This Crow Won't Fly
The United States has a long history of using mean-spirited and often brutal laws to keep “certain” people out of public spaces and out of public consciousness. Jim Crow laws segregated the South after the Civil War and Sundown Towns forced people to leave town before the sun set. The anti-Okie law of 1930s California forbade poor Dustbowl immigrants from entering the state and Ugly Laws (on the books in Chicago until the 1970s) swept the country and criminalized people with disabilities for allowing themselves to be seen in public.
Today, such laws target mostly homeless people and are commonly called “quality of life” or “nuisance crimes.” They criminalize sleeping, standing, sitting, and even food-sharing. Just like the laws from our past, they deny people their right to exist in local communities.
In June of this year, Rhode Island took a meaningful stand against this criminalization, and passed the first statewide Homeless Bill of Rights in the country. The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP)—a West Coast grassroots network of homeless people’s organizations—is now launching simultaneous campaigns in California and Oregon. Rhode Island will only be the beginning.
Today’s “quality of life” laws and ordinances have their roots in the broken-windows theory. This theory holds that one poor person in a neighborhood is like a first unrepaired broken window and if the “window” is not immediately fixed or removed, it is a signal that no one cares, disorder will flourish, and the community will go to hell in a handbasket.
For this theory to make sense, you first have to step away from thinking of people, or at least poor people, as human beings. You need to objectify them. You need to see them as dusty broken windows in a vacant building. That is why we now have Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) with police enforcement to keep that neighborhood flourishing by keeping poor, unsightly people out of it.
We have gone from the days where people could be told “you can’t sit at this lunch counter” to “you can’t sit on this sidewalk,” from “don’t let the sun set on you here” to “this public park closes at dusk” and from “you’re on the wrong side of the tracks” to “it is illegal to hang out” on this street or corner.
Unless we organize, it isn’t going to get much better soon. Since 1982, the federal government has cut up to $52 billion a year from affordable housing and pushed hundreds of thousands of people into the shelter system or into the street. Today we continue to have three million people a year without homes. 1982 also marked the beginning of homelessness as a “crime wave” that would consume the efforts of local and state police forces over the next three decades. Millions of people across the country sitting, lying down, hanging out, and — perhaps worst of all – sleeping are cited in crime statistics.
WRAP and our allies recently conducted outreach to over 700 homeless people in 13 cities; we found 77% of people had been arrested, cited, or harassed for sleeping, 75% for loitering, and 73% for sitting on a sidewalk.
We are right back to Jim Crow Laws, Sundown Towns, Ugly Laws and Anti-Okie Laws, local laws that profess to “uphold the locally accepted obligations of civility.” Such laws have always been used by people in power against those on the outside. In other words, today’s Business Improvement Districts and Broken Window Laws are, at their core, a reincarnation of various phases of American history none of us is proud of.
And they reflect a political voice now openly entering the political and media mainstream that dismisses social justice as economically irrelevant and poor people as humanly irrelevant.
This is not about caring for or even advocating for “those people.” This is about all of us. As Aboriginal leader Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” If you are not homeless, if you are not the target now, then understand that you are next. Isolated and fragmented, we lose this fight.
But we are no longer isolated and fragmented. On April 1, WRAP and USCAI (US Canadian Alliance of Inhabitants) sponsored a Day of Action in 17 cities. We are one of hundreds of organizations and allies, from Massachusetts to NewYork and from Tennessee to California, all separate but all working together to give meaning to social justice and protect the civil and human rights of all of us.
We can only win this struggle if we use our collective strengths, organizing, outreach, research, public education, artwork, and direct actions. We are continuing to expand our network of organizations and cities and we will ultimately bring down the whole oppressive system of policing poverty and treating poor people as “broken windows” to be discarded and replaced.
To join our campaign for a Homeless Bill of Rights in both California and Oregon contact WRAP at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will hook you up with organizers working in both of these states or others as this movement continues to grow.
Criminalization Fact Sheet
• Anti-Okie Laws
The agricultural workers who migrated to California for work in the 1900s were generally referred to as “Okies”. They were assumed to be from Oklahoma, but they moved to California from other states, as well. The term became derogatory in the 1930s when massive numbers of people migrated West to find work. In 1937, California passed an “anti-Okie” law which made it a misdemeanor to “bring or assist in bringing” extremely poor people into the state. The law was later considered unconstitutional.
• Jim Crow Laws
After the American Civil War (1861-1865), most Southern states passed laws denying black people basic human rights. Later, many border states followed suit. These laws became known as Jim Crow laws after the name of a popular black-face character that would sing songs like “Jump Jim Crow.” In California, Jim Crow played out against Chinese immigrants more than black people. From 1866-1947, Chinese residents of San Francisco were forced to live in one area of the city. The same segregation laws prohibited inter-racial marriage between Chinese and non-Chinese persons and educational and employment laws were also enforced in the city. African and Indian children had to attend separate schools from those of white children. In 1879, the California constitution read that no Chinese people could vote and the law was not repealed until 1926. Oregon and Idaho had similar provisions in their constitutions. In 1891, a referendum required all Chinese people to carry a “certification of residence” card or face arrest and jail. In 1909, the Japanese were added to the list of people who were prohibited by law from marrying white people. In 1913, “Alien Land Laws” were passed that prohibited any Asian people from owning or leasing property. The law was not struck down by the California Supreme Court until 1952.
• Ugly Laws
From the 1860s to the 1970s, several American cities had laws that made it illegal for people with “unsightly or disgusting” disabilities to appear in public. Some of these laws were called “unsightly beggar ordinances”. The first ordinance was in San Francisco in 1867, but the most commonly cited law was from Chicago. Chicago Municipal Code section 36034 stated: “No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense.”
• Operation Wetback
Operation Wetback began in 1954 in California and Arizona as an effort to remove all illegal, Mexican immigrants from the Southwestern states. The Operation was by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and coordinated 1,075 border control agents along with state and local police agencies. The agents went house-to-house looking for Mexicans and performed citizenship checks during traffic stops. They would stop any “Mexican-looking” person on the street and insist on seeing identification. Operation Wetback was only abandoned after a large outcry from opponents in both the United States and Mexico.
• Sundown Towns
Sundown Towns did not allow people who were considered “minorities” to remain in the town after the sun set. Some towns posted signs at their borders specifically telling people of color to not let the sun set on them while in the town. There were town policies and real estate covenants in place to support the racism, which was enforced by local police officers. Sundown Towns existed throughout the United States and there were thousands of them before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited racial discrimination in housing practices. Sundown Towns simply did not want certain ethnic groups to stay in their towns at night. If undesired people were to wander into a Sundown Town after the sun had set, they would be subject to any form of punishment from harassment to lynching. While the state of Illinois had the highest number of Sundown Towns, they were a national phenomenon that mostly targeted anyone of African, Chinese, and Jewish heritage.
• Today…… Broken Windows Laws Current “Quality of Life” laws also take a certain population into account: homeless persons. Using these laws, people are criminalized for simply walking, standing, sleeping, and other regular human behaviors. In other words, they are penalized and harassed simply because of who they are. Just as with Jim Crow, Ugly Laws, Anti-Okie Laws, and Operation Wetback, how people look and their very existence is the basis for charging them with criminal behaviors.
Posted on August 27, 2012
This Crow Won't Fly:
Criminalization Fact Sheet: