I dream of home-place futures: Echo Park Rise Up in Yaanga

Just weeks ago, a community of our unhoused friends that have made Echo Park Lake their home were forcibly removed from the park by hundreds of police in riot gear, their structures and belongings dismantled and disposed of, the bounds of the park fenced off, some residents bused off to temporary shelters, most scattered across the neighborhood to set up beside freeways, on surface streets. The Commons remain enclosed since with no known date of its reopening.  

Now, you may have an immediate image in your mind for what a “homeless encampment” looks like. If you do not, take a second to establish a picture – is it something like clutter, garbage, draping tarps, tents, a collage of weathered textures, castaway furniture, misshapen forms tethered to light poles, fences? Are there people in your image? What do they look like? Upon encounter, do you look away? Or, do your eyes stay present for something else to emerge? Do you think of this as home?

I spend as much time as I can in nature. For me this can mean that I take a drive up a mountain road into our San Gabriels to be planted deep in the folds of the forest but more often it means I remain near my place of residence and spend time paying attention to the natural world that persists around me despite a noisy suburban-urban sprawl, concrete, built density, and my too-busy mode of living. Within the latter sojourn, “going into nature” does away with a perceived separation between myself and “nature” and it is simply a conscious shift in how I am looking at what is around me, giving the life inside of common spaces enough time to be revealed. When submerged in this way of looking into the land with enough time to return to myself, my eyes are fluidly tracing over textures, forms, details, always bouncing, sight line in direct connection with my sense of smell, temperature, sound, my intuition is activated and conjures the good sense to know when not only am I not alone but that the land is in fact looking back at me. This is a vulnerable form of encounter that renders you open and prepared to invite a slow revelation of the movement of life and that life into a moment with you. “Going to nature” becomes paying attention to life. This communion with place and all contained therein is the spirit through which I ask you to return again to that image of a “homeless encampment” and try to think of this as home.

Around November of 2019 the collection of tents began to grow at the lake sparking heated conflict between nearby housed residents, community organizations advocating for adequate services and housing, law enforcement, and elected officials. I won’t unpack the complexity of that specific landscape in this address but instead would like to circumvent with you the tangle of political positions among those that are invested however not unhoused in favor of paying attention to life and this “home-place as a site of resistance” authored by people experiencing firsthand what it is to seek refuge— to become refugee in the context of the machinations of caste, racial capitalism, and the settler-colonial project.

Do not mistake this prompt for an exploration or development of your own empathic abilities or even a demonstration of my own. (Empathy is nice but not something to hold our breath for as we work toward abolition.) As well, try to avoid if you can the urge to imagine the members of this community in the park as metaphorical forms. People, no matter their social location are not metaphors at the service of a story fixed on the consciousness of its reader. Counter to these typical modes of thought that are drawn out when folks are asked to consider “homelessness.” In this case we are clearing space to center the visionary intelligence of this community and the authority and expertise embedded in their work as architects of freedom. And in the context of our discussion, they are the futurist planners that generously gave us a material example for what is possible, the physical manifestations of which the state has destroyed but that continue to live among the folks that recognize life, its value, and the ways that it showed up in this non-traditional homeplace (if you were paying the right kind of attention).  

Echo Park Rise-Up, as it was named by the community, took what was a scattering of tents in a public park and transformed it into a complex community focused on meeting the immediate needs of all park residents. In practical terms, this included a shower and water distribution system (when shower services and clean water access were halted by the city), a community kitchen and food bank (when the Covid-19 Stay At Home Order shuttered food sources serving unhoused folks across the city), and a supply tent where people accessed clothing, first aid, and shelter supplies. Each of these services were cared for by community members some of which were even paid an hourly wage for their labor through a community jobs programs funded through donations. Binding this practical infrastructure together was a micro social system built on values of radical inclusion and harm reduction, emphasis on collective well-being and a commitment that any person, no matter the circumstance that brought them there, would receive support from the community. This was the establishment of a homeplace for many and provided a sense of safety, access to care, and a meaningful connection to friendship and community— within a city that is systemically violent toward people experiencing homelessness and a social service system that reflects that violence through its deep dependence on carceral tactics for service provision. These stars aligned to compose the beating heart of this homeplace: an unwavering declaration of self-determination, inherent value, and an embodied model how we all might all one day build homeplace together.

