A BILL OF RIGHTS FOR THE HOMELESS: If a homeless person in Gainesville, Florida, is caught receiving money from a motorist, both parties can be fined up to $500. In Atlanta, Georgia, it’s illegal to ask for money within fifteen feet of a building entrance. Cities across the country prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks as well as camping in public spaces, and loitering and jaywalking laws are often more aggressively enforced against the homeless. Advocates say it amounts to an intimidation strategy, designed to purge the homeless from neighborhoods being groomed for gentrification.
In response, California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano recently introduced the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act, which would enshrine the right to “life-sustaining” activities such as resting in public spaces as well as panhandling, provided it’s not done aggressively. The bill articulates the right to housing, clean water and bathrooms and would allow people to sleep in legally parked cars; it would also guarantee the homeless legal counsel. The point, Ammiano explains, is “to recognize the rights of a population in very difficult circumstances without trampling on the rights of everyone else.”
“It’s an interesting concept. What took so long?” says Marvin, 57, who makes his living beating tourists at chess on San Francisco’s Market Street. Marvin says police have threatened to confiscate his chess set, claiming he’s violating the city’s “sit-lie” ordinance, and adds that he has seen officers seize homeless people’s bags. He says he’s been told the orders to “clean up Market Street” come from “up top.”
The Western Regional Advocacy Project, which helped write Ammiano’s bill, has found that a majority of homeless people report being targeted by police for sitting, sleeping or just hanging out. Thirty-one percent of those interviewed say they’ve been incarcerated, while only 5 percent say they have been referred to a social program. A criminal record can disqualify people from housing aid that could help get them off the street. “You can arrest one person,” says WRAP’s organizing director, Paul Boden. “But at the rate people are falling into homelessness, someone else will be there sooner or later.” TANA GANEVA
REINING IN STOP-AND-FRISK: For the first time under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a federal judge has struck down a key component of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program. In a January 8 ruling, Judge Shira Scheindlin sided with nine Bronx residents, all of whom had been questioned—and in some cases arrested— for being outside buildings enrolled in the so-called Trespass Affidavit Program, more commonly known as “Clean Halls.”
Under the program, the owners of more than 3,000 private residential buildings in the Bronx give the NYPD a roster of tenants and permit officers to patrol their halls. Residents say what began as an anti-drug initiative has become a pretext for officers to stop and search people simply trying to visit loved ones, run errands or generally go about their lives. Scheindlin’s order directs the NYPD to immediately “cease performing trespass stops” outside Clean Halls buildings.
Scheindlin is currently presiding over two other stop-and-frisk lawsuits, which makes the ruling a good sign. “With this ruling, a major part of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program has gone from being controversial to having been declared unconstitutional,” Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a lead counsel on the suit, told The Nation. “New York City now faces the choice of revamping the program or having the courts take it over.” RYAN DEVEREAUX
RAPE: AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE: The same week that a leaked video out of Steubenville, Ohio, showed high school boys joking about an unconscious teenager in the next room who had just been raped—“They raped her quicker than Mike Tyson!”—House Republicans let the Violence Against Women Act expire. Just days before, mass protests had broken out in India after a woman was brutally gang-raped and later died from her injuries. American media covering the Indian protests repeatedly made reference to the misogyny that runs rampant in India. But most of the Steubenville coverage made no similar connection.
In fact, the most frequent refrain seen in online comment threads is that those boys were sociopaths—shameful anomalies. We’d rather think of them as monsters than hold ourselves accountable and tell the truth: these rapists are our sons. It’s not just the parents of the accused or the boys making jokes who are complicit—not just Steubenville, a town criticized for putting its prized high school football team above the law and denying justice to a young woman. Steubenville happens every day in the United States, and we are all responsible.
We live in a country where politicians call pregnancies resulting from rape a “gift from God” and suggest that women lie regularly about being raped; a country where a group of high school students think so little of sexual assault that they thought it was fine—hilarious, even—to post pictures online of the passed-out victim and even to live-tweet her rape. We live in a country where a newspaper as revered as The New York Times finds it necessary to describe an 11-year-old gang-rape victim as “wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.”
It’s time to acknowledge that the rape epidemic in the United States is not just about the crimes themselves, but about our own willful cultural and political ignorance. Rape is as American as apple pie—and until we own up to that fact, nothing will change. JESSICA VALENTI