They Didn't Want to Call the Cops

Tent City Deals with Rape Allegations Using Its Own Vigilante Justice

They Didn't Want to Call the Cops

NICKELSVILLE Police arrived to find a group of residents surrounding a tent with axes, splitting mauls, and crowbars.

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The camp’s resident goat is named Richard Conlin, after the city council member.
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Seattle has a long history of dealing with homelessness. One solution was "tent cities," encampments that house about 300 of Seattle's roughly 8,000 homeless people. One of those camps was founded in 2008 and dubbed Nickelsville, named after former mayor Greg Nickels, who had evicted the campers from various plots of public land until they moved to their current home near West Marginal Way in West Seattle.

On Sunday, March 17, Seattle police paid a rare visit to Nickelsville. They were responding to a 911 call from a resident who said she was being forcefully evicted by a pack of other campers. The police report contained allegations of rape, mob rule, and corruption—so I wanted to find out more. I discovered that although the situation was a mess, it was not indicative of mob rule. It was a symptom of a small community of people, living on the fringes of society, who feel they have no choice but to establish their own justice system.

Officer Larry Longley arrived at the camp around noon that Sunday and found a group of Nickelsville residents surrounding a tent with axes, splitting mauls, and crowbars, a police report alleges. After wading through the crowd of people trying to distract him, Longley began to conduct interviews.

The short version of the story is that one woman was being evicted by the camp's "security council," a group of campers charged with overseeing the camp's safety. The police report says that the woman and her boyfriend had been "barred" from the camp for threatening to call the police with allegations of sexual assault. Calling the police without first consulting the security council, the camp's head of security told the police, was a breach of Nickelsville's code.

Two other female campers had been barred for sneaking the woman back inside the encampment to collect her belongings. One of the women was inside of her tent when the crowd formed around it to dismantle the tent while she was still inside, the police report explains. The other two women were somewhere outside the camp at the time.

Officers also spoke to one of the victims' boyfriends. That boyfriend told Officer Longley that he had been investigating a sexual assault on his girlfriend before the night's turmoil. He believed that the camp's head of security had sexually assaulted his girlfriend, and that four other women had been assaulted, extorted for sexual favors, or raped by the head of security, the man told police. The officer eventually located one of the victims, who gave a similar story.

The police officer did not detain anyone. He did, however, speak to members of the camp's security council and informed them that they had no legal authority to evict anybody from city land, the police report explains, and that residents must take their criminal grievances to the police rather than the security council.

I went to Nickelsville the following weekend to ask residents about the incidents in the police report, to ask them about their self-governance, and to speak to the head of security who had been accused of sexually assaulting other campers.

The location is discreet, hidden in a slight embankment off of bustling West Marginal Way. Inside the camp were roughly 50 tents dotting a surprisingly clean foundation of pallets and wood chips. Many of the tents were sporting American flags, potted plants, and porch ornaments—things that bring a sense of normalcy to the camp.

I eventually made my way to a smoking tent where I sat down with a handful of campers. They told me that the head of security was gone, evicted like the others, on allegations of sexual assault. He had since been replaced by an articulate female camper named Monica, who was sitting in the smoking area with the others. She asked that I use only campers' first names.

The victims of the ex–head of security's alleged assault were also gone, and the campers did not know where I would be able to find them. But Monica, and two other women I spoke to at the camp, became visibly agitated when talking about the "touchy-feely" former head of security. They said he had approached them inappropriately before, although not to the extent described in the police report. They were happy that he was gone. I wanted to reach the former security chief for a statement, but Monica said she didn't know where he had gone after he was evicted.

I asked why they didn't call the police about his alleged crimes. Monica told me that they call the police only for dire situations or acts of violence, and that they hadn't heard of the sexual-assault investigation until after officers arrived. She claimed that the evicted female camper, the one who told the police she was the victim of sexual assault, was being barred because she had skipped her required shift at the camp's security desk, not for calling the police, as the SPD report stated. Had they known about the rape investigation, they may have been willing to consult the police, but they're technically squatters at Nickelsville, and they believe police involvement could result in them being evicted, Monica said.

When I asked them to describe barring people from camp, their faces dropped. When the other campers heard our conversation, they quickly piled into the tent where we were talking. A few of the camp's more outspoken members shouted their opinions through the accumulating cigarette smoke. Although many of them agreed the campers should have been kicked out, a longtime resident who asked that I not use his name said, "We went too far, pulling their house out from underneath them. It was a power trip." He went on to explain that the rules are there to keep residents safe. If anyone breaks them, they have to leave. "We can't operate a camp like this without some kind of order," added a resident named Linda.