“…resistance, at root, must mean more than resistance against war. It is a resistance against all kinds of things that are like war… So perhaps, resistance means opposition to being invaded, occupied, assaulted and destroyed by the system. The purpose of resistance, here, is to seek the healing of yourself in order to be able to see clearly… I think that communities of resistance should be places where people can return to themselves more easily, where the conditions are such that they can heal themselves and recover their wholeness.” Thich Nhat Hahn as quoted by bell hooks, “Homeplace (a site of resistance)”

We can certainly think about Echo Park Rise Up as a community of resistance as it was formed and alive in this moment, steeped in opposition to its being and thriving nonetheless. However, I think it also points us toward a place just beyond our time. Currently resistance to oppression and harm is the most urgent of calls and the energies to believe beyond resistant relationship to power feel eclipse by the magnitude of systemic inequity. If we choose to walk through the door that this community pushed open and elect to pay attention to the life created within we can actually view glimpses of a reality in which a community such as this no longer needs a force to resist in order to exist but that survives on the principle need that all beings can access places where they “can return to themselves more easily, where the conditions are such that they can heal themselves and recover their wholeness;” places that say: If you have arrived here, you belong here.

It became clear in the days prior that a terrifying show of force by the LAPD would occur at Echo Park Lake. Community organizations, friends, neighbors rallied around the Lake residents in solidarity. Leaders from within Echo Park Rise Up offered moment by moment accounts of the pending sweep and each stage of displacement throughout the entire act. Through all of this, I could not avoid connecting this moment to other examples of community displacement that have occurred just miles from the park, namely, The Battle of Chavez Ravine (1950-1961) that drove predominantly  Latinx families off of their land to make room for Dodgers Stadium and in 1847 when the Los Angeles City Council voted to raze the Tongva village of Yaanga, located in present day Downtown Los Angeles, dispersing Indigenous residents to Calle de los Negros (“place of the dark ones”). What played out in Echo Park was not an unfortunate flaw in a system but in fact only the latest episode of what is a closely held a tradition within the settler-colonial story and the establishment of racial capitalism of violently destroying the creation of “homeplace” by a minoritized class and banishing its residents into both literal and figurative margins, rendering them disappeared through a social death, unable to mar the fantastical image of a so-called victorious colonial settlement.

What was most dangerous to the 19th century LA City Council when they voted to disappear Yaanga is in many ways what frightens the present day electeds and landowning class: that a community can create homeplace atop a set of values that are existentially counter to the survival of white supremacist capitalism. Echo Park Rise Up modeled for us how the principles that inform the activity of abolition then form the community that will sustain life beyond the caste, beyond the settler-colonial imaginary. And when we pull the thread from Yaanga to Echo Park and care for the heart of these communities we know that Homeplace is not only a Place but a set of relationships that safeguard, facilitate, and honor collective life through mutuality, reciprocity, and restorative systems and that this will be what outlives the caste.

Making Abolitionist Home-Place: A return to themselves

Witnessing and experiencing violence, either directly or vicariously, and in the frequency that we do has an enormous impact on our ability to imagine futures. During these past weeks I have been cradled in grief as I watched the displacement of community at Echo Park and its subsequent aftershocks. This has been laid alongside the beginnings of the murder trial of the officer that robbed Mr. George Floyd of his life on the lands of his community, the streets where family, friends, and neighbors knew him and held him.

In an effort to grasp my own faith in what we are building amidst the fragility of this moment, I took to the healing activity of charting a course making an aspirational map of a recovered Yaanga beside a recovered Chavez Ravine, beside a recovered Echo Village. In this world we look forward to, all that was created within these homeplaces is restored and allowed to grow further.  Through drawing a tender hand is outstretched to recognize, renew, and give thanks. In this place the freeways and major roads have been replaced with waterways, connected to a de-concretized living LA River, set against a micro-view of our beloved native plant communities, and in a gentle way perhaps this map can guide us there, inviting Los Angeles to return to “nature,” to herself, to Tovaangar, to Yaanga, to Chavez Ravine, to Echo Park Rise Up, and us to return to ourselves where we welcome everyone with…

‘Aweeshkone xaa, ‘ekwaa’a xaa. – Ah-wesh-coe-nae-ha, ay-qua-ah-ha

‘Aweeshkone xaa, ‘ekwaa’a xaa. – Ah-wesh-coe-nae-ha, ay-qua-ah-ha

‘Aweeshkone xaa, ‘ekwaa’a xaa. – Ah-wesh-coe-nae-ha, ay-qua-ah-ha

My settler tongue stumbles through these words carefully.

‘Aweeshkone xaa, ‘ekwaa’a xaa. – Ah-wesh-coe-nae-ha, ay-qua-ah-ha

I’m happy you’re here.