Richmond Tent City

23 Nov

This is a section in my upcoming book, The South is Still Rising. If it doesn’t totally make sense out of context it is because they are parter of a much larger piece about activism and anarchism in Richmond.

But I figured, given the current situation in Monroe Park, and the campaign to keep it open throughout renovations, it might be good to get the information out, and show people that the park has been occupied before.

Tent City

One of the bigger events organized by the General Strike Collective was a Tent City in Monroe Park in 1998. “It was in the late spring of ‘98 that the collective decided unanimously to propagandize and organize a four day takeover of Monroe Park in the form of a tent city aimed at exposing VCU’s ongoing meddling in the homeless community and rapidly increasing gentrification of the Carver Community just North of the main artery of the campus” (Wells 89). Tactics the group used in organizing involved planning sessions, alliance building, fliering campaigns, and street work.  The entire summer gave the group time to organize and strategize.
The event was scheduled to start Friday August 28 at noon, and continue through until Monday morning, August 31 (DOC T). This event was radical, noteworthy, and combines many of the subjects which activists in Richmond have organized around. It shows the potential scope of radical activism in Richmond, and it also shows some of the potential pitfalls of such activism.
A Tent City is “where any large group of individuals gather in a single location and utilize it as a temporary living quarter in protest of an oppressive entity”(DOC T). Described by General Strike, the Tent City in this instance was “a non-violent, direct action approach to exposing injustice in this society” (General Strike Oct./Nov. 1998). Tent cities have occurred around the world. They are in some ways associated with the homeless in general. Some of them are more political in purpose, where as others are more survival based- people form tent cities because they have no where else to go. The Tent City in Richmond was of the more political variety, and less about providing a place for people to live for any significant amount of time.
General Strike advertised about the Tent City in a couple of ways. Word of mouth was important, and they talked to people in the park during Food Not Bombs on Sundays about the plan. A flier advertising the event was created, titled in “Monroe Park Tent City” (DOC T). It also featured a photo of a man in a business suit with a briefcase walking by the words “Smash Capitalism” spray painted on a wall. The content of the flier, including the image, show the political leanings of the event, and reveal the radicalism behind it. “Why does this concern you? It is quite simple really. It is the age-old theory of not waiting until the problem is upon your door and there is no one left to fight for youཀ V.C.U.’s ongoing development and gentrification has affected thousands of Richmond’s citizens and it is just a matter of time before you are all that is left…” ( DOC T).