And they have put a lot of effort into establishing the "order" that Linda was talking about.

There are two requirements for every incoming camper: You can't be a sex offender, and you must sign the "encampment rules" sheet. The sheet contains 17 requirements for residents that include prohibitions on liquor and drugs, and it says that everyone must work weekly shifts in the security shack—which the first evicted camper had reportedly failed to do. If someone breaks the rules and is evicted, he or she can make an appeal to return to the camp. The head of security who had been accused of sexual assault had been barred permanently without the right to appeal, according to Monica.

These rules are enforced by the security council, which is elected during a weekly Wednesday meeting. There are also nine other elected posts, including the "goat master," who is in charge of feeding Sally Clark and Richard Conlin, the resident goats named after two city council members.

I later spoke to Tim Harris, who runs Real Change newspaper and has worked with Seattle's tent cities since their infancy. He said that this form of self-governance is ubiquitous across all of the tent cities. However, he added, "What's different about this encampment... is that generally a tent city is on property with permission to be there," and Nickelsville is not, so "the police are viewing this camp as squatters."

"When they've asked the police for support," Harris added, police told them there's nothing they can do, "so they've had to resort to vigilante justice."

What Harris and the residents of the tent city were describing was a society that has been swept under the rug, that can no longer subscribe to normal city services, and that believes it has no choice but to create a sovereign democracy.

It makes sense that Nickelsville residents are wary of calling the police because they don't want to be evicted. But if someone is afraid to report a rape, then that justice system has a serious problem. And that justice system apparently concludes that rape and missing a security shift deserve equal punishment—being evicted from camp—when, obviously, allegations of sexual assault should be investigated (and punished).

One resident, Steve, who had spoken remorsefully about the eviction earlier, told me, "Look, we all live in tents... look around," and gestured toward a meandering walkway through scores of tarp homes. "We're all just trying to find a way to feel human." recommended


Comments (39) RSS

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Not reporting a sexual assault to police = rape culture.
Posted by scratchmaster joe on April 3, 2013 at 2:29 PM · Report this
Maybe Katherine Olejnik and Matthew Duran should be required to live there, so they can get a taste of anarchy in action. Ooops, maybe a little too real, Katie 'n Matt?
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 4, 2013 at 12:49 AM · Report this
Posted by Texas10R on April 4, 2013 at 6:00 AM · Report this
They can't call the cops because it's public land. Sex offenders have as much right to be there as anyone else.

Nickelsville needs to GTFO already.
Posted by Just Leave Already on April 4, 2013 at 11:31 AM · Report this
thatsnotright 5
Seems to me skipping a shift in the security shack when the head of security is known for inappropriate contact is an act of self-defense. I'm with @1, rape culture=chastise the victim.
Posted by thatsnotright on April 4, 2013 at 11:40 AM · Report this
Great article, stuff I love to read the Stranger for. Thanks Unpaid Intern!
Posted by Hanoumatoi on April 4, 2013 at 11:41 AM · Report this
Wherever there's a group of people, there's going to be rules. And there's always going to be a subset that won't follow those rules, and they'll be ejected from the group. They'll form their own group and rules, and there'll be a subset who won't follow those rules and then....

It's turtles all the way down.
Posted by tiktok on April 4, 2013 at 11:43 AM · Report this
Sounds like living in a red state conservative tarp city hell hole. American flags everywhere and vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. What could go wrong.
Posted by S T on April 4, 2013 at 11:47 AM · Report this
Rape in the Security Shack. Sounds like the latest from Vivid.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 4, 2013 at 11:54 AM · Report this
They've even got their own theme song.…
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 4, 2013 at 12:17 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 11
Harris is a master for coming up with excuses for bad behavior on the part of homeless individuals. I hope he was at least largely silent on the issue of those two Real Change vendors who tried to murder a man several years ago.
Posted by keshmeshi on April 4, 2013 at 12:39 PM · Report this
Plenty of organizations have rules that members agree to adhere to. Nothing wrong with that. Tent cities should be able to set reasonable codes of conduct and evict those that do not adhere to them.

