FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Creating Criminals, One Petty Law at a Time

When former Secretary of Education William Bennett suggested in 2005 that one way to reduce crime would be to “abort every black baby,” he claimed he was being ironic and trying to demonstrate the moral reprehensibility of such Machiavellian thinking.  However, he did not say “all babies,” and he did not retreat from his underlying racist premise that blacks are more likely than whites to commit crimes.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has responded to a spate of assaults and killings at nightclubs by proposing a new ordinance that would ban people from standing (“loitering, he calls it) in front of them for more than three minutes.  Newsom is a rising star in the Democratic party.  On the surface, it appears as if a compassionate white mayor is finally exhibiting concern for black victims of violent crime.  (Apparently, a majority of the nightclub assaults involved black men.)  But Newsom’s modest proposal is premised on the same foul stereotype as Bennett’s that black nightclub-goers are more likely than other people to commit violent crime.  Officials would never propose such sweeping restrictions on freedom of movement to prevent ‘white crimes’, such as prohibiting disgruntled workers from visiting their former places of employment, or barring football fans from donning the colors of the visiting team while sitting in the home team’s section.

Every horrible  episode  does not require a new rule.  Murders outside of nightclubs are probably no more common than murders inside of bars and clubs.  We have become a nation of knee-jerkers who legislate according to the sensational, the aberrant, even the outlandish, rather than the studied, statistical, or principled.  In a free society, we don’t punish the majority for the crimes of the minority, or ascribe guilt, or guilty intent, based merely on status (nightclub-goer) or innocuous conduct (congregating outside).  Except, apparently now we do.

Government officials cannot and should not be counted upon to make principled distinctions about what constitutes innocent versus miscreant assembly, absent some indicia of actual criminal conduct.  Newsom’s law would exempt people who are smoking, waiting for a bus, or engaged in a short list of other officially sanctioned behaviors.  But no list of exemptions will prevent security guards or police from enforcing the law based on their own social, cultural, behavioral, or even racial biases.

A person smoking would be exempted, while a person getting a breath of fresh air would not be.  Revelers waiting outside for a friend to show up, or for one to exit, might be ordered to move several doors down, while people chatting up the band between sets might be given a pass.  People engaged in innumerable forms of protected expressive activity, from distributing literature, to picketing, to reading posted bills, to panhandling, to — yes –- arguing nonviolently with one another, let alone with authorities who tell them to scram, could find themselves subject to arrest.  A security guard probably would decline to ward off a friend of the door person who stopped by to chat.  But the same security guard would be free to chase away anyone who flunked his/her own personal attitude test.

The point is not that everyone who lingers in front of a nightclub will be warned, cited, or arrested.  The risk is just the opposite: that authorities will use this broad power selectively, to choose who is a VIP or who gets the bum’s rush.  The effect literally will be to carve private ante-clubs out of the public sidewalk, thereby obliterating yet more public space.  Like the filling of wetlands for condos and malls, this has been the trend throughout the country now for decades.  San Francisco of all cities, which has historically set a national example of expanding civil rights, should not follow suit.
Mayor Newsom’s proposal also treads on dangerous cultural ground.  In many cultures, the community gathering grounds are outside, not inside, in town plazas and parks, where public transportation corridors intersect, or as public space continues to shrink, on public corners and sidewalks.  Densely populated San Francisco, a walking city, lends itself to vibrant street culture more than many other American cities, and outdoor gaggles of people, often sidewalk regulars, are common.  This is part of San Francisco’s multicultural charm.  More importantly, it is an enshrined liberty interest.  Newsom’s law would enable authorities to further mold and homogenize culture by imposing their dominant social paradigms on minorities, racial or otherwise.  This, in part, is what has always been wrong with gang injunctions.
Of course, the notion that such a law would even work to increase the peace is ludicrous on its face.  Nightclub goers could still fight next door, on the corner, or in the parking lot.  Moreover, unequal enforcement of the law might start more than a few fights, and further alienate some members of the community, where such alienation is itself the ultimate root cause of extreme antisocial behavior — to wit, violent crime.

Newsom’s proposal is an ill-conceived political band aid which will hurt more than it helps.  At best, like his aesthetically-driven, out of sight out of mind approaches to homelessness patterned after Rudy Guiliani’s broken windows theory, it will just push the problem down the street, somewhere else.  Everyone wants to prevent murders outside of nightclubs.  But we don’t, as William Bennett probably meant to say, solve crime by aborting any possibility of its occurrence, or closing off every place where it might occur, even though it is beyond cavil that such totalitarian approaches work.
An American police state takes its own form:  we gradually exchange a rights-based system, in which government power is checked by law, for a paternalistic one in which we are all arrestable multiple times a day as we prosaically go about our lives, but trust the police to reserve their awesome power for use against the “bad guys.”  In the process, we cede the government carte blanche to determine who the bad guys are.  Every new rule creates a new set of “criminals” of people who weren’t before.  Newsom’s law would provide yet another pretext for police to detain and search anyone they regard as suspicious, want to put in the system, or simply wish to target.  The question is how exceptions to democracy will we permit ourselves before we have to admit we no longer live in one.

BEN ROSENFELD is a San Francisco civil rights attorney, and a Member of the Board of Directors of the Civil Liberties Defense Center (www.cldc.org) based in Eugene, OR.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

Ben Rosenfeld is a civil rights attorney in San Francisco.

Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
Jon Rynn
What a Green New Deal Should Look Like: Filling in the Details
David Swanson
Will the U.S. Senate Let the People of Yemen Live?
Dana E. Abizaid
On Candace Owens’s Praise of Hitler
Raouf Halaby
‘Tiz Kosher for Elected Jewish U.S. Officials to Malign
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Deceitful God-Talk at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast
W. T. Whitney
Caribbean Crosswinds: Revolutionary Turmoil and Social Change 
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Avoiding Authoritarian Socialism
Howard Lisnoff
Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Anti-immigrant Hate
Ralph Nader
The Realized Temptations of NPR and PBS
Cindy Garcia
Trump Pledged to Protect Families, Then He Deported My Husband
Thomas Knapp
Judicial Secrecy: Where Justice Goes to Die
Louis Proyect
The Revolutionary Films of Raymundo Gleyzer
Sarah Anderson
If You Hate Campaign Season, Blame Money in Politics
Victor Grossman
Contrary Creatures
Tamara Pearson
Children Battling Unhealthy Body Images Need a Different Narrative About Beauty
Peter Knutson
The Salmon Wars in the Pacific Northwest: Banning the Rough Customer
Binoy Kampmark
Means of Control: Russia’s Attempt to Hive Off the Internet
Robert Koehler
The Music That’s in All of Us
Norah Vawter
The Kids Might Save Us
Tracey L. Rogers
Freedom for All Begins With Freedom for the Most Marginalized
Paul Armentano
Marijuana Can Help Fight Opioid Abuse
Tom Clifford
Britain’s Return to the South China Sea
Graham Peebles
Young People Lead the Charge to Change the World
Matthew Stevenson
A Pacific Odyssey: Around General MacArthur’s Manila Stage Set
B. R. Gowani
Starbucks Guy Comes Out to Preserve Billionaire Species
David Yearsley
Bogart Weather
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail