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Prone Pioneers

Don’t sit. Don’t lie. I mean, lie all you want to, especially if you’re sitting in office, but don’t sit or lie on a San Francisco sidewalk between 7AM and 11PM, should Proposition L pass this week. Repeated offenders could be fined up to $500 or jailed for 30 days.

Across the land, new laws are being introduced to criminalize our most vulnerable and destitute. In Santa Cruz, one can now be arrested for sleeping outdoors, including “in, on or under any parked vehicle,” between 11PM and 8:30AM. Venice Beach is also banning sleeping in parked vehicles.

Punishing our most desperate for being desperate is not only cruel, it’s also a self defeating proposition. The homeless can’t pay their fines, and if you jail them, it’s only a waste of tax money. Take Boulder, which has a law prohibiting camping outside overnight. Like all of our other municipalities, Boulder doesn’t have nearly enough beds in its shelters. In the last four years, Boulder has handed out over 1,600 tickets to its homeless. Hundreds have been arrested when they can’t pay up. After a night or two in jail, they end up on the streets again. The idea, I think, is to chase these people from Boulder altogether. They can become someone else’s problem.

As this depression becomes more undeniable, as more homes are foreclosed, more jobs evaporate, more businesses shut down, as our homeless population explodes, you can count on seeing more laws passed against helpless people sitting, camping or maybe just coughing on the sidewalk. Each city and town will try to dump its economic casualties onto the next. The homeless of Manhattan can trek over to Newark. Those in Newark can shuffle to Manhattan… While we’re at it, we should pass laws against curling up in a dumpster or being frozen to death outside.

We already lead the world in incarceration rate. More than one percent of American adults are jailed. With many more to be locked up, expect more prisons to be privatized. Lowest bidders will get the contracts. Privately run means more efficiency, means trimming costs. Just pack them in and, instead of sloppy joe, just feed them soy burgers or whatever. There’s a growth industry for all you investors out there.

Sign displayed by some bongo banging guy in Boulder: “Sleep is an Involuntary Action. Which is NOT ILLEGAL.” Yet sleeping on the sidewalk, even when you have nowhere else to sleep, is already illegal in many American places. During too late late capitalism, just about any street activity is illicit or a nuisance. Don’t beg. Don’t peddle. Don’t busk. Don’t even loiter. Just walk straight in to that big box store, why don’t you, and be a good American.

Emerging from a Bart station in San Francisco, I saw two men tap dancing quite magnificently to a rapt crowd of tourists. Dollar bills filled their donation bag. Everyone was having a good time until an unsmiling, shades-wearing cop appeared. Show’s over. Edward Jackson, one of the dancers, knew his nemesis, “Why do you always do this to me, Bob?” Hearing no answer, Ed continued, “Don’t you have anything better to do than stopping a black man from making an honest living?” Still no answer. “Why don’t you go down to the Tenderloin and arrest all those crack smoking junkies?! How am I going to pay my rent if you don’t let me make an honest living? What do you want me to do, go mug somebody?!”

A transplant from Detroit, Ed later told me that he had been dancing in downtown San Francisco for more than a decade, and that he made several more times than his wife, with her straight job in a retail store. Unlike most of us, Ed can’t be fired, but he can certainly be thwarted by a policeman.

If we can’t make a dime on the street, will Big Brother leave us alone if we just putz putz around in our own backyard? Not so fast. In Michigan, House Bill 6458, introduced by two Democrats, Gabe Leland and Mike Huckleberry, will prohibit farming in any city with a population of 900,000 or more. Why didn’t they name Detroit outright, since it’s the only one that qualifies? And what’s going on here, exactly?

Urban farming is about the only positive development in Detroit right now. If more Americans planted their own vegetables and raised their own chickens, ducks and rabbits, etc, even in the cities, they wouldn’t have to rely on the toxic factory farms. Detroit is also the only American city without a supermarket chain, so access to food, even crappy stuff, is already limited. With factories gone, jobs gone, can’t a person plant an odd cabbage without being branded a criminal?!

There seems to be a pattern here. In Chicago, school cafeterias are banned from using vegetables grown on school ground, by the children themselves. Big Brother is even messing with the Amish. Dan Allgyer, of Kinzers, PA, has been harassed by our Food and Drug Administration for supposedly selling unpasteurized milk, a charge he denies. Even if he was, I’d rather drink milk from any Amish farm than the diseased product on supermarket shelves.

As all of our interlocking systems unravel in the years ahead, each of us will have to become more self-sufficient and resourceful. Each community, each neighborhood, will finally be introduced to itself. For better or worse, you will be welcomed home. You will be home, at last. As we stagger forward, don’t scorn the ones who are scraping by on the fringe, the day-laborers, odd job men, buskers, scroungers, the peddlers pushing carts, even the homeless, for they are the point men, the pioneers of our time.

LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, and the recently published novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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