Guest Commentary: Davis Dabbles In Minor Moral Panic


Council Considers Divorcing Behavior from People

by Tia Will and Robert Canning

Tuesday night the City Council voted 4-1 to adopt an ordinance penalizing “aggressive conduct,” which is defined variously as “conduct intended or likely to cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm to oneself or to another, damage to or loss of property, or otherwise to be intimidated into giving money or other things of value,” plus other behaviors such as intentionally touching, threatening physical contact, following people around, approaching persons, using “violent or threatening gestures toward a person” or “intimidating a person by the use of profane, offensive, or abusive language.”

The ordinance would also regulate storage of personal property, the use of medians for solicitation, panhandling near ATMs (ironically lessening the prohibited zone from 50 to 15 feet), and blocking sidewalks and building entrances.

Various speakers decried aggressive behavior by panhandlers and homeless people.  One speaker spoke of the psychological trauma suffered by his family during an incident and eloquently spoke of the need for the police to have better tools to deal with these situations. Retired State Senator Lois Wolk talked about the need to regulate the homeless and treat mental illness.

One the other hand, a number of speakers brought up the need for more services for the homeless and that enacting this ordnance would not prevent bad behavior or curb the homeless problem in town.

The tone of many of the speakers, comments by council members about emails they receive, and the language of the ordinance suggest to us that Davis has, as the title suggests, begun to dabble in (minor) moral panic. In addition, the council majority bent over backwards to convince the public in chambers and watching on TV that all they were interested in was behavior – and this was not about any group of people.  As if behavior could be divorced from people.

Moral panic is a concept coined by British sociologist Stan Cohen in the 1960’s to help understand the upheaval and fears of deviant youth groups. Some of us remember the “Mods” and the “Rockers” or the Jets and the Sharks. Other applications of the concept have been to violent criminal gangs (MS-13), satanic cults, and the “War on Drugs.”

Driven by the media and moral agitators, moral panics typically target some “out group” or set of behaviors associated with some group of individuals. In modern democracies they appear endemic and come and go depending on the cultural mood. Moral panic about one topic often subsides in favor of another or when social control initiatives, e.g. laws, are put into place.

Here in Davis, increasing numbers of homeless people in town and the accompanying increase in panhandling has stimulated a lot of debate in the local media, among the merchants of the city, and at the podium before the City Council. If not a full-blown moral panic, Davis appears in the throes of a minor episode.

The problem we see with this ordnance is that it stigmatizes a group of people (the homeless and panhandlers) while doing little to prevent the extreme and deviant behavior of the very few. It lumps together provisions targeted at those who must carry their belongings with them and sometimes use the public spaces as a place to rest, eat, or sleep, with a provision to prevent aggressive conduct. Given that the provisions of this ordinance lump together all these provisions, how can the council argue that the aggressive conduct provision is not about the homeless and panhandlers? They even include solicitation of money and things of value. If the aggressive conduct section is not targeting panhandling and the homeless, why are those behaviors singled out?

Several speakers and council members spoke to the need for better “tools” for the control of these behaviors. Chief Pytel said the new language provides greater specificity that will provide better guidance for his officers. It goes beyond Penal Code (PC) Sec. 415 and more narrowly defines what behaviors are prohibited. But why isn’t PC 415 enough? It specifies penalties for: “[a]ny person who maliciously and willfully disturbs another person by loud and unreasonable noise” or “[a]ny person who uses offensive words in a public place which are inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction.” In fact, the last language is incorporated into a proposed ordinance in the definitions (see Sec. A(5)).

If the council was so concerned about not stigmatizing the homeless who inhabit our city sidewalks, parks, and plazas, why didn’t they separate out the aggressive conduct section, delete the references to panhandling, and pass it as a standalone ordinance? To do so would be a statement that they are not singling out a particular population but rather are concerned for all the bad actors who display aggressive behavior in public and scare the wits out of our residents and visitors.

