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Displacement, loneliness, and spontaneous community amid the violence

Ongoing protests and police repression highlight the inadequacy of Madison’s safety net for people struggling with homelessness and mental illness.

For two hours on Sunday night my partner and I sat with a woman blocks from the Square while she wavered in and out of panic attacks, and while protests and militaristic police repression raged around downtown Madison. We were walking by when we saw her on the curb shouting for help and saying to us “I can’t breathe.” We noticed her shortness of breath and a panicked, pleading look in her eyes. My partner knelt down with her and talked her through breathing exercises until she became calm. She said she needed to get on a bus to a transfer point as her shelter for the night and asked if we’d stay with her until her bus came. We watched the schedule on Google Maps as three buses claimed they were late, and never actually came to the stop at the intersection of East Johnson Street, North Butler Street, and North Hamilton Street. The buses that did come by were headed in the wrong direction.

Other bus passenger hopefuls came and went in frustration. All were kind and we became a brief community of support, swapping information about the uprising happening a few blocks away, and working together to provide a sense of calm to the woman as she cycled through breathless panic attacks. A few small groups of young people from the protest stopped to help her and us, as well.

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We waited, and waited, and the woman got more and more panicked as it became clear that no bus would be coming. We called the Salvation Army, the only 24-hour option in town—but the shelter’s punitive substance-use policies shut down that option. The woman had already told us that she was banned from staying there for the night, but we hoped that our privilege could work some magic—not this time. We called Union Cab. The dispatcher was extremely kind but the wait would have been an hour to possibly get a ride, if the police didn’t barricade the area before then. 

We could see tear gas billowing around the Capitol building, and we helped a young person with water and towels as he emerged from the area. When a decommissioned bus came by, some young folks flagged it down, though the driver tried to keep going, gesturing to shoo them away. They got him to stop (a young Black woman bravely put her body in front of it) and asked about the buses. The driver said one would be coming soon to a stop a few blocks away, so we relocated as a group of various strangers, coaching the woman through panic and pausing for breaks to catch breath along the way. That supposed bus never did come. Instead, buses were transporting cops and National Guard troops in their efforts to suppress protesters. Public transit drivers in Minneapolis and New York City have refused to transport cops and/or people the cops arrest, in solidarity with the protests demanding justice for George Floyd and other Black people murdered by police. Madison Metro, however, is so far obeying rules that require the agency to go along with the city’s emergency plans.

The woman cried, said she didn’t want to be alone, shouted “help me,” had episodes of panic during which she couldn’t breathe, and exhibited anxious dry heaving. I asked if she has ever gone to the hospital when she feels like this. She recounted a lousy, neglectful experience she had recently at a local hospital. She said that on Saturday night, she stayed on State Street, amidst the chaos, and she felt safe because she was with a friend, but her friend got taken to detox so on Sunday she was alone. We knew that even if she made it to the transfer point shelter, she’d be having episodes all night. She asked if we ever feel this way—if we ever get anxiety. She seemed assured, and concerned for us, to hear that we have felt similarly before, too. I’ve had two episodes in my life where I panicked and couldn’t breathe. I can’t imagine cycling through that every five or 10 minutes on any given day. 

We’d talk for a bit, get to know each other, and my partner taught her how to say “fuck off” in Korean after she told us that’s the only thing she learned in her German class in 6th grade. But her anxiety would start to rise, she’d say she needed a cigarette or a beer, she’d wince and exclaim that she was scared to be alone tonight, and we’d be able to help ground her again briefly.

A diverse community of youth has turned out in force during the ongoing protests in Madison. Those we encountered were kind, helpful, and provided concern and actual support to this woman, my partner, and me. A couple of white kids were carrying what may have been looted merchandise, and they too helped the woman, and were kind to everyone else, including the youth of color who were present. It was genuinely a positive community that sprang up almost spontaneously at the bus stop. 

We were heartbroken that we broke our promise and left the woman after two hours, after it was clear the buses weren’t coming and that there wasn’t much else we could do. We tried to reassure her before we left, but we knew it was going to be a difficult night regardless. She thanked us for being her friends that night and we said goodbye. As we walked out of range, we heard her shouting for help again. My insides are still twisted about this. 

We are angry that anyone thinks it’s a fine idea to have no options for a safe place to spend the night for someone with complex trauma and addiction issues because they ran afoul of a shelter’s substance policies. Of course a person who can’t get proper treatment at their most extreme point of addiction, displacement, and compounding trauma will reach for other methods of calming. Shame on anyone for punishing that by cutting off safe shelter for someone who needs and wants it.

But an entire system thinks this way. An entire “human services support system” thinks it’s best practice to be punitive to folks with severe mental health and/or substance use issues. Entire bodies of civil servants know this is the case and allow it to continue. Local, state, and federal governments lavishly fund policing with relatively little debate, but fuss over stingy allocations to social programs. We saw this imbalance play out vividly on Sunday night, as state and local officials spared no expense to sweep the streets with riot cops, but left displaced and traumatized people all over the city to depend on the kindness of strangers. The growing movement to defund the police is all about flipping the warped priorities that brought us into the current crisis. As Tone Madison‘s Alice Herman noted in an earlier report on the protests, “In 2019, the City of Madison allocated approximately $85 million to the Madison Police Department, and expanded the force by three officers at the outset of 2020—outpacing allocations for Metro Transit by approximately $25 million and public health services by about $65 million.”

We have to set and exceed a high and uncomfortably creative bar for how we understand, take care of, and afford dignity to each other as a community, de-capitalizing our internal values systems and dismantling our white supremacist patriarchal culture. We have to bring our radical best to the work of change. I’m grateful to a few local organizations leading this work—especially Freedom Inc., Urban Triage, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation—and am in awe of how they’re going about it.

One of the most dissonant moments of my life was the time I dined at L’Etoile—consuming tiny foods that took the server more time to describe to me than for me to eat (and remember what they tasted like), costing hundreds of dollars for two of us, at tables pointed toward the massive glass walls overlooking the gleaming Capitol building and a dozen or so individuals who were homeless walking by only feet away from us just beyond our literal glass bubble. As if it were some sort of twisted dinner theater. I’m pretty sure people subliminally get off on that. And this was on one of Madison’s best days. 

On our best days, an entire populace walks by this woman, ignores her cries, discredits what she says and otherwise lies to ourselves to sleep at night. I’m sure I’ve walked by her before this weekend—maybe looking at her, maybe pretending I didn’t notice her as I chatted away with a companion, maybe giving her some money if she asked or awkwardly apologizing for not having any (even though I bet sometimes I did). This night, she didn’t even ask for money. She just wanted to feel safe.

And on one of our worst days, when those of us who tout our love for this glorious city brimming with “quality of life” are largely absent from defending its supposed core values in the streets against psycho-militarized police forces, the youth are coming together in kindness and bravery to represent what’s actually good and hopeful. That’s my takeaway from my small pocket of interactions with youth involved in the uprising in Madison.

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