. Faye has an addiction. Is homeless. Has nowhere to sleep at night; has been told to move on countless times by the police. Can’t sleep, either, as she’s afraid for her safety, that is, until she joined the group at Jubilee Park which she says is her family now. Before she was fighting alone, now she’s connected; she feels safe…”
Harvey, who has the same last name as Santa, owns a cat he rescued and cares for after its previous owner abused it and broke its back. He single-parented five children, moved to BC, receives no government assistance since 2006…lived alone in Grant Park where someone tried to burn down his tent while he was inside… feels safer in Jubilee Park.
The sheriff is looking at the group. She is shaking her head. She is looking and looking at Faye, at Harvey, as the lawyer tells the stories of two others, not present.
Dale, who has a serious addiction, who’s been in and out of recovery after many bad things happened in his earlier life. Dale was living under the “Happy Tree” when the city spread manure on that site. He remembers the smell. He lost most of his belongings during that time
….and Nick, who saves lives, by always having an extra tent for those who don’t have one, and who was living across from the Salvation Army when the city spread manure on that camp. Nick helped people get out, and helped some get their belongings. Nick tried to help Dallas, who spent time in the Salvation Army, then was kicked out, and came across the street to join that camp. Then Dallas walked away, down the railway tracks, and committed suicide. He was 19 years old.
DJ Larkin the petite, formidable-appearing lawyer stopped talking. Not because it’s all she had to say, but because she was moved, again, to tears, by the stories she told, stories she herself had gathered from the people whose stories she told the judge and the courtroom.
In the silence, another sound. Subdued sounds of sobbing. Barry. Then another: Faye, though quieter. Then, Harvey, too, wiped his eyes. Calvin leaned forward and put one arm around Faye, and laid the other across the shoulders of Harvey and Barry. From somewhere a box of Kleenex appeared, and was passed around.
You watch, your own heart feeling like Velcro coming apart.
Tears don’t fill your eyes. Not today. This wasn’t your friend who died. It’s not your grief. You are here to be with, and to bear witness. Which you do. Astonished by what you see: the sheriff is crying. The woman with pinched face, is wiping her face, and looking, still looking at the group. Her blurred eyes seeing more clearly now past what the dry eyes couldn’t see. Persons. Persons with names. With stories. Not generic –unique as a finger’s print. Persons who have formed a community of survival and care.
The judge declares a lunch break, announces the time to return, and all rise as he leaves.
DJ Larkin, the teary-eyed lawyer walks a direct line to the group, and hugs each one in the front row. Someone offers her a Kleenex. Others thank her.
In the hallway she apologizes for not being able to join the group for lunch, “but I have work to do,” she says, pointing at her briefcase. “But Grace and Jeff will take you out for lunch. You decide where you’d like to eat.”
And with that, after she and the group have talked to reporters outside, it’s lunchtime at the Spaghetti Factory, two blocks down the road. (see previous post)
In the afternoon, the Sheriff continues to glance at the group, but her expression is no longer of disdain and frustration. It is soft; it is kind; it says, “I care.” And when the group’s eyes fill with tears again at something that their lawyer says, hers do too.
One thing’s for certain, if the Sheriff’s first name is Barb, her last name isn’t Ratched.
Court resumes at 9:15, Friday December 20, at which time the Judge will hand down his decision. Whatever it is, the city of Abbotsford has lost.
Elsiewhere, In Abbotsford can be found everyday on her on Facebook page.
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