News & Comment » News

"Tweaker Blast" Facebook pages expose the ugliness of Spokane — in more ways than one

by

Pictures and captions like these litter the Spokane Tweaker Blast Facebook page. Others feature live footage of people alleged to be drug users.
  • Pictures and captions like these litter the Spokane Tweaker Blast Facebook page. Others feature live footage of people alleged to be drug users.

The biggest rule on the "Spokane Tweaker Blast" Facebook page? No "symping."

"Symp" is the slur the group uses to describe anyone sympathetic to the alleged Spokane drug users captured in the photographs and videos uploaded on the page: Here's someone digging through a dumpster. Here's someone injecting drugs into his ankle. Here's a man pacing naked on his porch. Here's someone screaming incoherently at an intersection. Here are people sleeping in their cars or passed out on the sidewalk.

The commenters blast away, condemning those pictured, lamenting the "plague" they say has spread through Spokane. They call these people "twacks," "scum of society," "nasty ass bums," "undesirables" and "human waste." On this page, addiction isn't a disease. The addicts are the disease.

"Suggesting we offer help to these people will get you banned," the page's rules say. So will claiming that those featured just "have a mental illness or [are] homeless."

A local homeowner photographs a man drinking from her garden hose without permission. When a woman points out that it's 107 degrees and he didn't steal anything — she's banned.

"If you're stealing from a fountain," page founder Travis Brantley writes about the water-drinker, "you're pretty low on the totem pole of life."

Let them drink from a hose without permission, he writes, and the next thing you know they'll be trying to camp in your backyard.

Commenters are just as eager to condemn the symps.

"This dude is worse than those f—-ing White Knight slags sticking up for women," writes a local welder under a different sympathetic post. "The people displayed here are parasites and need to be eradicated."

Today, Spokane Tweaker Blast has over 7,500 members, though some of them — like Spokane Mayor David Condon — were added involuntarily by existing members. A spinoff page formed by a member booted from the original group, "Spokane Tweeker Blast 2.0," has 2,500 members.

When everyone has a cell phone camera and a social media platform, and when Spokane's grappling with intertwined crises of addiction, mental illness, crime and homelessness, maybe pages like these are inevitable: The leaders of Spokane Tweaker Blast brand their site as a wake-up call, a way to vividly show the cops, the City Council and local charities that something desperately needs to change.

But other observers, including people who work with the homeless, see the page and are horrified. They worry about what it will lead to.

INDISCRIMINATE BLASTS

The Tweaker Blast phenomenon didn't start in Spokane. It started with another site, four years ago in Springfield, Oregon, when a former meth addict named Kayla Fleming uploaded a video of her ex-boyfriend dealing drugs to a Facebook page she titled "Tweaker Blaster."

Today, it has over 21,000 members from all across the globe. Fleming says it's made her enough of a local celebrity to get recognized, but that it's also earned her death threats. She says she's been blamed for overdoses. She says her mom, a drug and alcohol counselor, hates the site.

But she also says that she's gone to incredible lengths to try to personally help addicts who want to change. To her, it's all tough love.

"If it takes me bashing them to get them clean, I'll do it," Fleming says.

She says that she does research to make sure that the people she's blasting are actually drug users. That's why she mostly sticks to mug shots instead of just uploading Facebook submissions. She says Brantley's Tweaker Blast page in Spokane gives hers a bad name.

"His is blasting random people," Fleming says. "[You] never know if they are on drugs or not. It's like slander."

Indeed, when she criticizes Brantley over Facebook messenger, he posts screencaps on the "Spokane Tweaker Blast" page, and commenters immediately start blasting Fleming, saying she looks like a tweaker.

Brantley, a local airplane-parts assembler, initially started the page as a way to call attention to shady activities associated with unlicensed RVs around Byrne Park, a few blocks south of NorthTown Mall. He says that he's had his share of personal confrontations with addicts, including chasing away one off his property with a baseball bat.

