One of the things I want to do with the blog this year is occasionally highlight the individual projects of Satanists within the community that take place out from under organizational banners. We spend a lot of time here talking about the headline grabbing collective actions of The Satanic Temple (TST), but it’s important to remember that despite working together when it suits common goals Satanists have a healthy individualist streak and often do much more on their own. By way of spotlighting such individual accomplishments last week I got a chance to talk to Evan Cullman, a Colorado Satanist who focuses his individual pursuits on Denver’s homelessness problem.
Satanists Don’t (nor should they) Agree on What to Do
Individual action is a topic that comes up frequently since TST has become so publicly active. A lot of people coming into the organization are excited to find a community and want to share their passions. Of course the organization isn’t a clearing house for everyone’s pet projects, so much time is spent discussing that such a group just can’t be all things to all people. In my experience newcomers tend to react to this in one of two ways. Either they become immediately frustrated and leave when they can’t muster support for their passion project, or they understand that just because the organization can’t lend support there’s nothing stopping them from working on their own or with others as individuals. (This is why when you listen to a show like Black Mass Appeal or read my About Page there’s always a disclaimer about not speaking for the organization.)
Evan falls into the latter of the two camps. When he found differing opinions within the TST community, he instead continued to participate with the group while pursuing his homelessness activism on his own (though his chapter does lend some support by partnering with groups like Atheists Helping the Homeless for donation drives.)
FIUO: Hi Evan, thanks for taking the time to talk. On the blog we talk a lot about what Satanic chapters and organizations are doing, but I know that a lot of Satanists make time in their own schedule for personal projects that aren’t group initiatives. I hear you work a lot with homelessness and tenants rights reform. How does that fit into your personal Satanic ethos?
Evan: A while back, I suggested that the third tenet of TST entails (in my opinion) a right not to be impeded in the pursuit of survival, vis-à-vis homelessness. To my chagrin, a handful of people expressed disdain and implied that in the case of homelessness property rights should take priority over the bodily needs of homeless people. That property owners’ and tenants’ preference that homeless people not sleep on their premises, or public preference that homeless people not sleep on public property, should take priority over a homeless person’s need for sleep, however that can be had.
FIUO: I guess I can sort of see their point with private property but public property is definitely a bit of a stretch. I mean it seems to me it’s public for a reason, and everyone is the public. It feels, to me, like more of a first tenet argument though. Why do you think this is a bodily autonomy issue?
Evan: I may say a bit more on private property later, but indeed, in April when (for the third year in a row) a sort of homeless bill of rights was heard in the Colorado House Local Government Committee, its proponents and supporters made that very point. That members of the public, including those who are homeless, should not be impeded in their use of public space.
I consider it a bodily violation to deprive someone of something biologically necessary. In the case of homelessness, especially in Denver with its harsh winters, this prominently includes sleep and the means not to die of hypothermia. There’s a local ordinance that prohibits sleeping in public while covered by anything other than clothing–so, tents, sleeping bags, blankets even. In 2016, the Denver Police Department conducted massive sweeps of Denver’s homeless population in which cops confiscated and destroyed such possessions in large numbers. I consider that a bodily violation, not to mention a violation of the due process clause of the 5th Amendment, but that’s neither here nor there.
FIUO: When the cops conducted the sweeps what happened to the people who had their stuff confiscated?
Evan: Most did not get their stuff back. The mayor denied the sweeps took place until they were covered on TV and he was forced to acknowledge their occurrence. He then issued a tepid apology and a directive for cops not to take homeless people’s stuff. I don’t know to what extent that has been honored.
FIUO: Right but I mean it’s one thing if they were arrested on vagrancy charges and allowed to spend the night indoors (even if it was in a cell) than to think that cops basically stole their blanket, told them to figure it out, and left them in the cold. How did that play out? I bring that up because our cities have a big climate difference. Cops do the same thing here in our parks but it never gets below freezing here so it’s not the same kind of threat at all.
Evan: I don’t know. From what an esteemed TST-CO colleague of mine once said, “some people may have just died. It happens out here.”
I take it that, just like with certain drugs’ the law affords cops the privilege to confiscate them, so it is with the nothing-but-clothing ordinance.
