NB Politicus

Remembering April 4, 1968

Posted in 1968, civil rights, In Memoriam, national politics, Poverty by nbpoliticus on March 31, 2018

By John McNamara

I remember exactly where I was on April 4, 1968.

That sunny and warm Thursday,  like many others in my senior year in high school, I drove to Bradlee’s Department store on the Lynnway in Lynn, Massachusetts after school to punch in for the evening shift, earning some money before entering Boston University in the fall.

News spread quickly into the evening that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead at the age of 39.

It didn’t take long to realize that my shift as a retail clerk would be different from all the others. The store quickly emptied out. Not a customer in sight all night. No need for Mr. Silverman, the shaken and somber store manager, to send me out on outside carriage control. The bullets in Memphis were enough to bring a normal business day to a halt in Lynn and most of the nation as big cities teetered on the brink of a violence that King sought to avoid with acts of non-violent resistance.

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New Britain’s Memorial at MLK Park.

Just five short years before I had come home from junior high on a late summer day to watch King deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech – an event that would inspire so many of us to become community and political activists.

There are many good remembrances of what King said and stood for on his national holiday and at the permanent memorial in Washington every year.

But the nation could stand to be reminded again of the day King was killed and why he was in Memphis a few years after the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts became the law of the land.

By 1968, Rev. King was widening the concerns of his movement. In Where Do We Go From Here?  King, much to the consternation of the more cautious members of his movement and the political establishment, opposed a Vietnam policy that had begun to break the nation further apart. The lunchroom sit-ins and battles over accommodations and voting rights were giving way to a broader agenda. He was planning a new march on Washington – “the Poor People’s Campaign” — when he decided to take up the cause of 1,300 Black sanitation workers in Memphis, a city of southern segregation, where the white power structure opposed the right to unionize and the Mayor vowed never to bargain in good faith in a way that would give the sanitation workers their dignity. The strike and a citywide economic boycott were a cause King knew he could not ignore.

King’s prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech on the eve of the assassination is his best known from Memphis. But two weeks earlier, on March 18th, King galvanized support for strikers by saying: “So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs…..One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive.” Following King’s assassination, the Memphis power structure gave up its intransigence – recognizing the union, awarding pay raises and instituting merit promotions.

Fifty years later Rev. King’s  work goes on and is being renewed for a new generation. Led by the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina and others a “moral direct action” campaign is mobilizing a 2018 Poor People’s Campaign  for the same principles  that led Rev. King to Memphis and his last days.

King’s campaign for striking AFSCME sanitation workers reaffirmed his greatness at the hour of his death and resonates today in the cause of social and economic justice. That’s why I’ll always remember 4/4/68 as a day frozen in time not to be forgotten.

Adapted and updated from an April 2007 post.

Stewart’s New Policy: Criminalizing The Homeless, Jeopardizing Building Hope Together

Posted in city politics and government, downtown, Poverty by nbpoliticus on May 1, 2016

By John McNamara

The common council meeting of April 27th began on a hopeful note for a community that has been dubbed the “city for all people.”

Ward 4 Alderman Bobby Smedley moved a unanimous resolution to adopt a Compassion Charter, having New Britain join with other cities and countries around the world affirming a belief “to honour (sic) the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

The commitment to a compassionate city, however, was short-lived.

Within minutes  Smedley and the Common Council voted 10 to 5  to adopt an ordinance to prohibit aggressive panhandling,   imposing a $99 fine for “aggressive” begging or lying to obtain money.

The move — hastily pushed by the Stewart administration — is intended to more quickly sweep indigent and homeless persons from  Central Park and the downtown area now  that the refurbished, brick-laid park has been made safe for food vendor trucks.

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A controversial ordinance to impose $99 fines for aggressive panhandling that criminalizes the homeless was adopted April 27th. It may make Central Park safe for food trucks but could jeopardize federal funds and invite legal challenges.

The controversial penalty drew near unanimous opposition in public testimony over three meetings at City Hall from the homeless, formerly homeless, advocates and city residents.  Ward 3 Alderman Manny Sanchez called the ordinance a “poor judgment” by the Council, opposing the measure as”loosely written, likely unenforceable and probably inconsistently enforced from officer to officer.”

The Council majority, adhering to Mayor Stewart’s demand for a quick vote, insist that the $99 fine for “aggressive” panhandling is not “criminalizing” the homeless at all. It just gives the Police Department another “tool” in their “tool box” to crack down on individuals soliciting money in ways that threaten others.

But Police Chief James Wardwell, addressing the issue at an April 26th Consolidated Committee meeting, was diplomatically neutral when Republican aldermen, including Ward 2’s Kristian  Rosado, unsuccessfully went fishing for an official endorsement by the Chief.  They didn’t get one. Wardwell indicated his officers use an array of existing laws already on the books, issuing warnings before they escalate situations into arrests.  The criminal code includes a range of enforcement options for menacing behavior including disorderly conduct, threatening or even robbery that would appear to cover the definition of “aggression” that would result in a $99 fine and no criminal action.  For true hustlers and bad actors that would amount to a slap on the wrist when the full weight of the law should come down on them. That makes the new ordinance at best redundant and at worst an official policy to target and criminalize the homeless.

For Wardwell and some members of the Council the larger issue for public safety is that NBPD may need more than one cop walking the beat downtown as the best antidote to “aggressive” behavior that , as defined in the ordinance, infringes on the rights of others in public places.

New Britain has  now joined other communities which have inserted the word “aggressive” into ordinances to skirt constitutional issues. Courts have routinely thrown out anti-panhandling ordinances because they “impinge on protected speech and behavior.”

A recent study No_Safe_Place (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty) found the adoption of ordinances such as New Britain’s as counterproductive to both public safety and combating homelessness.

Criminalization measures do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness and, instead, only worsen the problem. Misusing police power to arrest homeless people is only a temporary intervention, as most people are arrested and incarcerated for short periods of time. Ultimately, arrested homeless people return to their communities, still with nowhere to live and now laden with financial obligations, such as court fees, that they cannot pay. Moreover, criminal convictions – even for minor crimes – can create barriers to obtaining critical public benefits, employment, or housing, thus making homelessness more difficult to escape.

The new ordinance directly contradicts the city’s workplan on homelessness — Building Hope Together — posted on the city’s web site.  First adopted in 2007 by former Mayor Timothy Stewart and promoted by Erin Stewart in her 2015 campaign for re-election, the plan with city government and agencies working together is committed to supportive housing, eviction prevention, employment and access to mental health and wellness services for the homeless population.

Passage of the ordinance has potential to deny New Britain federal funds to continue to implement the goals of the plan to reduce homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides $1.9 billion in federal funds to local Continuums of Care, now requires cities and their partners to “describe how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness.”  In the very competitive process for these funds New Britain could become a loser because of an ordinance that targets homeless persons intentionally or not with fines they will not be able to pay.

Unfortunately the Stewart Administration’s push for the ordinance fits a pattern of taking resources away from those who are most in need in a cash strapped city with high pockets of poverty.  That has been painfully evident  over the last three years in the elimination of Community Development Block Grant funds for food pantries and other aspects of the city’s social safety net relied upon by low-income families  and homeless persons. Instead,  those federal funds have been put back into the municipal development bureaucracy or remain unused in addressing community needs.

 

The Mayor and the Council majority would do well to read the “Compassion Charter” they so enthusiastically embraced on April 27th “to treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”  Following that principle would require reversing an unnecessary, costly and punitive measure against the least among us.