But that does not extend to self-policing of criminal activity. Not reporting sexual assault to the police is wrong not matter if you are a homeless person, a football coach, or a priest.
Posted by giffy on April 4, 2013 at 12:49 PM · Report this
Wow, it's enough of a tale to give one homelessphobia…

Btw any actual evidence the police told them to use 'vigilante justice' or is Tim 'I live in Edmonds' Harris lying again?
Posted by Lord of the Fleas on April 4, 2013 at 12:49 PM · Report this
Maybe they should set up webcams and do pay-per-view to help pay for their smokes?
Posted by Lord of the Fleas on April 4, 2013 at 12:59 PM · Report this
"Tent cities should be able to set reasonable codes of conduct and evict those that do not adhere to them."

Not on public land, they shouldn't.
Posted by Big Difference on April 4, 2013 at 1:11 PM · Report this
Of course if slog is going to grab a story West Seattle blog broke, why not mention the fact that the camp is over run by meth heads. Or as Tim Harris calls them from his comfy home in Edmonds, "your problem".

Btw on what planet did you get the "8,000 homeless" in Seattle? Even the bogus 'one night count' propaganda number only found 2700 for all of king County (anyone talking to themselves is counted twice apparently).
Posted by Lord of the Fleas on April 4, 2013 at 1:13 PM · Report this
Timrrr 17
This situation finds an analogy in ODs.

Junkies didn't want to call 911 when their friends overdosed for fear of being busted on drug charges themselves. People died as a result. We found the solution there by making explicit (and recently encoding into our law) the fact that those calling in an OD case will not run the risk of arrest. Period.

The obvious solution here is for Chief Diaz, the Mayor and/or the City Council to make it abundantly clear --publicly-- that they will not evict the campers simply for reporting serious crimes that have taken place within a homeless encampment.

In fact, Ben, I'd say a follow-up call to Diaz & McGinn asking for them to make that public assurance --on the record with you-- should be your obvious next "cub-reporter-makes-good" move at this point!
Posted by Timrrr on April 4, 2013 at 1:14 PM · Report this
It's not an anarchist community if it's hierarchical, and when you've got elected officials, you've got hierarchy.

Lord knows I've got critical things to say about anarchism, but I do at least recognize it as something other than total political incoherence.
Posted by robotslave on April 4, 2013 at 1:17 PM · Report this
dangerousgift 19
Jesus Unpaid Intern, nice work.

Also, haters, kindly die.
Posted by dangerousgift on April 4, 2013 at 1:46 PM · Report this
lawdog 20
Unbrainwashed @9&10, when is it too soon to make snarky comments about rape? ALWAYS.

You're not "un-brainwashed" if you're propagating the rape culture that your intellectual superiors pointed to in other comments.

Don't worry, life will most likely take you for a turn for the worse and maybe your girlfriend, wife, or mom will be the subject of a good ol' rape anthem.
Posted by lawdog on April 4, 2013 at 2:32 PM · Report this
@15 Why not? Let's find some land, lease it to the group, and set up a proper, well functioning, tent city.

I would happily have that in my neighborhood.
Posted by giffy on April 4, 2013 at 3:27 PM · Report this
@21 spoken like a true renter.
Posted by Miffy on April 4, 2013 at 6:42 PM · Report this
sirkowski 23
Seems pretty indicative of mob rule.

@18 You're implying that anarchy can be in any way politically coherent.
Posted by sirkowski on April 4, 2013 at 7:37 PM · Report this
"I do at least recognize it as something other than total political incoherence."

I guess you never say thru' the 2-3 hours of total fucking incoherence that was an Occupy Seattle GA. There's a reason that anarchist model failed.
Posted by Fred Flintstoned on April 4, 2013 at 7:50 PM · Report this
misssmartypants 25
So, the guy that was accused of rape and sexual misconduct got away with his crimes.And the one person who stood up for herself was evicted from a homeless community for not doing a "watch"? Wow,a predator was just let loose on more vunerable women, and rhe accusers were not given the help they needed. Great work SPD and Nickelsville!
Posted by misssmartypants on April 4, 2013 at 9:58 PM · Report this
#20, you whine so dang nice.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on April 4, 2013 at 10:22 PM · Report this
What 16 said.
Posted by LMNOP on April 5, 2013 at 1:09 AM · Report this
28 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
This sounds like a low-income housing project I used to live in.
Don't rock the boat -and if you report any type problem or situation or assault- you'll have Hell to pay from the -so called- powers that be.
Don't let the City leaders and all involved try and fool you when they state they were/are unaware to what has been going on.
If so, this will then only go to confirm the Mayor and City Council are somewhat incompetent.