Let’s call a spade a spade – the aggressive conduct language is targeted at a particular group of people. You can’t divorce behavior from people. And frankly, if you want to prevent homelessness in Davis, it’s going to take a lot more than this ordinance to do so.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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33 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Davis Dabbles In Minor Moral Panic”

  1. Keith O

    There’s no minor moral panic.  These new ordinances are well thought out and needed.  Aggressive panhandlers needed to be dealt with, end of story.  Most laws apply to all even though they only target the perpetrators.

    I think the only minor moral panic is coming from those who have to attempt to keep their liberal progressive credentials in tact by panning against anything and everything that the council might do to try and stop the problems being caused by some of the homeless in town.

  2. Tia Will


    Aggressive panhandlers needed to be dealt with, end of story.”

    For me, this is not the “end of the story”. For me, all aggressive behaviors need to be dealt with. The aggressive behavior of the well dressed individual who shouts at or threatens another needs to be dealt with. The aggressive behavior of the inebriated blue jeaned student needs to be dealt with. The overly aggressive behavior of the police needs to be dealt with. So remind me, in an ordinance that the chamber, and multiple members of the city council claimed was not targeting a specific group, is that specific group singled out, repeatedly.

    For me, this is not about whether or not the police need, more tools, it is about the hypocrisy of claiming that the ordinance does not target a specific group, when in plain language, it does. This is further illustrated by the provision against “blocking the side walk”. The vast majority of “sidewalk blockage” in our community is not done by the homeless or panhandlers, it is done by the merchants with their outdoor displays and free standing signs. We (myself included) fully accept these forms of “sidewalk blockage” but some have a very low tolerance for blockage from those who are simply sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk with a sign asking for the same thing as the merchants, namely more money.





  3. Jeff M

    Much irony here as moral panic is endemic in those complaining about this ordinance.

    I see it this way, begging is a form of business… trading relief of giver guilt and  providing a method of giver virtue signaling… for money… and in progressive land every business must be highly regulated.

    Maybe we should also consider levying a panhandling tax.

    1. Eric Gelber

      Jeff – I assume you are trying to be clever, but begging is a form of speech, protected by the First Amendment. As such, panhandling ordinances are subject to strict scrutiny. While speech is subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, such restrictions must not be content-based.

    2. Tia Will


      That is an interesting point of view. First the ordinance applies to only part of the affected population. While it is true that everyone who panhandles is seeking something of value, usually money just as are businessmen, that is not true of much of our homeless population.It’s just that the business owners do not want the panhandler’s to engage in their form of “business” and don’t want the homeless there at all.

      However, in terms of the “blocking the sidewalk” portion of the ordinance, shop owners, panhandlers and the non panhandling homeless will be treated quite differently even when displaying the same behavior. Apparently the latter two groups will be asked to move along, while the former, even if they occupy more actual side walk space will be allowed to continue their practice. Seems pretty group targeted to me. Seems like differential treatment to me. Seems unnecessarily discriminatory to me.

        1. Tia Will


          I am sure that many of the merchants do have “encroachment permits”. That actually illustrates my point. How many encroachment permits do you suppose are granted to panhandlers or the homeless ? My point is about differential treatment of different groups, not about whether or not I like the blockage.

          1. Don Shor

            Use of the sidewalk by merchants is regulated. Use of the sidewalk by panhandlers will also be regulated. The treatment is differential in that the merchants must pay for it via fees, whereas panhandlers risk citations. In both cases I suspect enforcement is on a complaint basis. I know that at one time the sidewalk sign ordinance was enforced by a particularly officious city official who drove around looking for violations, but I don’t think that is the practice any more. So it’s possible that some of those sidewalk signs you see are in violation. If they bother you, file a complaint. You seem to be repeatedly pointing at merchants in these discussions. This problem directly impacts their livelihood and they are working with the Chamber and the council to craft solutions.