He says the page gets him death threats too — but also thank-yous from "ex-tweakers" who say the page helps them stay clean. He says he has a heart for the homeless; he says he used to give them clothing and feed them with Blessings Under the Bridge.

But he also says it's hard to draw the line between the homeless and addicts.

"Our motto of the group is 'Do tweaker shit, get tweaker blasted,'" Brantley says. "It doesn't matter if they're homeless, or druggies or mentally ill."

He says he started banning "symps," partly because sympathy tends to spark debates and partly because they muddle the message the group is trying to send: The citizens, the ones who feel so unsafe they "carry guns on them while [they] mow their lawns," he wrote in a July Facebook post, "are fed up with the inaction of the local government."

Tweaker Blast members began tagging their posts with #visitspokane, the name of the agency marketing Spokane.

"Everytime someone clicks #visitspokane, they're going to see the truth," Brantley says. "They're going to see what is really going on."

A query posted on the Tweaker Blast page by the Inlander last week sparked a chorus of over 100 comments from members explaining why they participate.

One says it's good for a laugh. Two fantasize about sticking all the addicts in a large fenced compound. Others say the page is about public safety, about identifying the places their kids need to avoid. The members share their anger over broken car windows, garage burglaries, public drug use, thieves, peeping Toms, dumpster divers and public masturbators. They lament the needles, the garbage and the human waste in public parks and outside their businesses.

Some members are former drug addicts — praised for making the choice to change. A mother says she follows the page to see if there's news about her "tweaker" daughter.

"I just wait for the knock on the door, and pray in my heart I don't read that she has done one of these terrible crimes," she writes.

Another condemns the need to pay top dollar for her son's EpiPen while drug addicts get their lives saved with Narcan for free.

You want to have sympathy? Then have sympathy for the victims of addicts, a slew of members say. Taking drugs is a choice, they say, and the addicts are the ones dehumanizing themselves.

"I don't even pray for the pieces of shit anymore!" one member says.

Amid all of this, several worry that the Inlander article will judge the page's commenters, generalize about them or even dehumanize them. "Get ready to be called sub-human Nazis for participating in Tweaker Blast," one writes.

But other members say they welcome the attention, if that's what it takes for the city to give a damn.

"It reminds me of the Colosseum shows of the Roman days. History shows us it doesn't end well."
~ Ryan Oelrich, former chairman of Spokane Homeless Coalition

CIVIC IDENTITY

Already, these Facebook pages have caught the eye of local conservative politicians. In May, Shawn Poole, a firefighter running for mayor against Ben Stuckart, makes a post referring his Facebook followers to the "Spokane Tweeker Blast 2.0" page.

"You can thank the current Spokane city leadership, [including] Ben Stuckart, for the problems we face today and what you see on this FB page," Poole wrote.

Firefighters, he tells the Inlander, are on the front line of responding to drug crises, including the hundreds of calls for service at the House of Charity homeless shelter.

"I think it's a good social media medium for exposing the underbelly of Spokane," Poole tells the Inlander about the "Tweaker Blast" pages. "There seems to be a lot of people in Spokane who say that if it doesn't affect me and I don't see it, it doesn't exist."

In May, conservative Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan also weighed in on the Tweeker Blast 2.0 group, using it to call for shutting down the borders to combat drug trafficking. He tells the Inlander he hasn't seen anything on the page he would consider cruel or dehumanizing.

Fagan's seatmate, Councilwoman Kate Burke, says she was initially shocked when the Inlander showed her the page. But the more she thought about it, the more she felt it fit Spokane's culture — and not in a good way.

"Well, what else do you expect our community to be like when our leaders are perpetuating this narrative?" Burke says. "The way we're treating the homeless, the way [we don't care] about the fact that we don't have shelter or not? Maybe I'm not that surprised."

