A feature about panhandling in the Tribune this week sparked a media buzz about a potential anti-loitering ordinance in Portland. According to the Trib, City Hall was considering an ordinance to ban sitting and lying on public sidewalks. In truth, City Hall is not yet officially considering such a law. But don't plop your ass back down on the public sidewalk just yet; the ordinance is being planned by the Association for Portland Progress, a powerful group of Portland's richest businesses. It may not have reached City Hall yet, but it will.
Given the successful history for APP--they claim responsibility for the city's so-called drug-free zones--the loitering ban has a real chance for becoming a reality. Like the proposed ban, the drug-free zones are a means to banish "undesirables" from certain parts of town, detouring past the judicial process of innocent until proven guilty.
The '90s were a big decade for anti-loitering ordinances. Started as laws to ban panhandling, scores of cities devised ways for the police to clear out bums and street kids. But those laws quickly fell as lawsuits challenged their fairness; panhandling, after all, is protected by the Constitution as free speech.
As a result, cities like Seattle have begun to implement the second generation of loitering ordinances. This new breed of laws is constitutionally more resilient. While they don't squelch free speech, the laws attack loitering as a way to "reduce crime" and "improve safety for pedestrians." However, there's still a constitutional concern: What about the freedom to assemble peacefully? A spokesperson from APP wasn't familiar enough with the law to answer that question, but went on to explain their goal was keeping the "walkways free" for the elderly and disabled.
These excuses are transparent: Busi-nesses don't want street urchins cluttering their storefronts. There are no studies proving that street kids lead to higher rates of crime; it's purely an aesthetic choice.
This ordinance goes to the heart of the most important political debate in Portland: Whose city is this? The business association wants the city to be a sterile place for shopping. They want "their" kind only. This vision automatically bans entire populations from downtown.
Nip this one in the bud: Contact City Hall now! PHIL BUSSE