Jack Pollock

This holiday season, have you been wondering what to buy that white-bread middle-age businessman in your life? Here's a quick test to determine whether a gift membership to the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) is appropriate: Would your recipient rather spend Thursday evening (a) shopping downtown, or (b) attending a city meeting in support of civil liberty protections for the homeless and minorities?

At a public hearing on December 1, Mayor Tom Potter will push to improve the city's notorious Drug-Free Zones (DFZ). It's an Ebenezer Scrooge moment for city council—will the council decide to help downtown businesses pull in profits, or will they fight to protect the city's less fortunate?

A quick refresher: Under the DFZ rules, police officers—with just the belief that someone is engaged in illicit behavior (no hard evidence necessary)—can banish a suspected drug user or pusher (or prostitute) for 90 days from large areas of Old Town and North Portland. So far, the rules have been applied disproportionately to the homeless, minorities, and street kids.

Meanwhile (and here's the rub), the DFZ do make some residents' lives better—namely, members of the PBA, who have mounted a serious campaign to maintain the DFZ and "clean up" downtown.

There's no question that the DFZ are an effective policing tool. The more central question is whether the rules are fair and whether we want to put blight-free shopping centers before compassion.

Consider the damning evidence that most of the city's homeless shelters and social services are located within a DFZ: If a person is booted, he cannot get to rehab to deal with his problem. C'mon, is that really "getting at the root of drug problems," as Mayor Potter has promised to do? Or is it just shooing a suspected drug user out of sight, out of mind?

Potter is sponsoring a Thursday, December 1 public forum about the DFZ rules. Sure, you could spend the evening taking care of your Christmas shopping. Or, you can show up at council chambers (1221 SW 4th, 6:30-8:30 pm) and tell the city council that all you want for Christmas is civil liberties protection in Portland.