Friday, June 17, 2005

Class Act

Various jurisdictions in Canada have passed or are contemplating passing laws to forbid poor people from panhandling. In B.C. they have an act called "The Safe Streets Act" and generally, they are similar or will be similar to this one. It is aimed at curbing the liberty of panhandlers to prevent them from asking for money. The name implies that they present a danger to the people they do ask for spare change.

In the mid 80’s governments everywhere threw people out of mental hospitals with the promise that they would supply money for community care. That was a promise that was broken. And now that they have done this, they are worried that those who are panhandling are neglected mentally ill people and present a danger to pedestrians. That’s how karma works. If you kill little animals, little animals will give you the creeps. If you kill poor people, poor people will give you the creeps.

But poor people are simply that – poor people. Panhandlers are youth fleeing abuse, people that cannot find work, people with addiction problems, people with neglected mental health problems and generally, people that have been victimized one way or another.

These anti-panhandler laws are offensive on many levels.

The most obvious is that the people that want to pass these laws are the same people that are responsible for the massive homelessness problem; a problem that emerged in the mid-eighties. They are offended by the reality of the poverty that exists in the midst of their affluence. They would prefer to get rid of them and sweep them away from their blissful shopping trips. They find homeless people offensive – again, the karma thing.

Secondly, it is offensive to any person that believes in freedom.

These people are trying to create a class of untouchables in the developed world. The same legal freedoms and principles that work for everybody else do not apply to poor people. If they did, then salespeople could not approach people in any way to sell their wares. Asking for spare change is considerably more honest and less of a hassle than dealing with most salespeople.

But this is not about the act of soliciting. It is about class. It is a class act. And it is a violation of the basic rights of the poor.

Here is an act that would be similar to other laws passed in various provinces and states:

BILL 71 -- 2004
HER MAJESTY, by and with the advice and consent of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of British Columbia, enacts as follows:

1 In this Act, "solicit" means to communicate, in person, using the spoken, written or printed word, a gesture or another means, for the purpose of receiving money or another thing of value, regardless of whether consideration is offered or provided in return.
2 (1) A person commits an offence if the person solicits in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to be concerned for the solicited person's safety or security, including threatening the person solicited with physical harm, by word, gesture or other means.
(2) A person commits an offence if the person engages, in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to be concerned for the solicited person's safety or security, in one or more of the following activities during a solicitation or after the solicited person responds or fails to respond to the solicitation:
(a) obstructing the path of the solicited person;
(b) using abusive language;
(c) proceeding behind or alongside or ahead of the solicited person;
(d) physically approaching, as a member of a group of 2 or more persons, the solicited person;
(e) continuing to solicit the person.
Solicitation of captive audience prohibited
3 (1) In this section:
"commercial passenger vehicle" means a motor vehicle operated on a roadway by or on behalf of a person who charges or collects compensation for the transportation of passengers in that motor vehicle, and includes a vehicle operated by or on behalf of the British Columbia Transit Authority or the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority to provide a regularly scheduled public passenger transportation service;
"roadway" means a highway, road, street, lane or right of way, including the shoulder of any of them, that is improved, designed or ordinarily used by the general public for the passage of vehicles;
"vehicle" includes non-motorized vehicles.
(2) Subject to subsection (3), a person commits an offence who does any of the following:
(a) solicits a person who is using, waiting to use, or departing from a device commonly referred to as an automated teller machine;
(b) solicits a person who is using, or waiting to use, a pay telephone or a public toilet facility;
(c) solicits a person who is waiting at a place that is marked, by use of a sign or otherwise, as a place where a commercial passenger vehicle regularly stops to pick up or disembark passengers;
(d) solicits a person who is in, on or disembarking from a commercial passenger vehicle;
(e) solicits a person who is in the process of getting in, out of, on or off of a vehicle or who is in a parking lot.
(3) No offence is committed under subsection (2) if the person soliciting is 5 metres or more from the following:
(a) in the case of subsection (2) (a) to (c), the automated teller machine, pay telephone, public toilet facility entrance or commercial passenger vehicle marker, as applicable;
(b) in the case of subsection (2) (d) or (e), the commercial passenger vehicle or vehicle, as applicable.
(4) A person commits an offence if the person, while on a roadway, solicits a person who is in or on a stopped, standing or parked vehicle.

And this is an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

7. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

We cannot, as a society, grant freedoms to some and remove them from others because some people might consider them creepy or unsightly. It is they that are creepy and unsightly.

In a free society, we have to preserve universal principles of freedom for everybody. We cannot arbitrarily remove some freedoms for some people we deem to be less than human.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states the following:

(1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Racism, nationalism, religion, gender and disability are not grounds for discrimination. Maybe those that want to make panhandling illegal would argue in front of the Supreme Court of Canada that a person’s social or economic class is not covered under the Charter. But more than likely they will argue that it is specifically “aggressive” panhandling that they are concerned about. There is a myriad of laws that already protect us from aggression. In fact, it is panhandling that they want to stop, but they use ‘aggression’ as a mechanism to give their hate and classist karma an air of legitimacy.

This is an important struggle for people that are destitute. It is also important to those that are not. It is about fundamental freedom and it is about classism. It is a struggle that has to be fought on legal grounds and these laws should be taken to the Supreme Court. It is also a political struggle and it is the front line of our ongoing class war; the war that is never acknowledged by the classes that are oppressed.

We have a responsibility to help out people that are destitute. Give them money if you can and DON'T ask them whether they will use it to buy booze or drugs. Some people do this and it is not only paternalistic and elitist; it is hateful and mean. Assuming the person asking for money is an adult, it is just one more kick in the head to treat that person like a child. It is similar to kicking a person when they are down.

But we also have a responsibility to help poor people out on a collective basis. That is, we need to fight for housing and social programs that are needed to combat homelessness, and the multitude of problems that accompany it.

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