Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tim Burgess' Class War

I know something about panhandlers. For fifteen years, I’ve worked at Real Change, in Belltown. We’re across the street from DSHS, a few doors over from a residential program for low-income mentally ill people, and half a block from a convenience store that does a brisk trade in malt liquor and fortified wine. When I walk down the street, I get asked for change and cigarettes about every hundred yards. Sheer volume dictates that I mostly say no.

There’s a few regulars and a rotating cast of familiar types. There’s the elderly mentally ill woman who never seems to remember the answer is no, and the whiney guy who smokes about three packs a day of Other People’s cigarettes. There’s a few sharp operators, with stories of bus trips to Tacoma and cars out of gas, who possess more advanced skills. There are the tweaky junkies, whose eyes shine with sad desperation, and a regular crop of alcoholics who rarely get more than a few blocks from their next bottle.

How many of these are “aggressive?” I can only think of a few minor incidents over the past fifteen years. With these, the everyday misery of the street comes with more of an attitude. It’s a little amazing this doesn’t happen more often. For the most part, Seattle’s very poor endure their suffering rather too politely.

Councilmember Tim Burgess will soon introduce legislation to the Seattle City Council to restrict panhandling in Seattle. He says his proposal simply sets a few minimal standards of behavior in the interest of public safety. Not true. Tim Burgess is sucking up to money, pandering to fear, and punishing the poor.

Laws that target the visible poor are in increasingly popular municipal strategy for managing the contradictions of radical inequality. They lead to deepened poverty and the expanding incarceration of the very poor. These laws represent an immense failure of political and moral imagination, and simply sweep the wreckage of a failed system out of sight. We have to do better.

Life in the Big City

If you want to see what comes of thirty-plus years of growing inequality, take a walk downtown in any American city. Great wealth and enormous misery exist in parallel universes that uncomfortably collide.

Over the past three decades, the manufacturing jobs that were at the core of most urban economies left, leaving cities to either reinvent or die. Seattle is a shining exemplar of the post-globalization urban center. One is either a professional or a service worker, with little opportunity in between.

For those who struggle with addiction, disability, mental illness, and illiteracy, the lower rungs of the wage ladder are often out of reach. Their numbers are growing, and their survival depends upon the urban-based services that surrounding towns and rural areas are ill-equipped to afford. They are the result of unconscionable system failure, they are here, and they are not going away.

Meanwhile, the downtown has been reinvented as an urban professional’s paradise, filled with shopping, dining, and cultural opportunities aimed at attracting conventions, tourists, and downtown condo dwellers.

The politics of downtown development in Seattle have always been linked to the harassment and repression of the visibly poor. The Sidran sit-lie ordinances were passed as the capstone to the Rhodes Project, the early 80’s downtown revitalization that gave us Nordstrom’s and Westlake Center. The construction of Benaroya Hall a few years later came linked to an uncompromising attack by downtown interests on a proposed urban hygiene center less than a block away.

More recently, the downtown condo boom brought a zero-tolerance policy on urban camping, systematic homeless sweeps, and the removal of public toilets. And now, the collapse of the housing market, with its clear threat to the very survival of downtown condo developers, has brought a new round of class warfare dressed up as common sense.

The Burgess proposal, which hasn’t yet been submitted to council and is not yet in writing, bans panhandling near ATMs and cars, at street intersections and freeway onramps and anytime between the hours of dusk and dawn. These “time, place, and manner” restrictions have, unlike more straightforward attempts to ban panhandling, held up well to constitutional appeal.

As the economy has slipped into what may be a permanent contraction, the ability of localities to offer the services that the feds won’t has been further eroded. The shrinking human services safety net is being replaced by a prison state for the very poor. One in ninety-nine Americans is now behind bars. One in three African American men live under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. If none of your friends or family have been locked up, odds are you’re not Black or poor.

Do we need more excuses to arrest poor people in Seattle? Tim Burgess thinks the answer is yes.

Milking Fear is Easy. Change is Hard.

Recently on KUOW, Tim Burgess described a frightening encounter with a freeway on-ramp panhandler who banged on his car window that very morning in pursuit of a handout. Despite my ample experience with onramp panhandling, I’ve never had this happen, and wonder how many of us have.

Panhandlers do, however, make us uncomfortable. Even I, sitting in my car awaiting the on-ramp timing light, will sometimes avoid the gaze of the sign-holding needy. To be made fidgety, however, is different than being threatened. The only threat here is to the well-padded comfort zone of affluent Seattle.

Aggressive panhandling is already against the law. If someone taps on my car window looking for a dollar, I’m free to call 911 on my cell phone to report the incident. If the police have nothing better to do, perhaps they’ll eventually respond.

The Burgess plan pre-empts the very possibility that someone might make us uncomfortable. The “broken windows” theory upon which his proposal rests identifies visible public begging as a variety of “social disorder” that leads to a downward spiral of urban decay. Allow panhandlers, the theory goes, and you will soon have AK-47 toting drug dealers ruling the streets in Jeep Grand Cherokees.

These laws, which identify visible poverty as an indicator of social disorder and seek to eliminate potential sources of urban discomfort, pander to fear and deny the collective responsibility we have to one another. They solve nothing, and are a victim-blaming short-term response to wholesale system failure.

The answers, while not easy, are hardly rocket science. Drug decriminalization and increased support for drug and alcohol treatment. Hedges against gentrification and deeper commitment to affordable housing. Economic stimulus spending to create work for the poor. Universal health care and adequate mental health services. Fair taxation to increase the burden of social responsibility upon the rich.

The Burgess proposal to ban panhandling is a mean-spirited attack on the visibly poor, and takes Seattle further down our twenty-year path of pandering to the affluent at the expense of the most desperate. This is not a solution to anything. It is the problem.