Meanwhile, Ryan Oelrich loads up the Spokane Tweaker Blast page. He's the former chairman of Spokane Homeless Coalition, a network of agencies and nonprofits tasked with addressing homelessness. He quickly sees somebody being mocked who he recognizes. He believes the target has serious mental health issues. It makes him sick to his stomach.

"It's not awareness for the public good. It's mocking of other broken people for sadistic entertainment's sake," Oelrich says. "It reminds me of the Colosseum shows of the Roman days. History shows us it doesn't end well."

He says that shaming doesn't work as a way to fight addiction. He says he can't imagine what it would be like to, on top of the misery of being homeless or addicted to drugs, to see yourself splashed over the internet.

"In many cases it would be enough to push the broken person over the edge," Oelrich says.

"A BUNCH OF ASSHOLES"

Jill Sanders, a 43-year-old disabled woman, paces back and forth in her little apartment, shaking.

Last month, Sanders tells the Inlander, she was targeted by the Spokane Tweaker Blast page. Her friend had given her a glass rig she thought was used for "dabbing," a method of smoking cannabis. But when she posted it on a local dabbing board, commenters quickly told her the device was actually intended for smoking meth. Someone screencapped it and threw it up on the Spokane Tweaker Blast page, mocking her as an idiot, a liar and a tweaker.

"It wasn't just a matter of being blasted," Sanders says. "It was a matter of having my whole life and my heart ripped open again."

Like Fleming, Sanders was a former meth addict. She stopped using in 2005, when her husband drowned. If they hadn't used meth so much, she told herself over and over and over again, her husband would have been more clear-minded. He would still be alive.

The Tweaker Blast post dredged all that back up.

"I was told I was worth nothing and I should drop off the face of the earth," Sanders says. "The bullying was so bad I almost contemplated something severe. I'm not a mentally strong person. With the emotional and verbal abuse I got, I started contemplating suicide."

Sanders says she narrowly survived a suicide attempt two years ago. After the Tweaker Blast post hit, she told a friend she's "so close to giving up," but her friend told her that wasn't the answer.

"There were people who were willing to defend me, but they were so few and far between they were whispers in the gale," Sanders says.

Sanders took a cellphone video of herself putting the pipe in a Rosauers ice cream bag and smashing it with a rock. She uploaded the video to the page, but says it still didn't satisfy some in the mob. She says Brantley agreed to take down the post when asked, but the experience still left her wounded and wary.

"What happened to caring for people in the world?" Sanders says. "What happened to all the glory and the brightness of America? ... We've turned into a bunch of assholes."

PURGE WARNING

There are moments, Brantley says, when even he is uneasy about the direction of "Spokane Tweaker Blast."

"I have seen where the page has gone, and it has given me pause," he says. He says he had to boot an administrator after the administator started suggesting making citizens arrests.

There was another local page he used to be a part of, Brantley says, where he became convinced that the founder had lapsed into vigilantism.

"He started doing violent things, rather than just reporting on the homeless," Brantley says. "He was going out and doing a 'purge,' going out and beating up homeless people in the park."

Along with condemning symps, the "Tweaker Blast" rules discourage calls for violence. Brantley says he doesn't want the site to get shut down, or even worse, to escalate into actual violent action.

"That's one of our biggest fears," he says.

Yet it's not hard to find ominous posts. On Monday night, a Spokane Tweaker Blast photograph of a messy encampment in the Dishman Hills area sparks a woman to say that's she's "so f—-ing ready to go to war on these inhuman parasites." A man responds with a post claiming he beat up a "tweaker" after warning him repeatedly to stay away from his house. Another member chimes in, suggesting that local militias could conduct "night patrols" in conjunction with law enforcement. The woman posts her phone number, offering to meet up with members to develop a plan.

"F—- this waiting for the cops that never show up to get these creatures away from our homes," she writes. ♦

danielw@inlander.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "No "Symps" Allowed"

Readers also liked…