Thursday, September 20, 2012

Downtown Sudbury Campaign Against Poor People is Hateful and Dishonest

I am livid. I should be working on other things right now, but someone on a social media site posted a link to a local CBC story, "Panhandling poster irks poverty worker", and I just have to respond. The article itself isn't the problem but rather its subject, a new poster campaign by downtown businesses and the police that is dishonest and hateful towards people living in poverty.

Here's one of the posters -- right-click on it and click "View Image" (or the equivalent in your browser) to see a larger and more legible version, or look at it as posted with the CBC story:

There is just so much wrong with this.

Speaking of the campaign as a whole, the CBC article linked above notes, "The posters warn people that panhandlers may spend the money on alcohol and drugs and recommend people avoid conversations with them." As the executive director of an agency in the downtown that responds to poverty accurately points out, this "stereotypes and generalizes." In his experience, by and large, "he's seen the money used for more practical purposes" than this campaign claims.

Those points are a good start in describing what is wrong with this hate campaign, but the problems go far beyond that. The entire framing of the poster that I've linked above is that people living in poverty who come up and talk to you are inherently dangerous. This is a disgusting sentiment to be propagating. The first piece of "advice" is, for instance, that "Panhandling in general is not illegal in Greater Sudbury, but aggressive behaviour is." Not only does this link panhandling with illegality -- as something which could be illegal and perhaps should be illegal, but which does not happen to be here -- but it makes it sound like aggressive, anti-social, illegal behaviour is something you are likely to encounter if a poor person talks to you. The next piece of advice affirms this by instructing you how to call the cops, implying that this is something that it is important to know if you have any interaction with people living in poverty in downtown Sudbury.

Just the flat-out gall of suggesting that among the most likely things that a nice middle-class person will need to know if they are approached by a person living in poverty is how to contact the's mindblowing.

Anyway, suggesting eye contact is good -- if it wasn't for the rest of the poster, based on that you'd almost think the organizations circulating the poster believe people living in poverty are human and deserve to be treated with dignity. But, no, it goes on to say, "Don't encourage conversation" -- wouldn't want to interact with people living in poverty the way you would a 'normal' person, now, would you.

It also encourages you to be skeptical of people living in poverty who request assistance, by describing it as "the assistance that panhandlers claim to be looking for" (my emphasis). It is a prime pillar of poor-bashing politics that an Othered they doesn't really need money or support, and this poster is encouraging us to take such an attitude.

Framing people living in poverty as inherently dangerous and probably dishonest is bad enough. However, the poster lies through implication when it presents its claims that assistance "is already available to them in our community" and that organizations that provide assistance are "readily available within our community to assist them to meet their needs for food, shelter, health care and employment" in a way that clearly means for readers who don't know better to conclude that the existence of these organizations is somehow adequate to the need that is out there. And that is simply not true. The quote in the CBC article from the head of the business association that is spearheading this anti-poor offensive is similarly deceptive through implication. Of course, there are such organizations, and they do the best they can with the resource they have. But (speaking as someone who has worked in the agency sector myself, though in another city) anyone who actually works in those organizations and feels able to speak freely (which they may not to the media) will admit that the system is far from adequate to meet people's needs. And if you actually bother to talk to people living in poverty about their lives, it becomes very clear, very fast just how inadequate the system is, along multiple axes.

So by implying that "social services and charitable organizations" are sufficient to meet the needs of people living in poverty, this campaign is lying. It is also encouraging exactly the sort of misperception that allows people with middle-class privilege not only to react badly to people living in poverty that they might meet walking down the street, but to continue to support politicians and policies that perpetuate poverty and the violence that poverty does to so many lives.

And of course the amounts you give on the street are inadequate to fundamentally change the harsh facts of poverty. To be perfectly honest, so are social services -- you need political change to address poverty, however important it is to meet immediate needs in whatever way is at hand. But you know what the money you give directly to a person living in poverty can do? It can buy a meal. It can buy bus tickets. It can buy a chance to do laundry. More importantly, by putting money directly into the hands of people who need it, you are in a small way dignifying them with at least a little bit of power to choose, rather than the intense policing and constant indignities that often accompany social assistance and other programs.

So. This is all very off-the-cuff and ad-libbed, but I needed to respond. I hope that discussion about these questions will be ongoing.

If you want to let the Downtown Business Improvement Association know how you feel about their attack on people living in poverty and their dangerous misrepresentation of the adequacy of social services, you can visit their website, you can call them at 705-674-5115, or you can drop in and visit their offices at 7 Cedar Street, Unit 102. They claim that "the Downtown belongs to all of us" but act as though "all of us" does not include people living in poverty. Let's show them that some of us who live in downtown Sudbury are interested in relating to our neighbours, all of our neighbours, as actual human beings.

And it is my understanding that an organized response to this hate campaign is in the works. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Listen to Constable Keetch explain that the poster was really about aggressive panhandling and not panhandling. That's a big difference. What a screw up!

Scott Neigh said...

Good awful. He attempts to clothe it in fine sentiment of various kinds, but if you listen closely he gives even more indication of how this is a campaign about poor-bashing and not much else. The officer admits that a fundamental reason for doing it is because of calls to police about "unwanted persons, suspicious persons, which panhandlers would fall under" -- that is, basically admitting that it is cops responding to calls that do not involve any kind of threat to safety but involve middle-class perception of people living in poverty as "unwanted" and "suspicious." He also admits that it is intended to "increase the perception of safety" rather than respond to an actual lack of safety.

Then he perpetuates the Orwellian, poor-bashing language of "aggressive panhandling." Even that terminology is poor-bashing. But then when you get into how it is legally defined, one major element of how it is defined is about targeting people who are not doing anything that is even vaguely threatening, they just happen to be in particular public places and asking for money -- what an Orwellian definition of "aggressive."

In other words, you have a law that significantly targets non-threatening behaviour, and you have excessive complaints from certain businesses and certain squeamish middle-class people to non-threatning behaviour, and those are fundamental to what this campaign is about. It's about targeting poor people.

And, of course, in the guise of saying nice things about the people who work hard to meet the needs of people living in poverty, he again repeats the lie-by-implication that services are anywhere close to adequate to meet the needs that are out there.

When you strip out the poor-bashing from the campaign, when you take out the extent to which this is a response to prejudice against people living in poverty, when you really focus in on actual threats to safety, the only conceivably legitimate message here is "If someone is threatening to assault you, then call the police." And, really, is this something that people need to be told? Do we need a public education campaign for that? Obviously not. So, as the officer himself admits, the major point of this is to target largely non-criminal, non-threatening behaviour by people living in poverty. And in doing so, it reproduces the lies that people living in poverty are inherently dangerous and likely to be dishonest. This officer's softpeddling does nothing to change those features of the campaign.