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Central Valley | Government & Elections | Health, Housing, and Public Services | Police State and Prisons
Police Write Ordinance for City Council that Criminalizes Homeless Camps and Occupy
Police, political, and business forces against combine to take to action against the poor.
On Tuesday, June 5th, in a 6-1 vote, the City Council passed an ordinance that would make forms of illegal camping a misdemeanor within Modesto. Despite an over-whelming majority of the crowd coming out to shout down the ordinance, calling it a "war on the poor," and claiming that it was leading Modesto into "a police state," everyone on the Council voted in favor of the move except the new Mayor, Garrad Marsh. But Marsh's nay vote didn't come out of his love for the homeless or freedom itself, he was simply concerned that it didn't contain language that would allow parents with homes to allow their children to camp outside. As for those with children and without homes, perhaps if they couldn't eat cake, they could eat whatever the Mission was serving that night...
The decision for the camping criminalization ordinance came when a subcommittee of the City Council allowed members of the Modesto Police Department to write up and create the ordinance. But the criminalization of camping is not just aimed at stamping out the homeless. According to the Modesto Bee:
City officials said the camping ordinance will give police a tool to deal with makeshift camps that increasingly are appearing in Modesto. It also will give police the authority to break up any camps tied to the Occupy movement and prohibit residential property owners from charging rent to campers.
Under the ordinance, anyone who stores personal property, including camping paraphernalia, on public or private property without consent of the owner can be cited on a misdemeanor. Those convicted could be sentenced to jail and probation.
Council members claim that the push for the ordinance came after businesses began complaining of homeless people living in the back of parking lots along McHenry Ave. as well as from people who have complained that they "can't walk their dogs" along the canal on Briggsmore Ave., due to homeless encampments.
We find this recent criminalization of both the homeless and the Occupy Movement in Modesto to not be at all surprising, although it shows the direction in which local elites are heading; giving themselves the legal tools to lock-up, displace, and fine those which threaten downtown development and those who would seek to possibly organize against it. We do not find this latest move surprising because over the past year, City Council members, either through the general council or through subcommittees, have helped produce a variety of ordinances all aimed at removing the homeless from the downtown area through criminalization. These include a ban on dumpster-diving, which further criminalized the act of digging through the garbage and threatens the would be trash expropriator with fines and up to six months in jail. The ordinance was pushed by both the La Loma Association, a notoriously anti-homeless group and the Modesto Police Department. There was also the shutting down of a public park, Paperboy Park, or Rose Garden Park, in 2010, which was located across from the Library. Joe Muratore, a city council member who is also involved in the La Loma Association, helped back the ordinance. He claimed that homeless people were ruining the park and making non-homeless people afraid to use it. Paperboy Park became the first park in Modesto that went from public to only being available to those who paid a user fee. Muratore wanted to continue this work even further with the creation of a private park police force that would harass the homeless, youth, and others in local parks and enforce various municipal codes.
There is also the looming question of where homeless people will go? The answer from the police, the City Council, and the business interests is quite clear: either into institutions, or hopefully out of Modesto for good. In a recent expose, the Modesto Bee discussed how the local jail is filling up with homeless people who are incarcerated because it is the only place where they can receive medical treatment and also because it is the only place where they can be 'treated' for mental illness. With homelessness on the rise in the local area, compounded and made worse by the economy, increased evictions, and the foreclosure crisis, as well as continued repression of the homeless community, we will only see an increase in the amount of homeless people incarcerated, locked up, and thrown in mental facilities simply for the crime of not having a place to live.
While many will point out that there has not been any sizable Occupy protests and encampments in Modesto, this new ordinance was in part crafted with the understanding that the police could use it in the event that ever such a movement did develop and protesters needed to be scared with possible jail time. Occupy encampments have appeared in other Valley cities such as Sacramento, Merced, Fresno, and Stockton, so it is not far fetched to believe that if the movement was to expand again that camps could spring up here. Furthermore, such anti-camping laws could also be used against Central Valley activists attempting to occupy foreclosed buildings. If police could claim that those inside foreclosed homes are 'camping,' instead of 'squatting' or 'refusing to leave their homes,' then they could easily threaten occupants with misdemeanor charges.
According to City Councilman Dave Geer, police will use their "discretion," and only target "problem" camps and will not use the law to "harass" the homeless. But of course, this is the same police department that shoots people claiming they have guns which turn out to be spatulas. These are the same police that shoot out a deaf man's back windows' because he's too busy screaming "I'm deaf," to respond to their commands.
What is clear is that such an ordinance has nothing to do with improving the quality of life for most people in the city, and instead, bending to business interests and controlling a population of people seen as outside of the law. It is also an attempt to stop Occupy protests before they become larger in the Modesto area - strategic thinking on the part of the police and the elites in the City Council.
The City Council is made up largely business owners and property developers types who stand to gain from the removal of the poor in the downtown and the coming in of new capital investments. In a recent forum hosted by Marsh, which featured annoying bourgie local muckie muck Chris Richie (X-Fest, etc), Pete Janopaul (who plans to turn the former downtown post office into upscale lofts), developer John Giver, as well as a presentation by developer supa-star Joe Minicozzi, who works with a "for profit real-estate company." Joe argues that city governments can increase their revenue by concentrating urban development in their cores with mixed zoning: having lofts and upscale apartments next to fine dining and nice hair saloons. From Minicozzi's presentation:
Per-acre, our downtowns have the potential to generate so much more public wealth than low-density subdivisions or massive malls by the highway. And for all that revenue they bring in, downtowns cost considerably less to maintain in public services and infrastructure.
For developers turned politicos like Muratore, this of course is a wet dream. The city can increase tax revenue by fixing up and re-developing old buildings that are vacant (which surprise, surprise, is exactly that kind of business that Muratore is in!), and making the downtown into a concentrated money making focal point and a play ground for the wealthy and upscale consumers. It's this same kind of 'good old boy' system, in which politician businessmen swinging back room deals with their other businessmen friends that got Muratore in hot water last year, when the SCAP scandal hit and some of Muratore's businesses were involved. Who cares if the communities of Airport, West-Side, South-Side, Prescott, and working class neighborhoods throughout the city have major problems and in many cases, lack basic services such as sidewalks? For the city elites, what's important is that revenues coming into the city coffers continue to increase and the town continues to look more white, more upper-class, and less like it is now.
It's only in looking at the ultimate goal of 'downtown revitalization' and 'development' that we can begin to see a strategy for local elites becoming clear. It makes sense for political, police, and business interests to come together to support each other in a push for greater repression of the poor and the suppression of grassroots organizing. That question as always, is that if they are organized around their interests, why aren't we?