Chapter 7

“Your voice will be heard”

As time went on, emboldened by my open display, others began camping with me on the corner of 6th & G. It became quite a busy place as the regular downtown crew started hanging out with me as well; it had become the center of activity for many in the downtown area. I was kept busy picking up trash as some of those hanging out with me had no thought otherwise but to simply discard any trash or wrapper at their feet wherever they were standing. People would leave there stuff on the corner and disappear, sometimes asking me to watch their things until they came back, often never to be seen again. Before long there was a mountain of unclaimed backpacks and bicycles piled high not far from where I was camping.

The downtown security detail was instructed to spray down the corner; they came by pulling a tank of cleaning solution of highly concentrated simple green and thoroughly sprayed down the entire area of my camp. The first time they arrived, I cooperated with them, moving my stuff out of the way so they could clean. The result was an overpowering toxic smell as they did not rinse away the chemicals after they were done. The following day they came again, asking me to move out of their way again; this time I refused. I told them there was no way I was going to go through that every day, no matter what their orders were. I told them they could come back in a week if they wanted to, and so it was that over the course of the summer they would spray down the sidewalk weekly.

In apparent desperation, I began being arrested without cause. Although the mayor had his chief prosecutor set against me, the courts would take my side. The soonest I ever returned after an arrest was around 30 minutes. Once after being gone for just a few hours, I returned to a corner full of people wearing white T-shirts on which they wrote “FREE JOHN”. One time on a longer stay in the jail, I was booked in and moved to general population; five different people approached me the first day, each with the same question, asking if I remembered handing them a $20 bill. In fact I did not recognize most of them. During the five months that I was camping on City Hall, I was arrested six times; I beat every case.

Kaladi Brothers coffee was located just across the street from where I was sitting. It was very common for someone to buy me a cup of coffee and stop by to talk. I typically would drink several cups of coffee every day and you could expect to see a Kaladi Brothers cup near me at any given time. It became quite apparent that someone at Kaladi Brothers did not appreciate my business, because before long they began to refuse to sell coffee if they knew it was meant for me. One time a young man brought me an empty cup; he told me that after he bought the coffee, he mentioned it was for me and they refused to let him fill it. I took the cup and headed in to Kaladi Brothers to see what was up. The barista informed me that they were under orders from the manager not to serve me, but offered to get me her phone number. Before she could return, a man who was sitting on a stool nearby approached me, saying he worked there and that I had to go; before I could answer him, he started pushing me toward the door. I stood my ground and he pushed me to the floor, then jumping on me he took two swings, which I barely deflected. I was soon back on the corner and was subsequently arrested and charged with trespassing. It was the practice of the newspaper to diligently and prominently report every arrest, however I never saw an article reporting when I would beat the charges, leaving the impression that I was guilty of each offense. The Kaladi Brothers arrest was no exception; it was announced that I was arrested for trespassing and left at that. The following day, I was surprised when a man carrying a large paper bag printed with the Starbucks Coffee insignia walked by in front of me. He set the bag at my feet without a word and continued walking on. It was full to the top with every kind of pastry that Starbucks sold. The Kaladi Brothers arrest went to trial some weeks later. Fortunately the whole thing was caught on their surveillance video, and I was found not guilty by the jury.

By the time I went to trial for the Campbell Creek arrest, I had been arrested and charged twice for violating my conditions of release. I chose to defend myself and opted for a decision to be made by the judge, feeling as though the judge would make a decision based on law and not be easily swayed by a convincing argument from the prosecuting attorney. The chief prosecuting attorney would argue the case for the city. It created quite a stir when I beat the two charges of violating conditions of release, and although I lost the case for the arrest from Campbell Creek, the case was now finished, and finished with it was the court order banning me from protesting on the block of City Hall. The true victory was returning to the mayor’s sidewalk; I collected my things and moved kitty-corner, back to City Hall where I had begun, eight floors directly below the mayor’s office.

