Not A Panacea for Economic Justice

Lawyer Jason Flores-Williams (Credit: Giles Clasen)

Lawyer Jason Flores-Williams (Credit: Giles Clasen)

By Robert Davis

Lawyer Jason Flores-Williams speaks on the settlement with Denver over homeless sweeps. 

The City of Denver reached a settlement with Jason Flores-Williams and his legal team on February 27, just weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial in federal court. It comes nearly three years after the civil rights attorney filed a lawsuit against the City of Denver for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of the city’s homeless population during its homeless sweeps. 

According to court records, the two parties had been working on a settlement since early January 2019. In a statement, the city said it will strive to “make [Denver] a national leader concerning the rights and treatment of those experiencing homelessness in America.”

Some terms of the settlement include paying a sum of $30,000 to the six named plaintiffs on the lawsuit, requiring the city to place signs giving seven days’ notice prior to large cleanup projects, and potentially creating a “mobile health unit” funded by the city. 

To address the issue of storage, the city will place 200 lockers at the Minoru Yasui Plaza building that can be used to store property for up to 30 days. Anyone who has their property taken during a cleanup will be given a phone number to call if they have any questions or want to know how to retrieve their property. 

To learn more about the settlement and what’s next for Denver’s homeless, we sat down with Flores-Williams for a Q&A.  

Robert Davis: Can you give our readers some background information on how the settlement was reached? Who initiated the conversations, and why?

Jason Flores-Williams: As a part of any litigation, it’s expected you try to resolve without trial. The city saw we had a good chance to win, and we believe that we would have won. However, we also saw that by working with the city we could get more for our clients via a settlement. By engaging with the city, we got more than by going to trial. 

The process started about four months ago. Both sides were talking. Eventually, we start putting things down on paper and brought in a mediator. This kept happening until we had something real and enforceable with the court. But I was ready to go to trial. I’m a trial lawyer and that’s what I do. 

RD: Are you and your team satisfied with the outcome or did you want to take this to trial? Why or why not?

JFW: It was always really important to me to give my clients their day in court. My clients were rendered voiceless, and were deprived of their constitutional rights on a mass scale. That’s part of why I did it, [why] we did it. We had people treated like they are invisible, like they have no voice. We wanted to make them seen and give them a voice. And I want to add that this was an extremely collective effort. Every facet of this case came from the streets. It didn’t happen in a lawyer’s office. It happened by working with and listening to the people suffering homelessness.  

RD: The last time we spoke, you told me that this case 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,’ you said. Do you see this settlement as a way of re-humanizing Denver’s poor and dispossessed?

JFW: Yes, it gives the poor and dispossessed more leverage in their city. I’ve been saying this settlement is not a panacea for economic injustice. It’s an open door. That’s really about as much justice as you can get in America. This settlement got their foot in in the door. Now it’s up to them to kick the door wide open. This gives them something for their war chest. It’s real. It’s righteous. It’s part of the Constitution of the United States. Now they can use it to fight for real humanization against corporations and governments who treat people like this. 

This settlement gets right in the middle of the interaction between the poor and dispossessed and law enforcement. Before, you had situations taking place under the cover of darkness with no video and no witness. Who can say how people were being treated and what rights they were being deprived of? Based on our last three years of documentation, they were being treated horrifically. Now we have to some way stop those violations and give some people some degree of leverage. Law enforcement now has to interact with the dispossessed or homeless instead of forcing them move along and get out of our gentrifying city. Now, they have to give that person notice. Think about that. On the sign that the city has to give them, there is all sorts of information about who would be kicked out and ways and alternative resources to avail themselves of their constitutional rights and dignity. The years of people being treating like right-less entities are over. There is life after the settlement.  

RD: Shortly after the settlement was announced, the city said they want Denver to become the leading city in terms of how it treats its homeless. What steps in this direction would you like to see the city take? Are there any that are not mentioned in the settlement?

JFW: I’ll say, the settlement was reached in good faith. Everything in the settlement is designed to make Denver a leader in its treatment of its poor and dispossessed. But it’s a start. If Denver wants to be a leader, then it needs to be proactive and vigilant. That’s why there is an advisory board with a direct line to mayor’s office. They will tell the mayor where Denver is doing well, where it could improve, and where it’s failing. And this is a permanent fixture in Denver’s government now. The settlement also comes with the power of a court order. If Denver violates the terms of the agreement, then we’re going to be in court. As with any battle for justice, once you get your foot in the door, it falls on us to remain vigilant to make sure everyone has been treated equally. It’s important to say the settlement is not just some sort of political piece of paper.  

RD: What do you think is next for Denver’s homeless community now that this case is over? Are we going to see the Right to Survive pass or are we still a few steps away from that?

JFW: I don’t engage in city politics. I can’t prophesize if the Right to Survive will pass. I’m not a system guy. But, because I’m an attorney, I try to get justice out of the system. I fight for whatever is left of the American ideal. I’m certainly rooting for the [Right to Survive measure]. 

But, we also need to understand that if there are groups being dehumanized in our city, it dehumanizes us all. It’s a sad and terrible society to live in when you have to step over the bodies of some tired and broken individuals to go out to dinner. It does something to you when you have to do that. We should take responsibility for one another. As I said earlier, that interaction between law enforcement and homeless people … those days are over. They have to give formal notice and provide [homeless people] with the resources to be able to deal with their situation in a better way. They have to give them an opportunity to build their lives in whatever way they see fit, rather than step on them at their weakest and [in a] vulnerable moment of their lives. This settlement is a paradigmatic shift for Denver and the way our government — because it is our government, after all — treats its people. 

Everyone has different ideas about government, and it’s my personal philosophy that a government should not be hurting people when they’re at their most vulnerable point. I hope that’s no longer going to be happening. The reason why I brought this litigation is because I used to be one of the people stepping over others on my way somewhere. But you see, I have this piece of paper called a law degree hanging up in my office. What good is it if I don’t use it? And this is exactly what you’re supposed to use it for. If you can do something to help people, then do it. Don’t worry about whose toes you step on. Just get the damn thing done. 

Right now, people need to look at themselves in a mirror when they decide to go blow $175 at the bar before helping their fellow brothers and sisters. Somehow, it’s more important to buy cocktails than help their fellow human beings be treated with some form of dignity. Just have one less cocktail and fight for a better society. Have one less cool sweater and fight for a more just city and nation. Until that happens, all of those efforts will be demeaned by systemic injustice. ■