This interview first appeared in The Brattleboro Commons in 2019.
JAMES DOUGLAS, 60, has been homeless for three years after he left an unhealthy relationship. “I became homeless ’cause I had no place else to go,” he says. “I get a monthly income — Social Security. But that doesn’t pay rent.”
Douglas, who lives in Brattleboro, was arrested on July 11, at 12:30 a.m. for sleeping in Plaza Park downtown. People who sleep there at night do so because they have no other safe place to go. Now that park is no longer safe.
Douglas expects to be found guilty and sentenced to probation, but he plans to reject the terms of his probation in court on the grounds that he is not guilty of anything besides having nowhere to sleep. If incarcerated again, he intends to refuse to eat indefinitely.
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Matthew Vernon Whalan: What happened in the park the other night with the police?
James Douglas: It started with me asking questions of the people that were there — about if it was OK to stay. I already stayed there one night. Nobody bothered us. Everything was fine. And then probably a week later, I asked somebody if it was OK for me to stay there, if they were being bothered while stayin’ there. I was told they weren’t bein’ bothered.
And so I went over there and laid down on the bench. I dunno how long it had been. But I got woken up by the police. And they told me that I was trespassing and that I had to leave. They said it was past 10 p.m. and I wasn’t allowed to be in the park past 10 p.m.
So I said, “Well, I don’t have any place else to go,” so I said, “I’m not leaving. I’m staying here.”
They continued to try and get me to go, and I refused. And so they said, “Well, we’ll be back in a little while, and if you’re [still] here then you’ll be charged with trespassing.”
So I knew what was comin’. I stayed there. I ain’t goin’ anywhere.
Well, they asked me one more time to leave. And I told them one more time that I have no place else to go.
But I told them repeatedly, “I have no place else to go. But if you find me another safe place to go, I will leave.”
That’s when they forcibly pulled me off the bench. I mean, they threw me up against the car, handcuffed me, and started going through all my pockets. Told me that I was under arrest.
It was at that point that it was kind of over. I mean, I was abused. My ribs are hurt. I got a bruise on my head. They hurt me pretty bad.
M.V.W.: Is that what the bruise next to your eye is?
J.D.: No, this one. Here. [He pulls his hat off, revealing two blueish-yellowish bruises above his right eye on the forehead.] The one next to my eye is somethin’ else.
They did all that stuff because they said I resisted. But I didn’t refuse to leave. I told them I would leave willingly if they find me a safe place to go. And I didn’t resist arrest. I just refused to leave the park. That’s different to me. I refused to abide by their order. And that’s when I started getting abused.
And you know — there isn’t much to tell after that. They went through all my pockets and they put me in a car and brought me to jail. And I was locked up for 12 hours before I saw a judge.
M.V.W: What was that like?
J.D.: It was awful. I slept in a place without a blanket. I begged for some tissue so I could use the toilet. They wouldn’t give me any. They gave me McDonald’s for food and I told them I was a vegan and I don’t eat that stuff. So lunchtime came around, and they give me the same stuff all over again. So I didn’t eat that either.
And shortly after that I finally got out. But, you know, I asked for a blanket. I didn’t get one. I asked for a tissue. I didn’t get none.
You know, everything I asked for, I got ignored. So I was really treated bad. Really bad. I was not treated like I had any rights at all. None.
M.V.W.: What time was it when they picked you up?
J.D.: About 12:30 a.m. I saw the judge probably around 2 in the afternoon the next day, which I guess is typical for people most of the time.
There were several people in there that I knew. It’s — on any given night, you’re gonna find several of these people locked up for one reason or another, and then they get released the next day — revolving door. Constant. Constant.
Go there today, you’ll find more people. If you’re unfortunate enough to get locked up on a weekend, you have to sit there all weekend waitin’ for a Judge. They told me initially I had a $500 bail. [Bail was dropped in his arraignment.] I don’t even know what I was arrested for that would require a bail. I was arrested for trespassing. That’s what their charge was.
And it’s public property. And there’s no sign posted. The sign was on the ground. And people had been staying there night after night for well over a month without any concern whatsoever because [the police] never showed up. Nobody ever showed up to tell [people using the park] that they couldn’t stay there. In fact, the police would come through every once in a while during the day and not say anything to them.
They never gave anybody any warnings. Nothin’. And so people just were under the assumption that they were just allowing us to have a place to go. You know, it was kind of hard to believe, but that’s where we were at.
And then all of a sudden this happens. Right? Out of nowhere, they decide to enforce the law.
M.V.W.: Do you feel it’s random?
J.D.: Oh, it’s absolutely random. If it’s a law, then it applies to everybody, every single night. If they’re only doing it randomly, then they’re acting like terrorists. What they’re doing is they’re instilling fear in us — not knowing when they’re going to show up again.
And so we’re always fearful of where we’re sleeping at night now. Always fearful. Always have been fearful of where we sleep at night. There is no legal place in Brattleboro for us to lay our head. There is no legal place. Period. None. Zero. No legal place. It’s cruel and unusual punishment, and it’s a violation of the Constitution.
M.V.W.: The way you were arrested?
J.D.: What I was arrested for was being in a public space at a time when they said it was not allowed. And they consider that trespassing. And I said that I don’t have any place else to go. And they did not offer another place except to lock me up. That is what I consider cruel and unusual punishment: that you would lock somebody up because they have no place else to go. I think the law backs me up on that. I think it does.
My public defender is weak. Really weak. Has her objections, but she’s weak. You don’t really hear her objections. She’s not loud about it. She’s not passionate about it. She’s not gonna work for me. The judge don’t care what she has to say. That was obvious. So that’s not gonna work for me.
That’s not acceptable — for me to feel I’m walkin’ outta there with no way to defend myself. I dunno that I’m capable of doing it on my own. So I need some help.
And I don’t want to just comply because if I just continue to do what they expect me to do and what they’ve been getting from everybody else, then they’ll continue to do this stuff to people. So I’m not gonna comply.
Even if I don’t get help, I will defy their orders all the way to the end. Whatever it is, if they find me guilty and punish me, I will not do it. I will not carry it out. I will not. I will defy it to the end.
I will not do it. I feel like I have the law on my side. And I’ll stand next to it until it’s over. I don’t care what it is. They wanna lock me up? Fine. They’re gonna have to do a whole lot to get me to comply with them, and I never really will.
They will have to force feed me if they lock me up because I won’t eat their food. How’s that gonna make em look when they’re force-feeding homeless people? ’Cause I had no place to go and was locked up. ’Cause I fight the charge of having no place to go?
I am ready and willing and able to go through all of it. I am willing. I’ll do it. I’m not complying with whatever — you know. I’m not. I’m not guilty, and that’s the end of it for me. I once went two days without food and water while locked up in a town jail. They were beggin’ me to drink water and they let me out an hour early.
That’s unprecedented. Nobody gets out of jail early. Nobody does. They were scared. They were scared of me. Because they watched me do it. I went six consecutive meals without food. Six consecutive meals, and not one drop of water. Another day, and I’d’ve been on a hunger strike.
Yeah. I’m serious. I can do it. I’m capable of doing it and I will do it. I didn’t have any problem with it at all. None whatsoever. In fact, the inmates considered me a frickin’ hero. They knew I had the guards wrapped around my finger. I was a hero for two days.
Yeah, well, I’m not your average person, guys. I’m not.