It was the policy when arrested to have one’s belongings sent to one side of town, while releasing you from jail at the other extreme end. So it was that every time I was released, I would start again with not so much as a blanket, although provisions would show up quickly. Once after being released, my sandals again being lost to the shuffle, I was sitting back on City Hall when a lady with the biggest smile knelt down in front of me. “Do you believe in Jesus?”, she asked. “He told me to buy you these”, as she presented me with a bag containing a boxed pair of slippers. Opening the box, I found that through a mix-up, it contained two left foot slippers of mismatched color. She offered to take them back, apologetically, but since they fit comfortably as is, I kept them as a conversation piece so I could share with others the example of God’s provision.

First Amendment protection was written into the trespassing laws. Although the police had the power to move someone along if there was a problem, they could not just simply make you leave if you were protesting, and this fact had been now thoroughly upheld by the courts. Dan would find a way around this law by passing a sidewalk ordinance which among other things made it illegal to sit on the sidewalk. There was a division of the assembly, some reluctant to pass it since it violated free speech. The mayor’s municipal attorney assured them that ACLU had given them the stamp of approval. After the law passed, the ACLU publicly stated that they had not even seen the law yet, which in turn raised an effort within the assembly to reverse the law. The effort ultimately failed since the Mayor simply vetoed their decision. This new law stirred up much controversy for the way it was passed, and since it was an obvious attempt to get rid of one man. It created a whole new firestorm in the press, again backfiring on him.

It became apparent that the mayor’s approach was not working and in fact many of his own staff did not agree with him. I had gained much support from the entire city including from the mayor’s office. A lady from the prosecuting attorney’s office informed me that the mayor had decided to ignore me. She also said that I could expect to not be arrested or have news articles run against me in hopes that I would just go away. At some point someone brought me a tent and seizing the opportunity to make my presence more surely known, I set up that tent on the sidewalk where I was camped. That night I was arrested again, this time with video cameras rolling; the police documented the whole arrest. I was handled gently, carefully lifted out of the tent and placed in the squad car, while I lay limp the whole time.

The biblical feast of Sukkot was approaching and I began to consider celebrating it. Every year for one week, all of Israel was required to erect makeshift structures as a reminder that God provided for them for forty years, while they wandered in the desert, after coming out of Egypt. I thought that if everyone in Alaska would spend a few nights in a tent they may gain an appreciation for what it takes to survive in the streets of Anchorage. It also seemed time to do something more noticeable since the mayor was trying to ignore me. I decided to build a cardboard structure and stay in it on the corner in celebration of the feast of Sukkot. After three days the downtown security arrived to spray down the sidewalk and instructed me to move my cardboard house. I refused and as a result the police came and arrested me once again. I was gone just long enough for my cardboard house and all my belongings to be cleared out.

The police came by again and this time told me plainly that if I was still there the following day, they would arrest me again. Later that day one of the prosecuting attorneys from City Hall stopped by and asked me how I was doing. I told him what the police had said and told him that if I was not there tomorrow it was because I was arrested since I was not leaving on my own. He told me that if I got arrested that he would come see me in jail, and then he left. As promised the police did come for me as they said they would, and I was again arrested and taken to the jail. Typically when arrested, the magistrate would order my release over a phone conference upon arrival to the jail, but this time they timed my arrest so that I would be taken directly before the judge, apparently expecting the judge to refuse to release me. Entering the court room, I was surprised to see that the prosecuting attorney on duty was the very one who had promised to visit me if I was arrested. When it was my turn to face the judge, the judge asked the prosecution what was the city’s position on this case. The attorney closed my file and pushed it out from in front of him and began to speak. “Having been on skid row myself 18 years ago, I can not in good faith support the city’s position on this case.” The Judge responded, “Where are the homeless supposed to go? Wasilla? or Soldotna?” They exchanged a few more words and then the judge released me without conditions to return to the corner to continue protesting.

The arrests were not working as planned, instead raising criticism from the public. By now I had been covered quite thoroughly by the press; with so many TV interviews and newspaper articles, including headlining the front page of the Daily News; I was the talk of the town. Although Dan Sullivan had refused to speak with me directly, he could not avoid hearing my voice since my words were now echoing through the press and over the airwaves. The homeless can not be simply cleared out by force; I had called on the mayor to lead them. He is the leader of “all” the people and the homeless people are no exception. The news had gone viral, people were stopping to meet me who had been following my progress from their hometowns, many from the continental USA and some from other countries. I was reminded of the words of the prophet, “Your voice will be heard with what you are doing”.