Posted by Gray Panther on April 5, 2013 at 10:52 AM · Report this
I called Nickelsville my home for over 2 yrs. Most of the residents are great people that I call my freinds but there is always those people that don't follow the rules. So there has to be rules and consequences, but just like any justice system it's not perfect. They do the best they know how and I know first hand how hard it is to police you're own friends. I also know the individual that is being accused of rape and I had my own experiance with inappropriate behavior from him. I really hope they can fiqure this all out because Nickilsville is a great place for those who need it and to see negative press about it isn't good. I will be praying for all those that are involved and hope that justice will be served.
Posted by nateaulo on April 5, 2013 at 11:00 AM · Report this
Timrrr's solution (#17) is good - it's just common sense.
Posted by earwig on April 6, 2013 at 9:06 AM · Report this
inquiastador 32
Nickelsville is shadow-run by SHARE. They have rules that are solely to keep everyone stuck with them and no way out. Their leader, Scott Morrow, insists he is nothing more than a "consultant" in order to be free of legalities. It is largely a scam, duping those who truly want to help the homeless and duping those who truly need the help. They provide NO social services and demand unfair amounts of time to be spent on their own internal needs. Good luck finding, and keeping a job when you have mandatory chores and endless meetings. There are homeless who have been with them for almost twenty years. The real social services that are truly trying to help people transition to stable lives want nothing to do with them even if they won't admit it publicly. SHARE and Tent City may both say that they are separate and only collaborate but do not be fooled. Both groups are overseen by SCOTT MORROW. I so wish The Stranger, Seattle Weekly, The Times, anyone would publish an expose' on this scam group so we can be rid of them and get these people the help they deserve.
Posted by inquiastador on April 6, 2013 at 12:03 PM · Report this
"......but they're technically squatters at Nickelsville, and they....".

Ben Steiner, this is not a 'technicality', they are plain and simple illegally squatting and setting all kinds of precedent and liabilities for the City/tax payers. And they have been doing so for two years. Many of the individuals that have been kicked-out find their way to other illegal camps set up in the Duwamish Greenbelt which backs up to peoples homes. Homes that are in an economically poor section of the City known collectively as the Delridge neighborhoods. This is oh-so-perfect Seattle in every way, allow an illegal 'camp' to exist without any oversight from any City agency, and let the fallout and burden land on a neighborhood that can least manage it. Meanwhile, it is out of sight and out of mind for all the fantasy living Seattleites to feel good about themselves. Nickelsville needs to relocate to a neighborhood in Seattle that can handle it, say Madrona, Leschi, Montlake, Admiral, Fauntleroy, Laurelhurst, Wallingford, Magnolia, Queen Anne or even Capitol Hill. NOT Delridge and NOT The Valley.
Posted by DMar on April 6, 2013 at 5:20 PM · Report this
Incredible 34
That goat looks totally awesome.
Posted by Incredible on April 7, 2013 at 3:44 PM · Report this
ManicMonkey 35
Apparently these allegations and this article are inspiring former residents of Seattle's tent cities to speak out about their experiences.…
Posted by ManicMonkey on April 8, 2013 at 11:32 AM · Report this
Let me get this straight here: Women are sexually assaulted at the camp, they don't go to security about it (security is the one doing the sexual assaulting, and raping), and go to the police, or threaten to go to police, and they are evicted...wait, almost forgot, the security officer, for a time, is permitted to stay.

I'm living in a shelter with my wife (we are lesbian) and our four children.

That fucking rape camp should be shut down.

The so-called leaders of that camp, you support rape culture, the second you booted any woman there for stating they're going to the police for a sexual assault perpetrated against them.

Fucking trash in charge there, fucking rapist backing trash.

Sara Mae
Posted by Sara Mae on April 8, 2013 at 10:02 PM · Report this
@34: that goat is named Richard Conlin, who doesn't look quite as awesome as his penmate Sally Clark. But after all, goats aren't in the game for their looks, but for their critical thinking and their ability to lead our fair city. Help Richard out and vote for Sawant,
Posted by Katch22.2 on April 9, 2013 at 4:05 PM · Report this
38 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
Great article Im amazed at how youve done as an intern sorry for all the trolls, they're scum dont listen to them!
Posted by FishCrepe on April 11, 2013 at 1:42 PM · Report this

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