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Rock Bottom

At a hearing earlier this week, I mentioned to the judge how a police officer unfairly targeted my client. It seemed to me that the cop was clearly out to get him. The judge laughed, “he’s a motor; of course he’s out to get your client, those guys are out to get everyone.” The prosecutor laughed too. The judge then mentioned how he gets extremely nervous every time he’s driving his car and sees a “motor” sitting there on a motorcycle, just waiting to catch someone for something. “I keep my hands at ten and two, go under the speed limit, and only look straight ahead,” he joked. The prosecutor chimed in, “those guys will nail you for anything; they’d give their own mother a ticket for going one over”

On the way to court, traffic had been terrible for no reason. It wasn’t rush hour or even close, yet the gridlock was bad enough that there was a real possibility I would be late. As I got to the worst of the bottleneck, I saw a cop in the breakdown lane pointing his radar gun at the dense traffic. Shortly past him was some poor woman, also on the shoulder, trying to change a tire by herself. The officer quickly put down the radar gun and sped off into traffic, passing her. I’m sure he could’ve seen her from where he was parked too. He could’ve easily walked over to help her, but it didn’t seem like he even thought about stopping to help. Luckily, a good Samaritan pulled over to help the woman a moment later. At that point, the cop had already stopped a black kid up ahead for who knows what, certainly not speeding, and began writing a ticket.

Both the conversation at the hearing and the cop on the side of the road stuck with me as I sat in Mesa Municipal Court yesterday. Waiting for a new court date in my case, I watched some poor guy get sentenced for “urban camping.” The judge calmly imposed a $200.00 fine while the guy kept explaining how he’d just fallen asleep on a park bench. It’s a crime I hear about often, as I’ve volunteered legal help monthly at a Mesa-area homeless shelter since 2007.

Those big-hearted legislators in Mesa decided to make it a crime to “camp” without approval on all sorts of city property. They defined “camp” as follows:

“[T]o use real property of the City for living accommodation purposes such as sleeping activities, or making preparations to sleep, including the laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping, or storing personal belongings, or making any fire, or using any tents or shelter or other structure or vehicle for sleeping, or doing any digging or earth breaking, or carrying on cooking activities . . . when it reasonably appears, in light of all the circumstances, that the participants, in conducting these activities, are in fact using the area for living accommodation purposes regardless of the intent of the participants or the nature of any other activities in which they may also be engaging.”

They basically outlawed homelessness as well as appearing to be homeless, and they made it a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $2,500.00 and imprisonment up to six months. From what I can tell, most of the people they charge end up with a couple hundred dollar fine like the guy I saw. Because the best way to get a guy who can’t afford a place to stay off the street is to bury him in court fines and worsen his financial situation, right?

I keep hoping that at some point in the not too distant future we will all look back with shame at how we as a society are behaving right now. We are so scared of everything that we are willing to employ as public servants merciless disciplinarians, ill-tempered and uncaring people who are singularly focused on enforcing the rules and unwilling to taken even a moment off to lend a simple hand to another human being in need. We are so groomed to accept them as our masters that judges and prosecutors even joke about these unfeeling authoritarians among us. On top of that, some our elected officials, and presumably much of the voting public, care so little about the least fortunate among us that they have essentially criminalized not having a place to live and designed punishments that will make it harder for those without the basic human need of shelter to find a place to live in the future.

When I complain about the criminal justice system, people sometimes joke about how trusting I am . They tell me how I have too much faith in individuals, and that everyone would go crazy if we didn’t keep them in line. When I hear that, I can’t help but think about how the powerless individuals I know act. They’re largely susceptible to reason, nonviolent, and often kind to each other. Stick a lot of them in a car, insulated from each other in their own deadly weapons flying down the road, and they turn into impatient raging assholes. Given them a badge and a gun and the power to arrest and charge, and many of them become tyrants. Even democracy, simply giving to large groups the power to govern themselves and others, is enough power to turn large groups of mostly good people into monsters.

I don’t know many people who’d endanger the lives of others to get someplace first on foot, but thanks to the power of the automobile, I see people do just that most times I’m on the highway. I also don’t know many people who would be willing to assault, kidnap, and invade the privacy of someone else in their individual capacity, but I read about cops doing that every time I go to work. The average voter, even in Mesa, I hope, would not go up to a sleeping homeless person and forcibly take $200.00 from his wallet, yet the power to legislate has led them to do just that and worse.

It seems to me that there has to be a tipping point, and in a strange way, the past few days have almost made me more optimistic. I struggle to see how we could go downhill from here.

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2 Responses to "Rock Bottom"

  1. jackie carter says:

    when people say that you have “too much faith in individuals” whose side are they on, the judges and prosecutors who don’t even pretend to care.

  2. Jim says:

    My biggest complaint with homeless people in a park near us is they often take the best tables. You have to get there mid-day if you want to stake out the best spots.

    There is a shelter about 10 minutes walking distance, but many use it for hygiene and a mail drop, not sleeping. I’ve never felt threatened or intimidated by them although the conversations can sometimes get a little wacky. Many Americans seemed to be conditioned to fear the unknown.

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