The groups involved in organizing the tent city were General Strike and ASWAN. Individuals involved included homeless, students, activists, and ‘concerned citizens’ (General Strike Oct./Nov. 1998). The established networks with the homeless community, students, and other activists were crucial to the success of the event.
The reason they chose the weekend that they did was to create a lot of visibility; that weekend was when many of the VCU students were moving back onto campus. That time period is typically a time when the University wants the area to look super nice and welcoming to the students and their parents. What this means a lot of the time is that attempts are made to ‘clean up’ the area, i.e. make the homeless less visible. According to the October/November 1998 edition of the General Strike newsletter, “Many in the homeless community refer to this time as sweep season, because some are arrested and many others are forced out of the area”. Monroe Park has become surrounded by buildings connected with the VCU campus. On two sides of the park there are student dormitories. This means that when parents are helping their children move into their new homes they are right across the street from Monroe Park. Being a park that on a typical day has some amount of homeless people hanging out on benches, or laying in the grass, the proximity of the park to the college is seen by some as problematic. People who associate the homeless with crimes, anything from theft to violent acts are unsettled by the homeless in the park. Even on a normal day a Tent City in this highly visible park, which violates the city rules about being in the park after dark, is a strong statement. On the weekend when freshmen move into VCU the statement is even louder and stronger.
Aside from addressing general issues of poverty and homelessness, the Tent City was intended to address some of the larger issues surrounding the presence of VCU within the larger community. Their perspective was that, “[h]ere in Richmond, for the last 30 years, VCU has been steadily developing its campus at the expense of the city’s poorest citizens” (DOC T). VCU was rapidly expanding in the 1990’s, which meant it began to take up space in neighborhoods and communities in the area. Some of this expansion into other communities was the side effect of the university’s presence, including for example the college students who started to live in the traditionally white working class neighborhood of Oregon Hill.  The neighborhood, and some of the reasons why organizing a united group against the VCU led gentrification was difficult is described by Greg Wells, “[Oregon Hill] was, and to a degree still is, a very working class neighborhood and people focus their energies and efforts on that impacts them directly.  To get them to care about when VCU is going to Carver–they don’t give a shit that’s not our neighborhood thats Carver. And not only that–to be honest–those are black people over there, we don’t give a shit about what VCU does to them” (Greg Wells Interview). Once again, race is an issue that affects radical activism in Richmond. Students also began to live in the Jackson Ward and Carver neighborhoods. Carver was where freed slaves started a community, and Jackson Ward is historically a black working class neighborhood.  The reason the influx of students into these areas can (present tense, this pattern continues today) be seen as an issue is because students, or their parents, can often afford to pay a higher rent than the people who had been living in the neighborhood were paying or can afford to pay. Once the landlords realize that their piece of real estate is more valuable than they thought they are able to raise rents, making affordable housing unavailable for members of that community, which leaves it available for students. General Strike characterized landlords in this situation as “money-hungry” (Oct./Nov. 1998). So there are some class issues about certain people being able to afford certain neighborhoods, and there are also race issues about largely white students moving into historically black areas.
The term for the process General Strike was drawing attention to through their tent city is gentrification. The definition of gentrification here should not be taken as the end all be all of what it means,  but rather is a simplified version to suit the purposes of this text. There are many resources available on the process of gentrification and the impacts it has on communities. Gentrification is broadly, according to the 1980 Oxford American Dictionary,… the “movement of middle class families into urban areas causing property values to increase and having [the] secondary effect of driving out poorer families” (Schaffer 347). This definition, and many other definitions of the process are not complete.  However, the key ideas here are that urban areas, which were abandoned by many middle class (and thus, largely white) people during the era of suburbanization (and public school integration), become desirable to these demographics again. Through migrating back into this once impoverished zones, the middle class people make it financially difficult for the previous residents to remain living in those areas. Students, with the backing of their middle class parents, were able to afford housing at prices that the previous inhabitants could not afford.
Gentrification can be seen as involving “both a change in the social composition of an area and its residents, and a change in the nature of the housing stock (tenure, price, condition etc.) and an adequate explanation of gentrification will have to cover both aspects of the process; the housing and the residents” (Hamnett 176). Gentrification can not be understood based on one signifier or characteristic. Gentrification is a multifaceted process that is not necessarily linked to the traditional economic characteristics associated with the process. Understanding gentrification requires an understanding of the many causes and symptoms of the process that might appear within an urban setting. Gentrification occurs in very place specific ways, and can not be described as occurring in one particular order or method. Particular characteristics of a certain town, including the history, demographics, institutions, and economy all come to play in terms of how gentrification occurs. Unless the assets and weaknesses of an area are scrutinized, the process of gentrification will remain inexplicable. Economics is not the only reason that gentrification occurs. There are cultural and political reasons for it as well. To argue that gentrification is ending simply because the real estate market is not as booming as it once was does not encompass the entirety of how gentrification works. Ignoring the other factors that cause gentrification can make it easy to ignore the process and its effects.
