Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The War on the Poor (UPDATE)

A local panhandler, courtesy of the Portland Press Herald.
Last month, I wrote about the Portland City Council's proposal to ban panhandlers from standing in median strips. On Monday, the Council passed that ordinance 6-0 (Councilors Leeman, Duson and Anton were absent during the vote). The new law is not merely limited to panhandling, though. The ordinance, which takes effect Aug. 14, prohibits anyone from standing in the median strips of busy intersections for any reason. One is not even allowed to hold a political sign.

A couple of observations regarding this vote:

First, as I stated in my previous post on this topic, this ordinance will do nothing to eliminate panhandling from Portland. Panhandlers will simply congregate on sidewalks, in congested areas, by Monument Square or Congress Square Park, or in front of businesses.

Second, even after the public forum for the ordinance Monday night, advocates failed to supply any evidence that traffic accidents have increased as a direct result of panhandler activity in median strips. All of their fears were based on speculation of what sorts of accidents or pedestrian harm might occur.

This is not to suggest I am in favor of throwing caution to the wind and simply ignoring imminent dangers to motorists or pedestrians.

But passing a law based purely on speculative fears (laws like, The Patriot Act, for instance) is sort of like prohibiting citizens from getting out of bed in the morning, for fear some of them might accidentally trip, break their neck and die. Show me a graph illustrating a direct correlation between the increase in panhandlers and a corresponding increase in vehicular accidents, and I will gladly reconsider my position on this issue. As a recent WMTW Channel 8 broadcast on this story (06/13/2013) stated, "While numbers of calls for service to police because of people in the median have gone up, it's not clear whether anybody's actually been hurt because of people standing in the median of roads."

Finally, one must admire, on a purely propagandistic level, Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck's expertise at employing scare-tactics. The issue, as I understand it, is about panhandlers holding signs, standing on or near the median strips begging for money. Their signs typically say, "Homeless. Please Help," or something to that effect.

That type of mostly benign activity, however, is not at all what Sauschuck referenced during his city council testimony in favor of the ordinance. Sauschuck read police records of panhandlers engaging in violent, drunken behavior or verbal abuse. He noted numerous incidents of panhandlers becoming angry and violent when refused money by motorists. These are clearly extreme examples of aggressive behavior that obviously warrant police intervention. They have nothing to do with the issue at hand--panhandling. Furthermore, the type of aggressive panhandling Sauschuck referenced is already illegal in Portland. But hey--it was an elaborate bait-and-switch on his part, and it apparently worked.

(Incidentally, it is curious Sauschuck and other city officials, when addressing the council, are not held to the rigid, strictly enforced three-minute speaking time, the rest of us are held to. They can, and routinely do, speak as long as they want.)

This was really a win for the various Neighborhood Association Committees, which rallied hard in favor of the ordinance. Of the few Parkside Neighborhood Association Meetings (or, as I refer to them, "Poor-bashing parties") I have attended, the issue of panhandling takes up an inordinate amount of discussion time.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram editors are correct in their observation in today's paper ("Our View: Median panhandling ban won't address core issues," 07/17/13): "The ban appears to be designed less to ensure panhandlers' safety than to address motorists' feelings of discomfort..."

They also note, correctly: "There already are rules regarding public intoxication and assault; the new amendment doesn't do anything to strengthen them."

Portland is rapidly turning into Sinclair Lewis' fictional town of Zenith in his book, Babbitt. The upper-middle class residents of Zenith, so desperate to maintain their comfortable social status, believe there are no poor people in their community. The truth, of course, is they do exist, but the privileged residents choose not to see them.

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