        2. Howard P

          I pretty much know as a fact, no panhandler has applied for an encroachment permit… so your point (differential treatment) is moot, at best.  In order to get an encroachment permit, you need to apply, accept appropriate conditions of approval, delineate where and when you ‘encroach’, and pay a fee… please think…

        3. Howard P

          Forgot to include, ‘be in a position to provide proof of insurance’ for the proposed activity, including the fact that the City can require a rider to have the City covered as an additional insured…

  4. Howard P

    Not all of those who “panhandle” are homeless [and, many homeless do not panhandle, much less doing so ‘aggressively’] .  Just look around, particularly the shopping centers outside the Core… look closely for bikes, cars, fancy backpacks, etc.

    Some of the homeless have SS, SSI allowances… not sufficient to get off the street, but sufficient to survive.

    1. Eric Gelber

      Not all of those who “panhandle” are homeless …

      You’ve made this point before and I’m not sure why you think it’s pertinent. There’s no question that panhandling ordinances disproportionately impact these who are homeless. Also, I’m not sure how you define “survive,” but SSI is not sufficient to pay rent and otherwise provide for basic necessities virtually anywhere in the State of California.

      1. Howard P

        Survival on the street (no rent) is less expensive than ‘survival’ “housed”… survival means having sufficient calories not to starve. It does not mean medical/dental care, housing, cell access, etc.  I do not disagree with the main thrust of your point, but you definition of “basic necessities” may differ from the reality of many of the homeless…

        I made the point, because there are charlatans out there.  Sorry the truth disproportionately offends your sensibilities. I note you ignored the part about not all homeless panhandle. Very convenient to pick on one point, ignore the other.

        Have you ever really gotten to know any of the Davis homeless?  I have.

        1. Tia Will

          Have you ever really gotten to know any of the Davis homeless?  I have.”

          A few. Enough to know that their stories vary widely from those passing through to our chronic homeless. Enough to know that we should be offering a variety of services for prevention and harm reduction, not labeling and shunting out of sight the way some, not all in our business and “respectable” community would like to do as indicated in communications I have seen and heard both at public comment, while tabling at Farmer’s Market and in previous council campaigns.

        2. Eric Gelber

          The fact that there are charlatans out there or that not all homeless persons panhandle are both facts, but irrelevant facts, a distinction you don’t seem to grasp. Panhandling ordinances impact free speech based on content (begging) and have a disparate impact on persons who are homeless. Therefore such ordinances undergo heightened scrutiny.

        3. Ken A

          Panhandling ordinances impact free speech just like laws against yelling “fire” in a crowded theater and school rules that prohibit kids from using the F word to a teacher (and the moderators on this blog) “impact free speech”.  Some people may want to live in a world where homeless guys can get in your face and threaten to kill your kids if you don’t give them money, people yell fire in crowded buildings, kids can tell teachers to F off and a blog is full of comments that have links to “make $7K a month working at your computer from home” but most don’t and support laws that impact free speech like the new one in Davis.

  5. Tia Will


    In order to get an encroachment permit, you need to apply”

    I think this is another good example of differential treatment of the two groups. In order to apply, you have to know that such an application is necessary. I suspect a poll of our visibly poor would probably reveal that the majority do not know this. Instead of a punitive ordinance, maybe the city could make it known to those who block sidewalks that an encroachment permit is necessary. Maybe they could do outreach with the forms. Maybe they could waive fees. There are many ways that the city could help the visibly poor to integrate into our community rather than passing targeted and punitive ordinances. Again, the city and chamber should not try to pretend that this ordinance is not targeted at a specific population when by its wording, it clearly is.

    1. Howard P

      Maybe they could waive fees.

      That indeed would be “differential treatment of the two groups”. Which as I understand it, is something you, and others, perceive is unjust/unfair.

      1. Ken A

        I just read a great story about a group in a poor area that was doing “free car inspections” to help the poor that often “don’t think was necessary” (and/or not a big deal) to drive around in a car without a tail, lights license plate lights or a current registration sticker.  Maybe Tia can put together a similar group to help the people involved with the “business” of panhandling get the proper permits (and pay the proper city taxes).

