Denver police have made headlines over the past few months by “sweeping” encampments of homeless people. And critics have spoken out – including the ACLU, Denver Homeless Out Loud, and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. But Jason Flores-Williams, a lawyer in Denver, went a step further by bringing a class-action lawsuit against the city this morning.
The Colorado Independent spoke with Flores-Williams about his decision to sue Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration, why corporations like Nestle and Monsanto sometimes have more rights than people experiencing homelessness, and how his own experiences influence his legal work.
CI: How long have you been monitoring this issue and what made you decide to file suit?
JFW: I’ve been monitoring the issue since I went to law school in New York. You had [former New York Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani. Their policy, no matter what Giuliani says, was to either arrest or relocate all the homeless and very low-income poor out of New York. So we were very aware of it back then. Now, what Denver’s doing is just an extension of that, so I’ve been working around this area for about ten years.
Just as a concerned citizen, I’ve been attending protests with [Denver Homeless Out Loud]. There was a protest at Coors Fiel, on the opening day of the Rockies game because there were sweeps there. So, I’ve been involved in the movement for some time.
CI: How are you building your class-action suit?
JFW: So, for example, this morning I was at the Denver Rescue Mission. And I was meeting with people who are taking something called “declarations.” And declarations are basically [statements] like, “My name is John Doe, I am this age, and I was there on March 9th during the last homeless sweep in which my bicycle and three other things were taken.” So you’re giving all the facts of things that have happened to you on a piece of a paper like an affidavit, and so the lead plaintiffs give all these statements that are submitted with the injunction to the court in order to get it certified as a class-action.
And then you take those declarations and say that these lead plaintiffs represent the experiences being had by thousands in the city.
CI: What are the main allegations you are making in the lawsuit?
JFW: Let’s say there’s a homeless person on the street, standing there. He or she has property – a sleeping bag, some basic essentials of life. And, you know, if you’re a homeless person, you’re dependent on that for existence. It’s a big deal if it gets taken away. It’s all you have. So, there you are standing there, and then the Denver Police or Sheriff’s Department or Public Works, pursuant to Denver’s policy of relocating the homeless, will just approach the person and say, “What are you doing here? Are you trying to sleep here?”
So, stop right here. That’s a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. Because there’s no probable cause to go up to that person and talk with them and begin questioning them. And [officials] might justify it by using the camping ban, but that’s just an excuse that they’re using to deny people’s constitutional rights.
CI: So you’re not saying that the camping ban is unconstitutional, just the way it’s being used.
JFW: We are not challenging the constitutionality of the camping ban. We’re saying, [in addition to the probable cause issue], “You took property that you did not return, and you destroyed it, and that violated due process.”
America’s about property. There’s all this constitutional stuff about due process and procedural safeguards that the government must adhere to before they deprive someone of their property. That’s a Fourteenth Amendment violation, because the due process clause lives in the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Fourteenth Amendment is also about equal protection. That means that everyone receives equal protection under the law, but here it’s being violated. Poor people and homeless people are being treated very differently than rich people and housed people are.
CI: I was struck by your statement in other news coverage about property law being applied to corporations in past work that you’ve done. Can you tell me more about that?
JFW: So, in another life, I’ve specialized in white collar criminal defense. What happens in those [cases] is that you have massive amounts of assets that are seized. And those asset forfeitures and seizures are the same things that are happening to the homeless.
And so, we often look at this and say, well that’s just a different thing. But the good news is that these corporations have set these incredible landmarks that apply to corporations. Now, in the United States, under [the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case] Citizens United, corporations are people. So if Monsanto or Exxon or Nestle have – and they have – achieved incredible rulings about due process rights before anything is taken from them, those same rulings apply to homeless people.
So in this way, we’re subverting the evil rulings of corporate America. And I think they’ve gotten these rulings without even realizing that they could be applied to homeless people and the poor. Which is fun.
CI: I understand that you’ve had personal experience with homelessness in the past. Would you mind talking a bit about that?
JFW: When I was 12 years old, my family was ripped apart by the drug war. We had cops coming in, being abusive, seizing everything we had. They took my bike! I remember a cop came into my bedroom and saw a football trophy, and said, “You’re not big enough to play football.” I was just like, “Is this what you’re supposed to be doing?” So that was my first exposure to police abuse and knowing that there is a whole other world out there where the police are not good guys.
So, from that point forward, since they took everything, we were just below survival. We were homeless for a bit, then in the projects, and by the time I was 15, I just left town and lived on the streets. Why stick around? It was just horrible.
I know the feeling of what it means to be invisible. And no one should have to live with that feeling. And if you have the ability to fight against being invisible, then you should fight it. And that’s why we’re doing this.
This interview has been simplified for clarity.