I couldn't wait to see how a group of homeless people would handle a protest. The concept seemed fascinating to me. It's been done before-San Francisco comes to mind. But how would it go in San Diego, which has not been known for its organized movement of homeless people demanding better treatment. Homeless advocacy has traditionally been quiet here, largely handled by rather polite religious groups.
I had high hopes the times they were a-changin' when I heard that a group of homeless people were planning a protest against their displacement from East Village in favor of ballpark-driven urban renewal. The plan, apparently, was to march from the trolley station at 12th and Imperial to the ballpark, just as fans were streaming in for the Padres first game in their new stadium.
Armed with my camera and my notebook, I made my way to East Village to cover the rally. But it was not be. Police officers at the ballpark told me the homeless protest was a nonstarter. I suppose organizing a meaningful action is tricky business when your headquarters is a sleeping bag and a shopping cart on the sidewalk.
Nonetheless, when you're in San Diego, you're never far from a protest of some kind. So I made do with a small rally for affordable housing, attended by social-justice groups such as ACORN and the Ocean Beach Grassroots Organization. It was an odd sight: a few dozen people, mostly Latino, across the street from the ballpark hubbub, stationed behind yellow "DO NOT CROSS" police tape. They held signs and chanted slogans, but their chants, though audible, were unintelligible to the baseball fans in the distance.
Eventually, they dared to breach the tape for a march around the stadium. As they circled the park, they got up close and personal with their target audience, most of whom ignored the protesters, but some became momentarily engaged, yelling things like, "Get a job!"- which was the most common retort. One young man was absolutely giddy in hopes that the marchers would unwittingly step in a pile of poop left behind by a cop-mounted horse.
I heard no encouragement for the marchers from anyone in the crowd.
When the rally returned to its post behind the yellow tape, one of the younger protesters, Stephanie Romero, hollered herself hoarse leading the chants-you know, "What do we want?" and "When do we want it?"-that sort of thing.
I went across the street to see how the message was being received and found that it wasn't. Curious people strained to read the signs, unable to hear the chants. "What do they want?" asked one guy. Either he or someone else in his group then said, "Retards."
What is it that makes people so upset by protesters, or so utterly dismissive of them? Why is "Get a job!" the immediate reaction to a call for more affordable housing? Would creation of more low-cost housing not be a positive development? Are there people who believe skyrocketing housing costs is the path to a healthier society? The way many people-all men, by the way-reacted to the march, you'd think the protesters were chanting, "Up with Communism!" or "Down with the American way!"
Perhaps the protesters, in hindsight, are wondering if a sporting event was the best forum for the rally. One friend of mine theorized that the protesters were, in effect, pissing on the parade. This was the first game at the shiny new ballpark. Barry Bonds was there, one homerun away from tying Willie Mays. Jimmy Carter was limbering up for his ceremonial first pitch. Local boy Jason Mraz was warming up his voice, preparing to sing the National Anthem, and the song doesn't end with "the land of the free and the affordable home of the brave," thank you very much.
No, it probably wasn't the right time and place.
However, it is, generally speaking, the American thing to do. My guess is that the same people urging the marchers to find themselves jobs-which, by the way, they probably have-are the same sort of people who are strongly in favor of democratizing Iraq, so that Iraqis can go out in the streets and rally for affordable housing, or an end to torture, or whatever they choose to hoot and holler about. Meanwhile, they get their panties in a bunch when Americans are doing the protesting.
This country continues to amaze me.