D C News 1985
MITCH SNYDER’S BATTLEGROUND
The Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) is a collection of committed idealists, young people in search of direction, and disenfranchised people in search of stability: a moral family laboring like Hercules in the Aegean stables.
Volunteers for the homeless of America, the nucleus of the Community concentrates on devoting their time to embodying the ideals of equality and a better life for humanity.
Mitch Snyder, CCNV’s chief ideasmith, combines the street dweller’s tenacious will to survive with the cunning of a Madison Avenue shark.
A natural leader, Mitch is well-versed in the methods which influence the actions of others through the thoughtful framing of words. He is skillful at combining words and symbolic actions to influence the thoughts of others.
MAN MANIPULATES THE MOMENT WITH AN IDEA
By the careful manipulation of ideas, Mitch became a media personality. Begging for the unfortunates on the lowest rung of the social ladder, Mitch deftly plucked the heartstrings of America’s conscience to burn tiny holes in the apathy which allows poverty to flourish amid prosperity.
Thus far, of course, Mitch has not hit upon the combination which solves the problem of homelessness. However, he has unquestionably succeeded in rubbing a lot of noses in the problem.
The Harvest of Shame: A Pinch of Extortion
During election-mania 1984 CCNV backed Initiative 17, a law proposed to mandate shelter for the homeless, with a five-week series of demonstrations entitled The Harvest of Shame.
Spicing the Harvest of Shame with a pinch of extortion, Mitch headlined a much-publicized 51-day hunger strike by eleven community members, and in the eleventh hour leapt into the limelight of Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign.
To get Mitch out of the limelight I the incumbent capitulated. Mitch withdrew with the next President’s promise of a $5 million “model shelter.”
The site of this great step for mankind was to be the Federal government’s previously donated Old City College building at 425 D Street N.W., which had the utilitarian charm of any abandoned building . . . plus it was crowded with 800 men and women living in inhumane squalor as a stopgap against sleeping in alleys and eating out of garbage cans. .
A Cause Is Born
Francis of Assissi was not always a saint; he had been born a silver-tongued devil in a debased value system. However, he grew older, learned from experience, and changed his behavior to comport with morality. Breaking with the traditions of his father’s fathers made Francis one of God’s elect.
Years ago Mitch Snyder found himself in a Federal prison cell. Involved in the legitimate merchandizing of ideas from New York’s ad land, Mitch was found by a Federal Court also to have been involved in the illegal inter-state merchandizing of motor vehicles.
His punishment was a blessing in disguise. There was Mitch, cruising down the fast lane to hell … suddenly thrown into the slammer with the noted activist, Phil Berrigan.
The two men had traveled similar paths to the same cell. Mitch had run into a problem of a debased value system: sale of people’s automobiles without benefit to the people. Phil had been involved in the competition for people’s souls.
Phil repented. He quit the Catholic priesthood and began crying for peace in the war-torn wilderness of the Sixties, forging justice for the benefit of people. Phil was in jail for decrying the interests of the State, several rungs above Mitch on the ladder of moral understanding.
When Snyder left the Federal penal system it was with a mind fruitfully furrowed by Berrigan’s social plowshare. Berrigan had aided Mitch in his climb to personal repentance. Mitch returned to the city streets with a cause.
No longer would Mitch use other people’s cars for his own pleasure and comfort. Now he would try to convince people to use their cars for the pleasure and comfort of others.
Mitch, a Catholic by birth, found himself living by choice among the D.C. homeless. He remembered Jesus had said, “The poor you shall have with you always.” The problem was, Jesus never left a detailed blueprint for warehousing them. That, Mitch decided, was Mitch’s job: get the lepers out of the snow, and let them eat dumpster fare, at least for the moment.
Mitch Snyder–CCNV’s Director of Energy
Mitch is a very practical man. He understands that, after oxygen, people need food and shelter to sustain life. The energies of the Community are channeled as seems to Mitch most likely to provide food and shelter for those who are not very adept at providing for themselves. As director of CCNV’s- energy, Mitch focuses legal and public attention on the fact that American society allows people to live on the street and to eat out of garbage cans.
