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Posts Tagged ‘Neoliberalism’

Whose Public Safety?


The Perception of Public Safety

Perceptions of public safety vary drastically. A tourist or shopper’s basic understanding of safety will probably clash with that of a person who can’t rub two dimes together. How you perceive public safety will depend on where you stand in society.

As the gap between the wealthy and poor grows, public displays of extreme poverty and suffering have become commonplace. This disturbing reality brings to the fore competing needs for public safety: whose rights should be protected by the state?

Our growing divide is a recipe for social instability and conflict. The current proliferation of “nuisance crime laws,” private security, and surveillance cameras in public spaces resurrect a long-standing tradition in the United States of using punitive police measures to deal with poor and “unwanted” people. Like Jim Crow and Anti-Okie Laws, “nuisance crime laws” are encoded with racism and classism.

Does the litany of “nuisance crime laws” forbidding camping, loitering, trespassing, blocking the sidewalk and panhandling make society safer or would we do better to focus our attention and resources on the vast inequality riveting our country?

Public Safety and the Neoliberal State

The recession has hit the poorest the hardest. According to the Center for Labor Market Studies, in the fourth quarter of 2009, households with incomes over $150,000 had an unemployment rate of 3.2%, whereas households with incomes under $12,499 had an unemployment rate of 30.8%. United for a Fair Economy reported that roughly 3.4 million families experienced foreclosure in 2009 and that almost 60% of mortgage defaults were caused by unemployment. African Americans and Latinos have experienced the brunt of the recession’s unemployment and home equity loss.

Meanwhile, local and state governments across the country are eliminating programs, privatizing parks and other municipal services, raising tuitions, putting government workers on furloughs or reducing hours to curb budget deficits that in many States are now in the billions of dollars. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “At least 45 states plus the District of Columbia have reduced services since the recession began.”

The Obama Administration has interrupted some of the neoliberal social policies of the previous four administrations, most notably with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Nonetheless, we are still reaping the misfortune of 30 years of neoliberal cutbacks to the safety net, cutbacks that have created huge structural gaps in the housing and labor markets.

As the economy and safety net unravel in the recession, public spaces have become a battleground for which perspective of public safety will win out. People from the top-earning households don’t feel safe or comfortable in the presence of all the poor people on our streets and all the poor people on the streets don’t feel safe or comfortable in the presence of all the police officers and security guards.

“Nuisance Crime Laws” Limit Public Safety

“Nuisance crime laws” separate public safety from social welfare and equity at a time when a broader systemic effort is necessary to address the crises in housing, employment, education, and health care. Poverty is not an individual choice or lifestyle. Resting on a bench or even sleeping in a doorway are not problem behaviors, nor are they criminal acts. They are survival activities.

According to Homes Not Handcuffs, a report released in 2009 by the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness that surveys the criminalization of homelessness in 235 cities: 33% prohibit camping, 30% prohibit sitting/lying, 47% prohibit loitering, and 47% prohibit begging in certain areas of the city.

The messaging is clear: If your city is seen as tolerant of poor people in public spaces, tourists will stay away, families won’t come downtown to shop, small businesses will go under, tax revenue will go down, budget deficits will increase, and more services will be cut, precipitating a downward, irreversible spiral into financial ruin.

This messaging has worked well with the mainstream media and local legislative bodies looking for “action now” solutions. It suggests a clear cause and provides a specific answer. The cause is “those people” and the answer is to get rid of them for “the greater good.” After all, it’s much easier to find someone to blame and pound the message home till it becomes its own reality than it is to address an economic system that is increasingly producing inequality and poverty.

A Place of Greater Public Safety

The fear, nervousness, and desperation are very real, but policing the crisis will not fix the fundamental problem. We are at a crossroads in many ways. We need real solutions and they do exist. Economic human rights models that include a right to housing, education and treatment, a job with a living wage will prove much more effective in the long run. When pressed, people on all sides of this issue seem to agree on this point. Yet, advocates for “nuisance crime laws” keep crowding out other voices by saying that we need “action now!” They argue that one more law will give them the “tools” to make everything better.

Taking “action now” to address homelessness has meant needing even more “action” tomorrow. If we as a country had initially diagnosed the real causes of emerging homelessness in the early 1980s – the disappearance of affordable housing – instead of seeing it as a temporary crisis for dysfunctional people, the divisiveness, hostility and anger that surrounds today’s frenzy to add more and more laws that keep moving homeless people from public view would be virtually non-existent.

from the blog of the Western Regional Advocacy Project [WRAP]: http://www.wraphome.org/index.php/blog/archives/575#more-575

WRAP exists to expose and eliminate the root causes of civil and human rights abuses of people experiencing poverty and homelessness in our communities.

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