        1. Howard P

          And, this…

          People who come door to door are supposed to have these…

      2. Eric Gelber

        Howard and Ken — I knew if you two put your heads together you could come up with further ways to burden free speech. The application Howard references is for soliciting on private residential property, not for exercising free speech in public places.

        1. Ken A

          It looks to me that if you want to “solicit” anywhere in Davis you need to fill out the form since it defines “”Solicit” and “solicitation” means the request, directly or indirectly, of money, contribution, credit, property, financial assistance or other thing of value.”

          I did not see anything that said the form was “only” for soliciting on private residential property.

          I wonder how many of the guys in town with a “Homeless Need Food” sign have the proper permit to “solicit” for food?

        2. Howard P

          Eric… what is there about “People who come door to door are supposed to have these…” that you do not understand?  Your personal/philosophical animus is showing when you try to impugn my motivations…

          As to ‘collaborating’ with Ken?  Not freaking likely!  Falling on the floor laughable.  Have you picked up on the huge differences in our ‘world views’? I suspect Ken finds your bogus assertion humorous, as well…

          I strongly suspect that I have, one on one, done more to engage the homeless, and help them, not by giving money, but spending time with them, listening, and helping them get plugged in to medical and social services, THAT THEY ASKED ME TO DO FOR THEM, than you ever have… you sir, are so off the mark it is not funny. You have little credibility to me, after this.

          Yeah, you managed to push one of my “hot buttons”, big time. Congrats.

        3. Eric Gelber

          Davis Municipal Code


          Article 28.01 IN GENERAL

          Sec. 28.01.040 Definitions

          For purposes of this article, the following words and phrases shall have the meanings respectively ascribed to them by this section:

          Permit is the revocable permission issued by the city pursuant to this article granting to an individual the right to solicit ON PRIVATE PROPERTY AND RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY, subject to the provisions of this article.

        4. Howard P

          Ken… scroll down my link, and you will find, in the ordinance, that it is focused on the coming up to private property thing… which I basically said about the door-to door thing…


          Someone (or more) missed that… so, in downtown, it is not needed in the street, but the moment you walk into a business, it applies…

          Of course, a certain individual will see this a further evidence of ‘collaboration’ between the two of us.

        5. Howard P

          Eric, since I was composing when you posted,

          i want Ken to know I am not collaborating with you… as a sign, I gave him the site for the full text, you ‘cherry-picked’.  Whatever.

        6. Ken A


          Thanks for taking the time to prove I was correct and the permits are not “only” for “residential” property solicitation “Permit is the revocable permission issued by the city pursuant to this article granting to an individual the right to solicit ON PRIVATE PROPERTY AND RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY”.

          Since it says Private Property “and” Residential Property that means that anyone with a sign at a shopping center should have a permit.

          With that said as a “small government guy” I don’t think the city should make a anyone who wants to paint my bedroom pay the city so so they “permit” him to do it or make a guy who wants to hold a sign asking or food or money pay the city before they “permit”him to do it…

        7. Eric Gelber

          Thanks for taking the time to prove I was correct …

          Your argument was that people panhandling downtown would need permits. Panhandling on private property was not the issue. But, if you feel the need to take credit for being right, whether it’s due or not, feel free.

      3. Tia Will


        I have two objections to the current Chamber/Council action. First you are right, I do see discrimination as an injustice. But what bothers me almost as much in this case is the hypocrisy of pretending that no discrimination is intended when it is written right into the wording of the ordinance. If you are going to discriminate, at least have the courage of your convictions and call it what it is.

  6. Ann Block

    Thanks for the article and very important perspective, Tia, on this sad development.  Who voted no?  Though I could guess it was likely Robb? I will be quite sad when he leaves the council — he has been truly the conscience of our small city while serving as mayor.


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