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.
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.