Jason Flores-Williams is the lawyer attached to the most high-profile justice movements among the Denver homeless population. He helped create the Homeless Bill of Rights and is now making headlines as the lawyer behind the class action lawsuit against the city for its homeless sweeps. The Denver VOICE talked to him about those causes, activism, and his personal stake in justice for the underprivileged.
By Robert Davis
Jason Flores-Williams emerged forcefully from the shadows of Denver’s legal community. He’s an author with a literary style that melds the hedonism of the San Francisco beat writers with the psychoanalysis of Dostoyevsky. He’s represented alleged drug dealers, inmates on death row, and suspected murderers. Now, he’s leading the fight for the constitutional rights of Denver’s homeless population. On behalf of numerous homeless individuals, Flores-Williams filed a class-action lawsuit against The City of Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock, and other public officials alleging the homeless sweeps routinely violate the constitutional rights—specifically the 4th, 8th, and 14th Amendment rights—of Denver’s underprivileged population.
“The homeless sweeps are exactly as described. Sweeps of homeless persons and their property in a systemic criminalization and targeting of the poor and dispossessed in the downtown area that tracks perfectly with the development of Downtown Denver,” the class action complaint reads.
To better understand the man who’s made a career out of defending those that society would rather forget, the Denver VOICE sat down for a Q&A with Flores-Williams.
RD: Tell me a little about yourself. What made you transition from being an author to a lawyer?
JFW: I grew up with a father in prison. When you grow up with a parent in prison you can go one of two ways: you can succumb to it or you can fight against the injustice that tore up your family. At first, I thought writing was the best way to fight it. But, writing was maybe not the most direct way. I figured I would always have a writer’s soul. But I wanted to make a direct impact. Ken Kesey had a quote about it, “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.” So, that’s what led me to become a lawyer.
RD: It’s interesting that you invoke Kesey here, because as I read through your book “The Last Stand of Mr. America,” I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between your writing style and the San Francisco Beats of the 1960s. So, are the experiences you outlined what inspires you to fight for underprivileged and displaced persons as hard as you do?
JFW: It’s not that complicated. I have a natural antipathy for bullies. You know, seeing the kid on the playground getting picked on by a bully shoving his thumb in the kid’s face and the kid not being able to fight back. I know what it feels like to be pushed around. Sometimes I wish I could ignore it, but constitutionally I can’t ignore a bully beating up on someone.
RD: Is that why you’ve been the ”force of nature” behind the Right to Rest bill every year?
JFW: Well, the Right to Rest bill has truly been the work of Denver Homeless Out Loud. My focus has been on the litigation aspect. At first when I started it, The Denver Post wrote a hit piece on it saying that it was a waste of time. Now, they’re happy to see everyone get their day in court. So, I like to measure it by the change in people’s minds about the subject. It may well be the defining fight of my existence. It’s taken just over two years. A long two years. But I’d rather wake up every day and feel that I have something to commit my mind and energy to instead of feeling outside of things. Denver tried to make discovery harder and used every other tactic that corporations use to kibosh court cases, but we’ve dealt with everything the city has thrown at us. Everything has been worthwhile—expending the resources, the fight itself—now, we have to win it.
RD: Is there a case you’ve handled to date that will impact Denver’s homeless population?
JFW: Well, I have to kind of give you a roundabout answer on this one. There have been a lot of cases recently that I’ve handled. From dissidents in Cuba, revolutionaries fighting for their country, to people in the U.S. where the government tried to crush their First Amendment rights. It’s called the J20 case. I’m a criminal defense attorney. I handle all sorts of cases where police smash into someone’s home with frag grenades and arrest them and seize property. But to be frank, I got into this fight after a dinner I went to in RiNo. I saw a woman with her kid standing next to a dumpster. There were police squad cars shining their lights on her and it reminded me of my own childhood when the DA came to my house and arrested my father. I think ... if you can do something about, then why not? Our lives are all happening on our watch. We all have a basic responsibility to each other. If you get in a position where you can do something about it, you should do it. It’s a basic tenent of living a moral life.
RD: So from your perspective—either legal or personal—what makes Denver’s treatment of homeless individuals different from other cities, and to what degree?
JFW: In some ways it’s different, and in some ways it’s the same. Denver came to a place where there was a lot of economic growth and a lot of people making a lot of money. Billions in economic growth, in fact. When this growth occurs in an urban setting, the poor or voiceless are stepped on so people can make a buck. It’s a common story in America. It’s the story of 21st Century cities, really. While people are putting profits over people, they violate the most fundamental rights of other people who can’t stand up and assert their rights. In Denver, they basically acted like an invading army. The public officials said ‘We’re gonna get rid of the unwanted people.’ By taking away their rights and making life unbearably uncomfortable, the unwanted are gonna want to flee. What everyone affected by these actions heard was ‘if you just leave, this will stop.’ After all the buildings have been built, and everyone’s stocks go up, they try to put a different face on it. We’re living in the results of something very ugly.
RD: Obviously, Denver’s approach to criminalizing homelessness has been comprehensive. What are some other ways the city has done so, outside of the Urban Camping Ban?
JFW: Honestly, it all falls under the war on the poor. You got a guy walking around, typically a veteran, with a couple of pictures of his mom and maybe a cellphone—his last connection to his support system. The police will come and take his phone, property, and trash it. It’s the same as if you walked into a richer neighborhood and said ‘this is my home’ and trashed it. We just turn our heads and walk away when it happens to the poor.
RD: What role do local advocacy groups such as Denver Homeless Out Loud play in order to help you in fighting the legal battle against Denver’s homeless sweeps?
JFW: They’re my litigation partner, plain and simple. Those people (DHOL) hit streets at 5 a.m. to find witnesses. They take declarations in back alleys. This would be impossible without great people like them.
RD: So, let’s say someone who has never heard of the lawsuit, or the problems facing Denver’s homeless population, decides to buy a copy of the VOICE and they read this article. What do you want them to know about the fight?
JFW: This is about constitutional rights more than anything else. It’s about all of us. If you see a police officer or city official dehumanizing someone, understand what they’re doing is dehumanizing you. That’s it. ■