No harm in drawing attention to that situation, many of his critics have observed, but there is more to the problem of homelessness than garbage stew and abandoned buildings.
Mitch, however, sees the first step toward re-integrating society’s outcasts is to provide them with an unstructured base from which they may have the opportunity to build for themselves.
Mitch’s focus helped the Community to raise enough donations to provide and improve the quality of stew, won enough lawsuits to raise a roof over the heads of folks who wouldn’t otherwise have one, and raised enough social awareness to extort promises from the government.
The Moment Changes, And So Does The Score
Recovered from the “five million dollar fast,” Mitch set about plans for renovating the model shelter. However, when it came time to do the actual work some six months after the election, the President’s men and women thought a $2.7 million shelter would be model. Mitch’s architects swore it couldn’t be done for less than $7.5 million.
The Administration slammed the negotiations to an early close by scrapping the entire idea, and threatening to pitch Mitch and his 800 wards into the streets.
But Mitch tried to turn the tables by dragging the Health and Human Resources Department into Federal Court. District Court Judge Richey said that the Feds could oust Mitch, but opined that the government really should do something about the poverty-stricken folks who were sheltering at 425 D.
Emerging from the courtroom, the Administration’s attorneys admitted that it was civilized of Judge Richey to express concern for the homeless, but doubted whether his concern carried any legal clout.
So Mitch took the Government straight to the Court of Appeals.
The Appeals Court told the Administration that Judge Richey’s humanitarian musings were indeed weighty . . . to the extent that the government was prevented from booting the shelter’s population out of 425 D until replacement shelter could be found, bed for bed.
D. C. Coalition For The Homeless Steps In
The D.C. Coalition for the Homeless is an organization of politically well-connected, religious do-gooders, professionals dependent upon the existence of the poverty-stricken for their livelihoods, and a couple of individuals genuinely interested in a solution to the problem of people living on the fringe.
The Coalition sees the first step toward re-integrating the outcasts is to structure their environment for them.
Dennis Bothea, one of the politically well-connected Coalition members, was instrumental in spearheading the opposition to CCNV’s Initiative 17. On November 4, 1984 the Initiative passed with 72 per cent of the vote.
On November 16, 1984, Mayor Barry, another master of legal and symbolic action, announced the formation of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Shelter and Support Services. Mr. Bothea was named the $40,000 Chief of that office, and the Mayor laid plans to take CCNV’s Initiative 17 to Court.
A D.C. Superior Court judge invalidated the Initiative, and Mr. Bothea continues to pick up his paycheck, although we have been unable to locate any homeless people favorably impressed with his efforts.
“For too long the Coalition has watched with dismay the cruel and inhumane treatment of these homeless people as political hostages for those seeking to maintain a national reputation.”
With those words the Coalition dove into the wake of Mitch’s ill-fated negotiations over the fate of the “hostages” at 425 D. They proposed a blueprint for humane warehousing that purportedly would take further steps toward rehabilitation, by creating more welfare professionals at an annual pricetag of $11 million.
The Coalition’s proposal reasoned that “had President Reagan not been so eager to intervene in a local situation” (assumedly Snyder’s hunger strike), “these citizens would not be the hostages of political gain” (assumedly Snyder’s).
“Therefore the Coalition calls on all local service providers” (members of the Coalition?), “the District government” (Major’s Office of Emergency Shelter and Support Services?), “and the Federal government” (Department of Health and Human Resources?) to make good the President’s promise . . . to the homeless across the country.”
Pat Makin of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless feels that Mitch has lost sight of reality. Because Mitch devotes so much energy to keeping a crumbling roof over the heads of grumbling residents, Ms. Makin feels he can’t see the solution for the problems.
“Future relief is never reason for not doing what should be done,” Mitch says.
Many residents at 425 D feel that Hollywood should have paid them $150,000 for their stories. But Mitch (CCNV) got the money, they say. They feel as though they are being used as paving material for his path to stardom, and resent his years of hard work, which they view as his good fortune at their expense.