One aspect of the gentrification connected to VCU was the students living in previously working class or poor neighborhoods. Other aspects of the expansion were more formally connected to VCU, such as ‘[t]he building of the Siegel Center, a new parking deck and a Fine Arts building on Broad Street” (General Strike Oct./Nov. 1998). Broad Street is the street that separates the Jackson Ward and Carver neighborhoods from the Fan, Downtown and VCU. The construction of these buildings created a huge mark for VCU into the territory of these neighborhoods, and breached the boundary of Broad Street that had been a geographic barrier between the areas. Since the Tent City, VCU has added student dormitories to that side of Broad Street as well. The buildings that VCU has built on the Carver side of Broad Street loom like giants compared to the 2 and 3 story row houses that constituted the neighborhood previously. Because these hulking structures line Broad street they also visually cut the Carver and Jackson Ward neighborhoods off from the rest of the city. The nature of the facilities VCU has built also has an impact upon these neighborhoods. The Siegel Center serves as an arena for many collegiate and regional sports events. Other events such as graduations for local high school are held there. This draws significant traffic, making parking difficult and crowding the area.
What happened during the Tent City can be figured out through a combination of newspaper stories, primary documents, and interviews. The way that the weekend went was surprising to the organizers and is likely surprising to anyone who thinks that they understand Richmond. What it shows is some of the potential for success of radical and anarchist movements in Richmond, and the power that can be created through radical anti-authoritarian organization.
The tent city highlights the fact that General Strike was in some ways able to organize and work in solidarity with some very fringe groups of people. This ability to cope with people with extreme mental disabilities as well as some just strange people is seen by one organizer as a ‘noble’ aspect of the group:
the tent city was a real challenge cause it was an all night, around the clock thing, for three and a half days. with all the fucking creeps and wack-os. You can’t believe the shit that you know, like fifty and sixty year old men [would do], like try and give massages to high school girls, um trying to get into tents with people, creepy shit. But you know ultimately it’s a true test of like, as anarchists how you deal with people, mental, with often times pretty extreme cases of schizophrenia, and mental disabilities, and by and large we embrace them. I am not saying we embrace that particular strain, but we definitely hung out with a lot of crazy people and took them to events and organized right beside them, and you know and towards the end of General Strike there even like, people like that were working with General Strike, and I’m not saying that it was pleasant you know, major challenge, but then again I think that it was … very noble, that as these young white anarchists we were working with like schizophrenic people, homeless people … Vietnam veterans, African American men, that were …  pretty intense people to be around …?  And that was a real, it was a big thing in my political development, that we had a collective that was that open (Greg Wells Interview).
This account reveals just some of the challenges of the Tent City and solidarity work with the homeless that General Strike faced. These are not the sort of challenges that one immediately thinks about having to face within activism. Being willing and able to work with fringe populations is a sign of the dedication of the group. While some aspects of General Strike and radical and anarchist activism in Richmond may not have fully achieved what they said they wanted in terms of diversity of the movement, it does seem that solidarity work with the homeless was one place where the group exhibited strength in terms of diversity.
One newspaper article which came out in the Richmond Times Dispatch on the Saturday during the protest weekend, seems to reveal a bit of an agenda on the part of the author. Not having been at the park it is difficult to say, but it seems that Mark Holmberg (a long time reporter for the RTD) is trying to make the people at the protest sound crazy. He mentions one homeless man who attributes his homelessness to drug abuse, then mentions one resident of Carver who is worried about the government injecting the poor with a Venereal Disease, and someone with LSD tattooed on their forehead. Perhaps the crowd really was super eccentric. But it does seem like Holmberg’s point of view is highly skeptical. Participants were apparently more excited about the way the event was going, “But by sundown, the protesters were certain they had already made a difference. ‘There’s a lot more awareness, a lot of freshmen coming out here’ to see what’s going on, Arey said” (Holmberg 8/29/1998). People that Holmberg mentions include a member of the Richmond Animal Rights Network, someone from Catholic Worker, VCU students, as well as members of General Strike.
The structure and organization of the Tent City during the weekend is significant and shows the ways that it reflects anarchist or radical organization. The way that the community that was being created during the Tent City would operate was consciously considered. The result of this was that for General Strike, “One of our hopes with the tent city was to engage as many participants as possible in the decision making process regarding tactics, media, demands, and the encampment in general. We wanted to make involvement, particularly in drawing up demands, democratic, inclusive, and equal. We wanted the encampment to make collective decisions and implement them together” (O’Hern in Wells 101). In order to reach these goals the tactic of assemblies was used as the decision making body for the weekend. By having large group discussions about everything from the behavior within the park to the demands for VCU, decision making power was shared. Certainly this made creating demands and policing the park more difficult,
but you know, we thought it was important to try and embrace those people, and work with them as much as possible. Give them a channel or avenue to have a voice you know, to have some say. So much so that when we were in the park, we sort of had general ideas about how things should have gone down. But we had these open meetings, these pow wows, where basically everyone there sat down, and we sort of hashed out how things were going to work, self policing, you know what our demands were, what our concerns were, and everyone had equal voice and equal say, I mean we brought certain skills to the table, you know knowing how to like express those things you know, and you know we definitely probably steered the agenda to a degree… (Greg Wells Interview).

