Last Tuesday a DC resident was taken out of his own home by the DC police, he was thrown to the ground, handcuffed and then police shot his dog -who survived and needs intensive care now. Police thought this Salvadoran man was a thieve after seeing his son jumping into the house from a backyard.
Many believe that DC residents are being racially targeted by DC police. This is not like in LA or New Orleans where mostly white officers chase Black and Native youth. Here in DC is not much about the race of the police officers, but the appearance of the suspects -kind of like in NYC.
This week DC Councilmember Jim Graham has introduced a bill to the DC City Council that would create Hot-Spot No-Loitering Zones. An email warned of the consequences:
The police chief would be able to declare one of these zones at any time, thus giving police the power to move people off the streets in the targeted neighborhood. The zones would make it a crime to be gathered with two or more people on public property. If people did not disperse when told to by the police, they could be arrested and given up to a $300 fine and/or 180 days in jail. This all just for being on public property.
Councilmember Graham said this initiative is intended to fight crime in specific corners where recent crimes have occurred and to fight local gangs from attacking innocent people.
A local DC activist wrote this after I asked her point of view:
There is a question about how to fight gangs. There is already a lot of police harassment of people of color in Colombia heights, this law would give the police the legal backing to do what they already do.
One of the day laborers we work with for instance, was arrested and stayed in jail overnight on his way to a welding job, because he was profiled as being part of MS-13, which he's not. When they had no proof they had to let him go but ofcourse he lost a day of wages.
A police officer in Mt Pleasant consistently threatens to arrest Latina [Native] women on the basis that they are prostitutes, with no proof. This legislation could easily be an impetus to arrest day laborers a who congregate in the seven eleven area in Mt Pleasant looking for work, young people hanging out on the corner, even protesters protesting a bad employer, or activists flyering.
Why DC police tried to protect a home from being robbed and they went on to abuse its owner? I think there must be a point of agreement here. In one side, neighbors are fed up with crime especially coming from young kids and gangs (or crews as some call them), and in the other hand people don't want their rights to be suppressed.
Personally I have been a victim of these out-of-control young men who think they own the streets in DC -and I am still recovering from one attack 2 years ago- Of course I want to feel safe when I am out there and I want the police to help.
But if these new bills mean to violate civil liberties, then an organizer from DC Jobs with Justice recommends:
* Write your city councilmember and the at-large council
members (see below for a draft letter)
* Call the councilmembers.
* Testify at the hearing on March 18th at 10:00 am. To testify send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (202) 724-7808 by 5pm on March 16th with your Name, Address, Phone Number, and Organization and Title, if you have one. Everyone who testifies will have 5 minutes to speak. You may also submit written testimony, which can be longer, and you can do without being at the hearing.
* Talk to people about this bill, why it's a problem, and talk about other solutions to create safety and justice in our communities.
Here we have a dilemma: we need though actions to stop crime and gangs, but we also need to respect human rights and the basic civil liberties of people. How can we do both at the same time?
I think special crisis require emergency actions and the cooperation of everyone. How to send a strong message to those criminals that this is a city for everyone? How can DC police officers can learn that "appearances" are not a reason to criminalize people.
Crime in DC won't stop until everyone helps in some way.
Update - March 16, 2009 5:00 PM
Councilmember Jim Graham finally withdrew the Hot-Spot No Loitering Bill, which had also support from Councilmembers Bowser, Evans, Alexander, Kwame Brown and Catania, according to DC Jobs With Justice. Graham sent an email himself to explain the reasons for him to stop the bill:
Throughout my career I have tried-- working with others-- to solve problems. I have worked hard to listen to my constituents. People know also that I am a determined crime fighter who is equally determined to address the root causes of crime.
Children should be able to play outside safely. Neighbors should not be afraid to sit on their front stoops, or walk to the local convenience shop. Our young people should not live in fear while they wait for the bus. People ought to be able to walk freely into their homes and the
lobbies of their apartment buildings.
Those concerns led me to try to draft a constitutionally sound piece of legislation. The purpose was to give residents and neighbors some much-needed relief from criminal congregants while also reaffirming the right to assemble. So the draft bill was narrowly focused by requiring a limit of 240 hours, a designated area, and other restrictions.
I care deeply about civil liberties. I am also concerned about giving government power that can be abused, through unfairly targeting people on the basis of race or background. After a lot of effort, there are still critical ambiguities (e.g. the definition of what constitutes “loitering”) . Thus, the opportunity for abuse is too great. Very recent events have reinforced that conclusion.
Thus I have withdrawn the bill.
Councilmember Jim Graham
Most of my readers know I am a friends with Councilmember Graham, and I am pleased by his honest response. Also I support the work of DC Jobs With Justice and I am glad they fought this bill. It looks like a happy ending for most in the time being, except that the criminals are still out there... and something must be done.