Why do we create space for the privileged while denying it to our most vulnerable?6 min read
An ally walks his talk
by Julie Lambert
Recently Eugene held its grand opening of the much-celebrated Riverfront Park, which is connecting the riverfront to the downtown area. Samuel Yergler saw this as an opportunity to protest what he sees as inhumane treatment of our unhoused via the sweeps that are ongoing, while investing literally thousands of dollars for an upscale area for people that already have money. Recently he came to the studio, and, we’ll let him tell his story.
[00:00:41] Samuel: My name is Sam. Sometimes I go by Yergs. Yeah, I guess I’m an activist. I more identify as an anarchist, but I still dabble in that realm of things, pointing out hypocrisy to power and whatnot. That’s just something that I do for my own health, keep me sane. Been living here for about five years now.
[00:01:00] And, I also go to First Mennonite Church, which is a great church for people who are upset with houselessness, want to do something about it. That’s why I go there.
[00:01:10] Julie: I wanted to ask you: Why do you do what you do? What drives your passion, for example, the point of going to Riverfront. So, what makes you so passionate that you feel you have to take action?
[00:01:25] Samuel: You know, I don’t know. It’s something that I got into at a young age. I was brought up evangelical Christian and conservative and whatnot. And when I got out of my little bubble that I lived in, in Illinois, I grew up in Illinois and I grew up in a town of 800 and it’s just so insulated from the rest of the world.
[00:01:47] But I did a 180-degree flip on what I believed about politics and justice. So I guess it’s my faith that kind of has propelled me into this realm of activism and speaking up for those who don’t have as prominent a voice. So, yeah. I guess that’s the main reason. I also, when politicians sweat, it makes me happy.
[00:02:15] Julie: Well, yes, you confronted (Councilor Alan Zelenka) directly at the Riverfront. What made you do that?
[00:02:20] Samuel: Oh, well that was, that was the man who was putting hands on me. I didn’t appreciate that. I actually didn’t know that; I actually didn’t know that he was a council member when that was all going on.
[00:02:32] I was there mainly to address the people who I see as most responsible for sweeps in our community, Sarah Medary the city manager and the mayor, and also the parks and open spaces director. I think his name’s Craig, but those three people play a huge part in when there’s a sweep, how it’s conducted, you know, what, who they’re targeting and people have been pointing that out for a long time.
[00:02:59] And I know that many of your listeners have written letters or advocated for these politicians to change course, and it really has not gotten us anywhere. And I think that there’s a lot of people that are in the same boat. And I think that actually the majority of housed people in this community don’t want to see those things happen, but they’re not the ones who are in power and we can make recommendations to those people who do make those decisions. but it seems that they just ignore us.
[00:03:29] Julie: What I have found that worked for me is that I had to get involved—civically, politically— and find out, well, who’s making these decisions and how are they being made? And can I possibly influence them. So I feel as if your complaint won’t fall on deaf ears, especially with the publicity surrounding it.
[00:03:50] Samuel: That’s something that kind of that might, I kind of stand out in my peer group in that I will go to jail. And honestly, during this, when I was preparing for this action, I was not thinking that I would be arrested but they did arrest me. And so now I’m wrapped up in this legal battle to stand up for my First Amendment rights.
[00:04:14] Julie: You’re taking a stance against the sweeps.
[00:04:17] Samuel: They arrested me and they gave me a 30-day park ban, and so now I’m in the process of appealing that ban. It’s something that many houseless people are very familiar with, but it’s really just a kangaroo court. You can appeal your park ban to the Parks Department—Parks and Open Spaces.
[00:04:38] And the director of Parks and Open Spaces is the judge, and he decides whether or not the appeal is valid or not, and of course, in my case, he dismissed my case, and so now I have to go to the Municipal Court to appeal his decision. But these are the hoops that they make houseless people jump through and many houseless people don’t want to jump through the hoops.
[00:05:03] So they just accept the fact that they’re banned and they go somewhere else. And so I’m trying to put the city to task as far as, ‘You will go through the process that you outlined in your rules and and I’m going to make you do that. ‘
So I have two parts to my case: I have the park ban (which I’m appealing) and then I have the criminal case or charges, I guess. And so I’m hoping that I can get some legal help with that kind of stuff, and my case, or my side is that basically I was arrested for exercising my First Amendment right to free speech. They were, I was not threatening anybody.
[00:05:47] I was not, I was never asked by EPD to lower my voice. I was never asked by EPD to vacate the area. They just arrested me and so that should be a clear-cut case of violating my First Amendment rights.
[00:06:02] Julie: The way that you’ve laid it out, especially the comparison with what our unhoused folks have to do, you’re actually walking through the whole process, because you can, and you want to get to the point where, like you said, ‘Let’s apply the rules as you’ve set them up.’
[00:06:18] Samuel: Yeah, I guess I would say, all these tactics that we’ve, that us as a community, have been trying and we’ve been calling representatives, trying to make appointments.
[00:06:32] There was even a group who camped outside of the city manager’s office last summer. And we’ve never been able to get their attention. And my conclusion really is that they don’t care what we have to say. What they do care about is money. They care about money. They care about power. They want to be reelected and they care about optics.
[00:06:56] And those are the three things where we as a community need to push on them, because these sweeps will not end until their interests are threatened. And there’s been some actions in, there was an action in, I think it was Santa Cruz, and these are the types of actions that we need to bring to Eugene. So I would ask your listeners to consider those things, because they’re not going to do anything unless they’re threatened with losing their power, losing their money, or losing the optics game.
[00:07:36] Julie: Well, thank you for sharing your perspective with us today. We appreciate it.
[00:07:41] Samuel: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me. Yeah.
[00:07:44] Julie: We’d like to follow up on your case. So if we could, stay in touch. Yeah. So, and so thank you for joining us today.
[00:07:52] Samuel: Thank you, Julie.
[00:07:53] Julie: This is Julie Lambert for KEPW 97.3 FM Eugene’s Resistance Radio.