Motives are a matter between the mover and his Creator. Perhaps Mitch, the residents, and the members of the Coalition would all be well advised to examine their motives carefully. All the same, whether Mitch is this, the Coalition is that, or they are both something else, some fans remain:
(1) each night somewhere between 400 and 800 homeless “residents” choose The spend the night at 425 D;
(2) the Coalition, Mitch and the ‘residents” all agree that 425 D is somewhat further from a model shelter than Mercury is from Pluto;
(3) while the Community for Creative Non-Violence may not have created heaven on D Street. they have at least recognized a need to which local service providers have, for too long, fumed a blind eye; and
(4) by poking them in their blind eye, Mitch has managed to get the real culprits to “call upon” themselves to solve the problem which for too long they have watched with too little dismay.
Whenever a moment is manipulated, as certain as the laws of physics that manipulation will have a reaction. Over the course of the years the moments manipulated by Mitch have amounted to hours. Now most of Mitch’s hours are devoted to dealing with those reactions.
Correct or incorrect in respect to his practical solutions to society’s cruel and inhumane treatment of its pariahs, to think that there is a government administrator who does more hands-on dirty work than Mitch, or that the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, the District government, or the Federal government has done as much, on a per capita basis, is delusional.
“The D.C. Coalition isn’t the villain in this tragedy,” according to Snyder. “The government dangles a bloody piece of meat (funds for the homeless) just beyond teach of a pit full of savage beasts (groups for the homeless). The beasts claw one another to shreds fighting for the prize.”
Snyder made those comments a few days before CCNV and the government went back to the Court of Appeals, where the feds pulled a surprise move.
In the courtroom, counsel for the government announced that the administration had reached an agreement with the D.C. Coalition. The government had agreed to give the Coalition $3.7 million, two temporary buses, a building in Anacostia, and “supplies.” In return the Coalition would house the residents presently at 425 D.
The Court, satisfied with those promises, agreed that the government could kick CCNV out of 425 D when the other arrangements were completed.
Now time will tell whether the hostages have been freed, or if it was merely the fattest beast that got the bloody piece of meat. And, if the Coalition fails to solve the problem, what will Mitch do next?
Peace Park Vigil
Park History — Current Situation — Vigilers Past and Present — Upcoming Events
Since June 3, 1981, nine years to the day before tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, signs calling for “Wisdom and Honesty,” justice and nuclear disarmament have stood every day and night in front of the White House.
To those who maintain perhaps the longest continuous vigil in human history , the signs represent the ancient right — Thomas Jefferson may have termed it “the duty” — of people in a democracy to nonviolently voice opinions on issues of broad public concern, even if it means they must go to prison for their beliefs.
According to National Park Service figures, the signs have been seen by over three million people a year. To the public, those who maintain the vigil arouse a spectrum of perceptions. The 1991 and 1994 Berlitz Travel Guide for Washington, DC pictured the vigil over the caption, “It’s the right of every American to set up stand and make a point in Lafayette Park.”
Those who share the materialistic values symbolized by the White House may view the vigil as “visual blight.” Three presidents have, with varying degrees of patience, endured and reduced the vigilers’ presence.
The Washington Times and Washington Post have called the vigilers “weirdos” and “lunatics” and the signs “eyesores,” “gibberish” and “junk.”
On the other extreme, there are those who, valuing life, view the policies of the White House as slightly “mad,” who believe that the vigil reflects sanity.
Some journalists have been more than tolerant, have even likened the vigilers to saints, prophets, and even beautiful!
Actually the vigilers are just trying to practice what they preach. They still have hope for humanity. They believe someday, if they hold on long enough, people might wake up to their own responsibilities and begin, at last, to act compassionately, wisely, honestly. For this, and for the children, they endure harsh weather, the whims of police, and abusive behavior by hostile bystanders. For they know they’re not alone.
So, the vigil continues… working for peace, hoping for humanity.