Also, earlier: I seem to have said something inaccurate: if I’m not mistaken, the confiscations were, in fact, NOT a violation of the 5th Amendment’s due process clause–or the 14th’s. The 5th Amendment refers only to the federal government, and the 14th, only to the states. But this is a municipal ordinance. I’m not a lawyer; I don’t know whether local government is included in the purview of constitutional restrictions on state governments, but perhaps not.
More interesting though is that best I can tell the US Constitution does not explicitly acknowledge any fundamental human rights to any particular thing. It merely prohibits federal and state authorities from doing certain things. Conservatives love to gaslight people by bandying the Constitution about as if it included a brilliant and robust litany of safeguards for human rights when, best I can tell, it amounts to little more than “let the peasants eat cake.”
On Individual vs. Group Action
FIUO: So having had conversations with a lot of other TST folk I understand their concern for not taking on issues like this organizationally, but it sounds like you’re doing what you can on your own. Let’s talk about that. I think a lot of people feel like when their ideas don’t get adopted because of concerns of spreading the organization too thin they feel disheartened. You seem to be taking the approach of ‘if the organization can’t help I’ll do what I can’. I know you’ve managed to find a tie-in by your chapter partnering with Atheist Helping the Homeless, which is a great charity. How did you overcome that feeling of having your personal cause not taken up? Do you feel like you’re maybe building a case for when the organization might one day be robust enough to lend support?
Evan: That is exactly my outlook on this issue. Though I am always receptive to the TST family’s intellectual capital, I do not seek its labor.
As far as what I’ve accomplished, I am not doing well; depression, poverty, and my own struggle to stay housed have sucked me pretty dry, but I have donated clothing to AHH, testified before the House Local Government Committee in favor of the Right to Rest Without Arrest Act in April, and floated ideas with various people. Currently, I’m trying to articulate just what the legislative outlook on homelessness–and property ownership–should be.
There’s a Denver mayoral candidate for 2019 who seems promising. When I formulate a decent draft of these musings, I’ll reach out to him. I have many questions, but if I find that he is indeed sympathetic to my views on local government, or at least more so than his competitors, I’ll campaign for him.
So far, legislative, litigious, and protest-mediated resistance to Denver’s homeless bans have failed to overturn them. While I look forward to 2019 and the possibility of electing a mayoral candidate who could curb the pernicious onslaught of gentrification, I ponder why the above attempts at resisting the homeless bans have failed to overturn them. Our conversation has helped clarify how to go about this. Among other things, i think it may be crucial to confirm whether the 14th Amendment applies to municipal government, or just state government.
I think there’s most hope in elections, in encouraging large numbers of people to vote, and to take careful note of the voting tendencies of their legislators, and of the Local Government Committee. I’ve been toying with the wording of some followup emails to some of its members re: the Right to Rest vote for far too long. We need to make it so that legislators cannot electorally survive things like condemning homeless people to a criminal record and possible death in the cold.
How is This Satanic?
FIUO: Ok let’s broaden a bit, for several decades the prevailing Satanic narrative was that civic engagement was at best an individual exploit and not what many would have considered an outgrowth of their Satanism. TST seems be changing that narrative and making civic engagement intrinsic to ‘what a Satanist is’. So when it comes to Satanism’s sense of individual liberty, what’s your best argument for helping others from a Satanic perspective?
Evan: Some Satanists would argue that human flourishing should only be exalted and promoted to the extent that it’s their own. I find that view myopic–and frankly, not very Satanic.
Personally, I deeply revere the archetype of Satan as one who sacrificed much because he recognized good beyond his personal wellbeing. Probably most–even LaVeyan–Satanists would agree that non-denial of one’s own nature is fundamental to Satanism. As a human, it is my nature to care about the welfare of others; I’m evolutionarily hardwired thusly. Empathetic impulses have made our species successful. Indulging them may secure our survival; denying them may spell our doom.
FIUO: Oh yeah, we’re going to leave this right at that. I might personally quibble with the sacrifice part because I don’t think mythologically that it was much of a sacrifice, but that’s a topic for another time.
Evan: I might agree with you. I might also characterize my altruistic inclinations thusly: “Feels good, man!” I really enjoyed this conversation. For one thing, it helped me recognize some things crucial to getting out of my rut regarding these issues.
FIUO: Glad I could help.