Panhandling protest: the negative reactions


City Councilor Konnie Lukes, in Worcester Magazine:

It was clearly a publicity stunt geared to embarrass police and the city. I’ll leave it to [the police department’s] judgment as to how they handle it.

Police Chief Gemme:

We were made aware that there would be a peaceful protest focusing on poverty and the panhandling ordinance. Based on the communication that we received from Saint Francis & Therese Catholic Worker, we know that the protesters are well aware of the ordinance and we gave them latitude to peacefully conduct their protest.

Our approach to panhandling has been stated publicly. Our focus has been on education and gaining voluntary compliance. If enforcement action is necessary, we will take it . . . But we will not make arrests for the sake of making arrests.

Today, between 1:00 PM and 2:00 PM there were 21 calls for service throughout the city. None of these calls were regarding panhandling. During this time period, we directed our limited resources where they were most needed. We used discretion to monitor the protest, and our decisions were made in the best interest of the entire community.

As much as I’d like to quibble with these words, I’m not going to do that, because the upshot of the city’s actions is so interesting.

This isn’t a case where some people violated the letter of the law but not the spirit.

They violated* the part of the anti-panhandling ordinances which claims to be about traffic safety. And in fact, this was a worst-case scenario for begging on a median. Besides these three men, there were as many as a dozen reporters, photographers, and activists out there with them, scooting by each other and stepping on and off the curb.

By not enforcing this “traffic safety” law, the city’s actions say, “this isn’t really about traffic safety.” Their actions say, “if you were a scruffy bum, you would be endangering yourself and others, but if you are well-groomed and media-savvy, then we can all admit this is nothing to worry about.”

* Brendan tried to explain the difference between laws and regulations on the last 508, and I’m still confused. In this case, the ordinance says that begging on a median only becomes a problem if a policeman tells you to stop. But the city has been handing out flyers claiming that the soliciting is always a violation. It may be a long time before we find out what’s really prohibited.

And also…


AF Zamarro writes in with this grand metaphor:

The best analogy for these protests is that of a tired old comedy. You have the over-the-hill actor in Scott Shaffer-Duffy, who takes his role so very seriously and hams up every dramatic opportunity in the threadbare script. Chief Gemme is the exhausted stage manager, who knows that the audience isn’t really paying attention and that he needs to humor the old actor to keep the doors open. And the audience – the audience is tired, and sometimes entertained, but they are never really drawn into the plot any longer. Many audience members are waiting, hoping for an updated script, for the managers, actors, and creative staff to realize that the paradigm has changed and that we need productions that keep with the times.

The reason Chief Gemme didn’t send out squads of goons to cuff Shaffer-Duffy and his tired band of thespians is that he knows the script. He knows that Scott is trying to make a scene, trying to make a statement. But he also knows that no one cares. The audience knows the script, too.

There was a time when acts like this mattered, but that time is past. It’s not the machine that needs work. The machine has become so fat and bloated, largely due to folks like Scott making it so self-conscious of showing up any possible error or weakness that it accounts for all of them, or tries to, and the machine has become the problem by trying to fix everything.

What we need to do is build up people, but folks like Scott aren’t good at building up cultures, just tearing them down. He’s a deconstructionist, and that’s the script he goes by. It’s time for a new script.

I guess he didn’t like it.

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