A Most Peaceful Class War?
02 Nov 2005 05:37 GMT
Civil Liberties and Money in Charlottesville Is it illegal to be poor? A young couple sit down on the mall to talk. A few minutes later a police officer arrives and sits immediately next to them, within a foot of the young man. They asked the officer what he's doing. The officer responds, Oh, that's the great thing about his mall, you can sit where you want. To which the young man responds. We were here first, you are invading our privacy. If you were having a private conversation and I came and sat next to you, you wouldn't appreciate it very much. Officer; Am I violating your civil liberties?" Youth; No, that's now what this is about, this is about being polite. This isn't about being legal or illegal. The officer insists on staying. The young couple gets up to leave. The officer goes and sits very close to a homeless man. This is but one of a number of incidents on the Charlottesville mall that occured last year. The word on the street is that the Downtown Business Association went to the police with a request to "clean up" the mall. I have interviewed a couple of police officers and Chief Longo. The term "clean up" came up a few times, but no one could identify any particular directive or meeting that initiated such a campaign. Chief Longo has indicated that the police hear concerns from the downtown business association about particular crimes, or suspected drug dealing, but the association has not made any generalized requests to "clean up" the mall. Longo also indicated that they sometimes get fearful complaints about youth or homeless people who look out of place, but that they do not respond without a clear reason. The accounts off police intimidation in downtown areas are too numerous to be discounted however. Some individual officers are less political in their answers, stating that they did recieve increased pressure from downtown merchants last year to "clean up" the mall. "It's about money," was the flat statement of one of the officers. (Though the officer also lamented in the same conversation the lack of places for local youth to hang out, or places for homeless youth to stay.) I pressed Longo on the issue of intimidation of youth or homeless people on the mall. He indicated his intention to see to it that the police department respected the rights of all citizens, whether they be permanent or transitory, or regardless of their appearance. But when pressed on the issue of specific accounts of intimidation, he could never quite bring himself to say anything like "that sounds inappropriate." One gets the sense that, even if individual officers stepped beyond the particular lines, they would not likely be stopped by their leadership. Longo also stated that he had not recieved complaints of police intimidation in downtown areas. In the process of trying to write this article, I have come to understand why the police department might not get many complaints. One can find seond hand stories too numerous to count of police harrassment, particularly of youth and homeless people. But the number of people willing to recount their stories in person is very small. One would presume that many people feel they have little to gain and something to lose by telling such stories. Was there a directive from the Downtown Business Association to "clean up the mall" by getting rid of homeless people and non-wealthy young people? No, but the evidence indicates a de-facto policy nonetheless. For many years, Charlottesville has been somewhat unique in not harrassing homeless people and youth away from public spaces. There are a lot of places in the United States where it is simply illegal to be poor in public. With the rapidly escalating prices of housing in Charlottesville, it appears we are headed in that direction without any particular conspiracy to achieve those ends.