Boise, the city I live in is, is currently considering whether or not to pass a discriminatory ordinance about sitting down in public, the ultimate goal of which is to sweep its homeless population under the rug. Besides the many practical issues, such as the fact that similar laws have already been deemed unconstitutional, I take great issue with any law that draws a line through society and says you get different rights on different sides of it. So I volunteered to share my feelings at a rally held by the local ACLU against it. However, the rally was nothing more than talking to a single TV camera that came. So I didn’t give this speech. Instead, I’m posting it here.
When people ask what teenagers did in the town I grew up in, I tell them the truth: we hung out at the library. Though I love books, the real reason why is that the front steps were an excellent place to skateboard.
One day, the librarian, a surly old man, did as surly old men are wont to do and told us to ‘get off his lawn.’
We said ‘no,’ telling him that it was a public library and a legal place to skateboard. He had no right to kick us out. I may even have waved my library card at him.
So he called the police, who arrived and instead of telling the librarian that we were not breaking any laws, began writing me a ticket.
You understand it’s legal to skateboard here I asked him.
Yes, I do, the cop told me. But the librarian complained, he said. Then he gave me my ticket and said he would see me in court.
The librarian looked pretty smug as my friends and I were forced to pack up our skateboards and go elsewhere for fear of prosecution
But I did go to court, and while the judge didn’t quite share my indignation over the trumped up charges, he acknowledged that yes, I had done nothing illegal, and dropped them.
Had my town had a sit/lie ordinance like the one proposed, I could have ended up in jail. But luckily, we did not. So my friends and I went back to skateboarding at the library and that was that.
A skateboarding ticket I got as a teen may not seem like that big a deal, or remotely relevant to a sit/lie ordinance. But let me tell you another story that illustrates why it’s important.
Some years later, I moved to Los Angeles and got a job in a coffee shop on Hollywood Blvd.
Every day, the same homeless man came in around 3 p.m., and paid for a single cup of coffee with grimy coins that he poured onto the counter from the previous day’s to-go cup. Then he sat on the patio and drank it.
This man looked like he had been living on the streets for years and smelled like death. But I had endless respect for him because he came back every day. He could have gone to a gas station or a corner store and not gotten the looks he got at a fancy coffee shop. But when he sat on the patio and took a sip you could tell that one day he’d simply said to himself: I may not anything else, but at least I can have a GOOD cup of coffee.
But one day as he was enjoying what was likely the only enjoyable part of his life, the police appeared and began to drag him away.
I ran outside and demanded to know what they were doing. They ordered me back inside and took him away. It didn’t matter that he was a paying customer, only that someone had complained. Not even the business itself. Just another customer. And since that customer was cleaner-looking with more money, they were granted the benefit of the doubt that he had no right to be where he was and that their complaints were legitimate.
The difference between my unjust charges and his, were that I was lucky enough to have the resources to do something about it. I had a house to live in while fighting them, a job to pay the ticket to avoid jail, transportation to and from the courthouse and the mental faculty and emotional stability to defend myself in court and to vote for different leaders in the next election. He had nothing but that cup of coffee the police so cruelly stole from him.
Though my manager called the police station and demanded that they release him immediately and refused to press charges, I never saw that man again. He probably thought I was the one that complained. And I can’t blame him one bit for feeling betrayed. Like my case, rather than the police telling the people complaining that just because they didn’t like someone or something, that didn’t give them the right to outlaw or legally oppress it, they ended the situation by using their power and authority to unjustly intimidate innocent people. And you can’t blame them either. If they can end a situation by saying “move it along,” instead of hauling someone off to jail, why not.
I’ll tell you why not: because it represents a fundamental violation of the core principles of America, that one is accorded the same legal rights, regardless of race, language, color, creed or the size of your bankroll.
No matter how the city council tries to massage the language and carve out exceptions to sanitize the action—and they have not tried much at all—the core of this law remains a line drawn along the wealth spectrum that says on this side of the line you get different rights and privileges than on the other. It is even in the language of the law itself. If one is waiting in line for a commercial establishment, sitting or lying on the sidewalk is fine. But if simply tired and without anywhere else to go? Sorry bud. Move it along. These sidewalks are not for the public, only the affluent. And the affluent don’t like to be reminded that there are people less fortunate than themselves.
It is nothing less than using the legal code as a form of cultural cleansing, a way to tell undesirables to “move it along.” And don’t for a second think that isn’t what it’s for. There are only two ways to enforce a law like this: apply it to every sweet old lady that needs to rest her weary legs, or simply to those that look like trouble. That means the poor, the homeless, the street performers, they would all then be subject to a misdemeanor charge, putting them on par with people that commit domestic assault, accidentally injuring someone with a firearm, cruelty to animals and stalking, which are also misdemeanors. In a great twist of irony, the charges for this discriminatory law would also be on par with the charges one gets for violating the city’s newly-minted ANTI-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
But in addition to being discriminatory, a sit/lie ordinance is the worst possible solution for addressing the issues of homelessness as it drives the problems further underground rather than addressing them directly. Cities that have adopted similar legislation have found their homeless populations unable to seek work or assistance from shelters because of outstanding sit/lie charges or fines. They have more frequently been the targets of hate crimes, as the laws pour fuel on the fire of pre-existing prejudices.
And what good has it done the cities themselves? They have lost multi-million dollar lawsuits for violating the 4th and 14th amendment rights of their citizens. Their homeless are still homeless.
Boise does not have a problem with aggressive panhandling. What it has a problem with is a sense of entitlement amongst its affluent, a belief that their wealth should allow them to whitewash the world in their image.
If the city actually wanted to do something about homelessness, there are plenty of good ideas out there. It could offer simple labor jobs to the people holding signs that say “will work for food.” It could encourage the private sector to pay them to hold sandwich boards in lue of panhandling. It could provide a designated camping area they could use as a home base. But it doesn’t want to. It simply wants to lick the boots of the wealthy, of those that complained, rather than doing the right thing and encouraging positive action to change the situation.
Look, no one stands for aggressive panhandling, but because we don’t condone aggressive behavior, which is why we have laws banning assault, harassment and disturbing the peace. Those laws apply as much to panhandlers as they do to non-panhandlers. The problem is aggression, not pandhandling and not tired people that simply need somewhere to sit.
The proposed sit/lie ordinance is an immoral, illegal solution using the worst possible research methods to search for a problem. It is a shameful black mark on our city that we are even here today to oppose it.