The willingness of General Strike to work with people who typically have their needs and wants completely ignored shows how drastically different the organization was from a church charity. The discussions held in the assemblies were not limited or dumbed down based on preconceived notions of who would be there. The topics discussed included some very complicated and in depth ideas. For example:
The Saturday discussion focused on VCU’s policies and their impact on poor people, such as the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods, effectively displacing the urban poor, intimidation and harassment of homeless persons in the area of the university, and VCU’s policing of Monroe Park. At times the conversation spilled over to other institutions in the city that have consistently pushed forward anti-poor agendas including City Hall, Ethyl Corporation, the Jefferson Hotel, West Avenue Association and others (Wells 101).

The fact that community conversations such as these occurred speaks to the constructive environment within the park. One aspect of having respectful conversations on such topics is that regardless of the outcome of the weekend, in terms of VCU’s reactions, there was still value for people who were able to have their voices heard. The homeless population is largely ignored and rarely listened to. Having a forum in which to talk about some important issues about oppression and the city would have been good for self esteem and empowerment of participants.
The number of people in the park on Saturday night, the second night of the event, according to Sean O’Hern was 100 to 150 (Holmberg 8/31/1998). Because people were fairly certain the police were not going to allow anyone to remain in the park overnight they were more tentative about taking the risk of spending the whole weekend in jail on Friday night. The lack of repression on Friday night bolstered the confidence of folks.
By Sunday August 30th, nearly a dozen tents had been pitched in the park with 50 to 75 people taking part in the protest (Holmberg 8/31/1998). How accurate these numbers are is difficult to calibrate, because official numbers on protests and radical events are typically low.

On Monday, August 31, the end of the Tent City was scheduled to involve a march across VCU’s campus. Mark Holmberg of the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote an article which was published in that day’s newspaper about how the weekend had gone. Holmberg reported that, “One of the protest’s leaders, Shawn O’Hern, 22, a dishwasher and member of a group called the General Strike Collective, said last night he hopes for a meeting today with VCU President Eugune Trani to discuss the plight of the homeless. ‘We want VCU to be more proactive,’ O’Hern said. He said he also wants to discuss VCU’s expansion into the Carver area north of Broad Street” (Holmberg 8/31/1998). Holmberg’s use of the term leader shows to some extent his lack of understanding of the political beliefs of the activists involved. Which, through the newspaper, was presented to the citizens of Richmond. An account from an activist shows that the group made a conscious effort to avoid such misunderstandings:
The first issue we faced was dealing with the droves of media that began swarming the park. They would arrive and inevitably ask to speak to the leader. We dispelled any myths of leadership by having an open invitation for any and all to share their thoughts with the media over the course of the weekend. In some cases this was used  as an attempt to discredit our cohesiveness, but ultimately it empowered a lot of folks in the park to take on a more vocal, proactive role over the next few days, as opposed to passive participation (Wells 90).

There are multiple reasons why this is important from the perspective of analyzing radical social movements. For one, it shows that there was a conscious effort to avoid the hegemony of leadership in the event. Then it shows that the potential negative consequences of this strategy were understood, as the discrediting of the cohesiveness. And finally the tactic or ideology against hegemony and leaders is determined to be overall positive because of the empowerment it lead to.  This is a good place to also bring up the importance of empowerment from an anarchist or radical perspective. Empowerment for empowerment’s sake may not seem like a  significant result or outcome of activism. Fortunately for the sake of this text, one of the activists in Richmond took the time to express quite eloquently the reasoning behind the emphasis on empowerment. This passage shows that what this text terms contemporary radical activism or anarchism is indeed the same sort of idea consciously acknowledged and dealt with by the activists in Richmond:
When someone makes the decision to stand up and fight back it is a beautiful thing, whether on a picket line, hugging a tree, blocking a road, or in this case, setting up camp in Monroe Park. It is about challenging our social relations and taking control of our lives. It is about respect and dignity, understanding and solidarity. As organizers and activists we need to be aware of these issues and their impact. Our actions should reflect what we are trying to create. Not for some distant future but for making it through today and tomorrow. Oppression beats down self-esteem. Alienation and competition isolate us. We are left lost and alone. The work of the revolutionary is to rebuild. Rebuild our communities to reflect our commitment to individual autonomy and initiative, as well as creating a collective process that is egalitarian and inclusive. It follows that the organizations we form must be founded on the basis of equalizing the decision-making process, on voluntary participation and responsibility, on mutual assistance, and on a strong feeling of solidarity. Our actions should not only confront and expose the powers that be, but the process of struggle should aim to empower all those who wish to join in the fight (Wells 99-101).

