"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

August 13, 2008

Local Media Has Reservations About Northampton's Panhandling Ordinance

The Valley Advocate this week has an article written By Tom Devine which discusses the Panhandling Ordinance proposed in Northampton. You can read it here. There is now a growing chorus of reservation about this ordinance. Though those voicing these reservation wouldn't be called affluent, so their words only mean so much. The powerful and influential of Northampton's resident have stayed eerily silent about the topic.

In discussing the ordinance in this weeks Advocate, Tom writes that,

"Obviously the real purpose of this ordinance is to make panhandling impossible on the streets of Northampton, only no one has the honesty to just come out and say so. Part of the reason for that has to do with free speech. The courts have ruled that you have a right to say what you want in public, including the words, "Hey, buddy, got a quarter?" Therefore, they're trying to put up all these location-based restrictions so that arrests can be blamed on the proximity to bus stops, parks, pay phones, etc. and not on a desire to restrict any one's First Amendment rights."
I believe he is right about the disingenuous "real purpose" behind the ordinance. But I also believe there are more hidden agendas at work.

As I understand the situation, this is an ordinance that is the love child of Dan Yacuzzo, of East Side Grill fame, and Suzanne Beck, of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce. Using their contact in City Hall, Economic Developer Director Teri Anderson, they have successfully co-opted, coerced, or suggested to the Mayor that she fall in line with support for the ordinance. I'm unsure if or why the Mayor felt politically vulnerable enough to follow along, but apparently she feels a bit threatened by the consequence of not doing so on this one.

East Side Grill is widely successful and has been for decades, despite any perceived problems downtown. The Mayor enjoys tremendous community support, though arguably, she might feel vulnerable after last election. Suzanne Beck has never been physically accosted by a panhandler in her decades of living in town. So what is this really about? Why have these people taken up this cause with such behind the scenes vigor? Why all the meetings and discussions and time spent on drafting such an ordinance, without the public's input?

All three of them all long time residents of Northampton, having lived here for decades. All three of them have spent a disproportionate amount of that time being present downtown. All three of them know that panhandling is not an issue as they represent it to be. Panhandling appears to simply be another wedge they will use to complete the transformation of Northampton from working class ghost town, to an artists bohemia, to a successful commercial district, to a real estate developers wet dream, and finally, to a whites only upper class club. That is what those involved are really afraid to say, which always makes me chuckle, as if one day overnight everyone will just go, "golly gee, wtf happened to Northampton? I didn't even notice."

This is not about some woman feeling unsafe because of panhandling. This is about fear and classism, and how it affects the view of those who are making accusations about panhandling. This is about creating a sterile environment for a small group of vocal, affluent, residents and visitors who have never developed an ability or desire to feel safe around anyone different from them. This is about the Mayor pandering to a very small group of business owners numbering in the single digits -whose receipts grow every year, though with any dip in weekly sales quickly start throwing tantrums about how it's everyone else's fault- and whose perceived power and influence she is bowing to. This is about believing that if we could just get rid of everyone who makes us feel weird inside, our lives would get so much better. If we could just keep all the minorities in a housing complex outside of downtown. If we could just get rid of the people who hang out on the street and look different from us. If we could just make sure everyone has to build according to how we want it to look. If everyone else would just...

If logic dictates that panhandling is not the issue per se, what is the issue? I would argue that panhandlers represent a threat to the sterile, vanilla, and affluent vision some have been trying to create in Northampton for the last 30 years. Slowly but surely, they are trudging along, and this ordinance will be their biggest coup d’├ętat to date, and the precedent they need to move along with more action. Seri, this is not a joke. You've all heard it before. First they came for newspaper boxes. Then they came for the musicians. Then they came for the 'panhandlers' When they came for me, no one was left to speak up. Sounds funny I know, but it's only funny to those who are not getting fukd. But that's the dilemma in Northampton. The large majority of residents in town, affluent and privileged, and have no reason or desire to speak out against injustice. The rest of Northampton is, comparatively speaking, privileged themselves, myself included. It would seem that there is no stopping what is going on in Northampton. It's just not painful enough. Just not important enough. The issues at hand are just not important enough to spur people to action, which does make sense. (I for instance, left, instead of staying and acting)

And I do get it. I understand that what happens in Northampton is not going to create any meaningful change anywhere. That the conflicts that exist between one group of privileged people and another, comparatively privileged group, is never going to create the type of conflict that brings real change. But it still makes me sad, because as far as I'm concerned, it always makes me sad when those less fortunate are given the short end of the stick, 'specially when those giving it to them tell them that is just how the cookie crumbles, while trying to hide the largest stick from their view.

Northampton will become a whites only upper class club, as it is now, but with more draconian rules and regulations. Mayor Higgins will move on herself, washing her hands of the consequence incurred during her tenure to less fortunate residents of Northampton. The business community and real estate developers will continue to beat the same drum I've heard them beat since I was a small child. "The homeless are ruining it" "the panhandlers" "the skate kids" "the junkies" "the groups in front of the church" "the needle exchange" "the parking" "the mayor is anti-business" etc...etc...

Tom Devine notes at the end of his article,
"The danger is that this panhandling ordinance will inadvertently kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. If it succeeds in creating the sterile environment that some apparently desire, then the panhandlers will be gone, but so too may everyone else."
It seems if Tom is giving the architects of the ordinance less credit than they deserve for their acumen in class concerns, implying that the consequence might be considered accidental, or unintentional. "we were only trying to make it safe, honest!" "I felt scared!" "I didn't mean to legislate a whole class of people off the streets!"

I don't believe it would be an unintentional side effect. But it's their ball game, and they can play however they want. I'm glad I'm not there.

For xmas, I want one of the architects of this plan to grow a set and be honest about their intents. Because jus fyi, everyone else already knows.