It’s open season on the poor and homeless in Southern Humboldt. Vigilante gangs terrorize them on the streets. Cops abuse them and local merchants harass them for not looking prosperous enough to patronize their overpriced ripoff businesses. Now the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors intends to pass a new ordinance designed to punish this oppressed population still further, while it chokes out our civil rights and strangles the democratic process to boot. The so-called “aggressive panhandling” or “aggressive solicitation” ordinance will make it a crime to ask for help in Humboldt County.
Under this proposed ordinance, a person who had just been robbed, stabbed, beaten and left laying on the sidewalk screaming for help, could be cited for “aggressive solicitation.” This ordinance could stop Ray Oakes from asking the “Question of the Week” for the Humboldt Independent, and this ordinance could certainly be used to prevent effective grassroots organizing. Unions would have never gotten started without “aggressive solicitation.” It takes a whole lot of “aggressive solicitation” to get any grassroots political movement off the ground, and here in America we have whole religions dedicated to “aggressive solicitation.”
Here in the USA, we decided, almost 250 years ago, that we prefer “aggressive solicitation” to violence, deceit and treachery, which had long been the custom in Europe, and it was the proud American tradition of “aggressive solicitation” established by such patriots as Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry and Paul Revere that made this country a beacon for freedom and democracy. More than a civil right, the right to “aggressively solicit” is a human right, and a birthright. In fact, “aggressive solicitation” is the only thing we know how to do, instinctively, from birth.
Without “aggressive solicitation” we would not survive as a species, and “aggressive solicitation” has an important function within the community, as well as the family. It makes no more sense to prohibit “aggressive solicitation” within the community than it does to punish a baby for crying in the house. If your baby won’t stop crying, you don’t punish the baby, you feed the baby. “Aggressive solicitation” is a signal, and we ignore it, or worse, prohibit it, at our own peril.
In another era, both past and perhaps future, with more enlightened judges, the Supreme Court would almost certainly shoot down any ordinance resembling the one the Supes currently consider, but thanks to the Scalia Court, the court that handed down “Citizens United” and declared that money is protected speech and corporations are citizens, they could probably get away with it. Who knows how constitutional this proposed ordinance, or the one Eureka and Fortuna passed, will look next year?
I did a lot of political work back in the ‘90s, to legalize marijuana, and to close nuclear power plants. We would never have been able sustain those movements without a significant amount of “aggressive solicitation.” I know, because I did it. I could get a complete stranger to write me a check for $100 in two minutes.
I didn’t just approach pedestrians or stand on street corners, malls, parks and other public spaces, although I did plenty of that too. I went even further. I raised a lot of money for a number of organizations by wandering through neighborhoods where I didn’t know anyone, onto private property, and knocking on complete strangers’ front doors. I knocked on about 50 doors every night. That’s “aggressive solicitation” no matter how you look at it. Lots of people called the cops on me.
At the time, what I did was considered constitutionally protected free speech. We had a legal department, and when we didn’t have a legal department we had the ACLU. Occasionally, some little uptight burg would pass an ordinance like the one the Supes are now considering, and liberal New England lawyers would swarm them like hornets, and they’d never do it again. We won every time.
Around here, non-profit groups seem to rely more on alcohol sales and parties to fund their campaigns than the kind of direct grassroots fundraising that I did. I doubt any of them will recognize the threat this proposed ordinance poses, or stand up for their right to become politically relevant one day. The poor and homeless don’t have a legal team to defend their rights, and the general public has no idea what it takes to organize a grassroots movement, and I doubt many of them even care. It seems most people in Humboldt County prefer violence, deceit and treachery to democracy anyways.
But here’s the kicker. I have never once been “aggressively solicited” by anyone in Humboldt County. I don’t spend a lot of time in Garberville, but I usually walk from the library at the north end of town, to the thrift stores on the south side of town, right through the Garberville shopping district, at least once or twice a week. I’ve usually got a buck for anyone who asks, but hardly ever does anyone ask. When they do ask, people usually ask very timidly, and often I can barely hear them.
Even in Eureka and Arcata I get “spanged” every once in a while. Usually by the fourth ask I’m tapped out, but I can’t remember the last time four people asked me for spare change on the same day, anywhere in Humboldt County. Does that really constitute a problem? Once, years ago, I got hustled for $20 by the kid who used to own Nacho Mamma. When I saw him a few years later, in the parking lot of Eureka Natural Foods, honestly, I was glad to see that at least someone around here had it together enough to concoct an effective rap, and I knew the guy. If he told me he needed $20, for anything, I’d have given it to him, once.
I don’t think we have a problem with “aggressive solicitation” so much as we have a problem with “aggressive fascism.” We have a craven cadre of drug dealers, real-estate developers and merchants pulling the strings of our elected officials to invent new laws that criminalize poverty and stifle dissent. They all want to skim the economic cream from the injustice of the War on Drugs, while they criminalize the poverty the War on Drugs creates in this community. Does it get any uglier, greedier or more corrupt than that? No, I don’t think we have a problem with “aggressive solicitation” at all. We have a much bigger problem than that, and it’s going to take a lot of “aggressive solicitation” to solve it.
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