Some of the key ideas in this selection that are similar to ideas in contemporary radical and anarchist activism in general are working for immediate changes as opposed to ignoring the immediate impacting and only looking long term. This approach is basically saying that it will be difficult to end up creating a better world in the future if activists cannot do things to change themselves and the current situation into something more like what they want.
There were no arrests made during the Tent City. This was a surprise to many, including the organizers and participants. Judging from the quotes of participants in news articles, many were expecting or fearing that arrests would be made. In fact, low participation at the beginning of the weekend was attributed to lack of confidence in not getting arrested. It seems that on the first night the participants were largely people with more privilege, to whom an arrest would be less of a problem. Many homeless people were afraid to participate at first, based on their previous experiences being persecuted for being homeless. This is an example of people with privilege using their privilege to take on tasks that others without the same privileges have a harder time doing. Once they got the ball rolling however, more and more homeless people began to participate.
The culmination of the weekend was not as powerful for General Strike or the homeless community as the weekend itself had been. To most everyone’s surprise VCU agreed to negotiations with the protesters. While this may have at first seemed to be a success for the Tent City, in the end it was much more complicated. Yvonne’s account of the weekend includes her thoughts on this anti-climatic conclusion:
The University made a public relations stint at bargaining with us and we didn’t know how to back them into a corner where they would seriously have to confront our demands. So they publicly wrote us off and made themselves out to be the victims of a reactionary, uninformed, naïve group of youngsters and kooks. Our inefficacy was directly related to our personal politics. Most of us didn’t see liberal reform as progress, so there was a real lack of commitment to developing a strategy for bargaining with the University. We should have confronted this in the beginning, realizing that we didn’t care about bargaining and using the event to create more of a ruckus and confrontation concerned with getting attention and raising uncomfortable questions (Yvonne in Wells 99).

Yvonne’s analysis here is really dead on. Instead of remorsing the group’s lack of interest in liberal reform, Yvonne is pointing out that the group should have steered further away from the liberal reform process. As largely anarchists, trying to create change, their hearts were not in the process of reform. However, in many types of activism, the obvious or accepted patterns lead to an end of reform. Even radical actions, such as a tent city, are seen as concluding with reform. The particular case of the Tent City could be applied to other instances of radical activism in Richmond, where activists not having a clear understanding going into an event of what they were interested in the outcome being lead to less than desirable outcomes. It is easy to become so wrapped up in the organizational efforts of activism that the outcome is forgotten, but this can be detrimental.
The verdict on the Tent City, according to General Strike’s own newsletter was that “the weekend  long protest was a complete success; the park was turned into an autonomous zone with a true sense of community” (Oct./Nov. 1998). In terms of the temporary alteration of the space in Monroe Park from all accounts it does seem like the event was a success. Another way that the success of the Tent City could perhaps be measured is through the relationships and trust between radical activists and the homeless community. This is calibrated by Sean O’Hern, when he says:
we realized that like, through the situations we’ve had with the homeless community before, unless you were really ingrained into the homeless community, and fighting for issues that were important to them, they aren’t going to get arrested with you. There were times during the tent city, that people were, homeless people were voluntarily ready to get arrested with us (Sean O’Hern Interview).

That homeless people were ready to get arrested with activists shows that the activists likely were working on the issues that were actually relevant to the homeless and that they were standing in solidarity with them rather than imposing their point of view on the homeless community.
Despite the positive approach that the newsletter of General Strike held, some members of General Strike, years later, were able to point out some of the ways in which the Tent City could have been improved. This is where ideas of radical activism and what that means and how to set goals and plan things become really important. While the space of the city was successful, the way that the heightened visibility of issues about homelessness, poverty, and VCU were dealt with was not successful.
Tent City showed the determination of the group. There was no precedent of this sort of action or behavior in Richmond. It was organized in close collaboration with homeless and homeless groups such as ASWAN and the Daily Planet. Yvonne says that there could have been more planning or organization for the event, but it was hard to organize with the homeless population because of the transience issue.
One main goal was visibility and they did not think much about what they wanted to accomplish or what their demands were. They had lots of momentum generated by the Tent City and the organizing that went with it, but they did not follow up on it afterwards. They did not necessarily maintain the relationships formed in the Tent City afterwards.

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