Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general and prime minister, earned the nickname “The Bulldozer” for his general unstoppability and for his use of the earth-moving tractor as a weapon of war and of peace.
Now making a bid to take over the “Bulldozer” moniker from Sharon, who died in 2014, is the mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu. Wu dispatched front-loaders and excavators earlier this month to clear a homeless encampment that has come to symbolize urban disorder.
When Wu was elected mayor of Boston at age 36 in November, The New York Times wrote about “her plan to make the city into a laboratory for progressive policy, the kind she studied under her mentor Senator Elizabeth Warren.”
A few months later, Wu was sending heavy equipment out on a cold morning to dispose of tents and any belongings left inside. It conveyed an unmistakable first impression that she would confront urban squalor not only with compassion but with steel.
It was a compelling image but also a telling one about the state of contemporary urban politics. With Republicans such a small minority in many cities that they are barely relevant, it’s fallen to liberal Democrats to defend urban public spaces.
It’s not just Wu.
In Washington, D.C. in October, Mayor Muriel Bowser — another woman Democrat and person of color — sent in heavy equipment to clear a homeless encampment in the nation’s capital. The city’s deputy mayor for health and human services, Wayne Turnage, conceded that “unfortunately,” a city worker operating a piece of heavy equipment had cleared a tent while a live human being was still inside.
In December, then-Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan — another Democratic woman — sent garbage trucks and workers wielding rakes and pitchforks in in to clear a homeless encampment in Ballard Commons park.
In Asheville, N.C., another Democratic woman mayor, Esther Manheimer, reportedly dealt with a homeless encampment in Pritchard Park in part by sending in a city excavator “to scrape the ground, loading the remains of the camp into a dump truck,” the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.
If white male Republican mayors were the ones sending in Bobcats, skid-steer-loaders, garbage trucks and bulldozers to roust unhoused persons, you’d never hear the end of it. Even if this were happening during a Republican presidency, there’d be complaints about how it was a sign of rising cruelty and hard-hearted indifference to the plight of the poor.
Some such complaints are now being voiced. In Boston, WBUR quoted the executive director of the nonprofit Material Aid and Advocacy Program, Cassie Hurd, faulting the city for the police presence during the clearing-out operation.
“There was no need to create this sort of crisis that's traumatizing for people and coerce people into shelter,” she said.
In Washington, D.C., a statement from The Way Home DC, a coalition of advocacy and social service organizations, said, “Laws and administrative practices criminalizing homelessness and poverty such as the ban on camping in public spaces must be repealed. Until that happens, DC must halt enforcement of these unjust laws.”
The statement continued, “The forced dispersal of encampments will destroy communities, criminalize homelessness, and push people into different encampments or other hard to locate places, making it difficult to connect them with services.”
Such objections, however, aren’t getting much traction. Perhaps that is a matter of partisanship. Perhaps, though, people acknowledge the underlying reality.
Nationwide, even liberals are realizing that there’s nothing particularly compassionate or humane or progressive about allowing parks, sidewalks, parking lots or schoolyards to be colonized by people who in many cases are suffering from substance abuse or other health issues.
Such encampments are terrible for the neighbors, who in many cases are middle-class business owners, residents or even nonprofits. At one point a Boston food bank executive was heard on public radio complaining that the homeless encampment at Massachusetts Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard was making it difficult for volunteers and workers to access the warehouse used to distribute food to the city’s hungry.
Such encampments are also terrible for the people living in them. It’s hard to get out of poverty or into better health if you live in a tent with no mail, electricity or plumbing.
In most cases the mayors have preceded the bulldozers with outreach and offers of housing. In Boston, Wu has emphasized that her effort will be long-term, not merely a one-day video hit.
As Ariel Sharon understood, it is easier to get things done once you have a reputation as a bulldozer — or for being willing to use one, if that is the tool the situation demands.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of "JFK, Conservative." Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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