On Sept. 18 protesters and the homeless living in what has been come to be known as “Tent City” were told they had until 7 p.m. to leave the park and disperse, as previously reported in the Western Herald. However, police action to break up the protest wouldn’t come until the next morning.
In public statements, City Manager Jim Ritsema consistently affirmed the city’s position that the protest violates city ordinances and as such must be forced to end. In a press release on Sept. 17, the office of the city manager stated: “Bronson Park is not intended to be, nor is it equipped to be, a camp ground. The limited source of potable water and the absence of sanitary and safe food preparation facilities raise legitimate public health and welfare concerns, requiring the City to request voluntary compliance with its ordinances.”
On Tuesday night, hundreds of supporters arrived at the park, but when 7 p.m. rolled around no officers were in sight. Officers did not arrive at the park until the morning of Sept. 19, after most supporters had left. That morning, 14 people — including City Commissioner Skyes Nehring — were arrested as reported by Fox 17. Nehring has long established herself as a supporter of the protesters and was arrested after standing in front of a police van. Before that she had been photographed linking arms with other protesters. Those arrested, including Commissioner Nehring, were released later that day.
The announcement by the city curbed the optimism of many protesters. In the hours leading up to 7 p.m., a group of teenagers sat around a picnic table playing cards for cigarettes. Every once in a while one would joke and laugh, but such outbursts were met by grim looks from the rest of the group.
Two toddlers kicked a ball back and forth while their mother and father packed the tent while arguing about where to go and whether it was worth it for one of them to stay behind and continue the protest. At one point one of the toddlers kicked the ball too hard and sent it bouncing toward the street. An older man stopped it with his cane sending it back to the kids.
“We just want them to do what they said they were going to do,” Carl Wiseman said.
His cheery ‘Scooby-Doo’ tie in stark contrast with the somber look upon his face and the sincerity in his voice.
“People talk about justice. How can we speak about justice when we ignore our children,” Wiseman said.
He motioned behind himself to the encampment, at least six young children were among the homeless there, and many the of the other homeless couldn’t have been much more than teenagers.
“All we want is our human dignity,” Wiseman said. “We just want to be recognized as people. We just want to exist and we should not be mistreated for simply existing.”
As he talked those around him stopped to listen. Ryan Quandt, a first year student at WMU, said that Wiseman’s impromptu address was the “the most inspiring speech I’ve ever heard in person.” After saying everything he felt there was to say, Wiseman went to help a group roll their tent.
Despite the grim atmosphere of the day, life goes on and people find ways to cope and reasons to smile even in the dark. For one couple camping near Wiseman, there’s one very big reason. Lee and Daniella, who chose not to reveal their last names, are having a baby. Daniella is due in March, and if the baby is a boy they’re going to name him Bronson.
“This protest, for us it’s community and it’s our family. We have each other’s back,” Lee said. “It’s about pointing out the flaws in the system, the problems with it. Maybe, hopefully, Bronson won’t have to deal with them.”
The park is temporarily closed for the purpose of cleaning and repairs, city officials claimed in a statement released on Sept. 18. Any property protestors left behind because of the order to vacate was thrown away.
As of Sept. 21, the park is empty. The protest has dispersed, for now, but public opinion remains as divided as ever. No governmental solution has been reached and the park is empty. Private organizations, on the other hand, have pledged to come to bat for the homeless. MLive reports that the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission shelter has agreed to lift bans on those previously denied service, except for those banned for violent or otherwise serious offences.
For those most affected by homelessness, it isn’t enough. In the weeks and months to come the fight is bound to continue in protests, in city meetings, and in court.