Ordering the public

Austin yesterday enacted a couple of nastily repressive changes to its “public order” ordinance, changes that naturally target the city’s poorer and darker residents and nonresidents. “Public order,” of course, is a euphemism–and, unlike most euphemisms, not even a particularly sunny one–for the microphysical management of people’s existence and behavior, the policing of bodily flows and movements. The goal, as always, is to protect the community.

The city council considered four amendments, and comparing the two they adopted to the two they didn’t reveals a lot. One rejected change would have made door-to-door solicitation illegal after 7pm, instead of 9pm, as it is now. Door-to-door fundraising–apparently a less invasive form of begging than the panhandling in public places that was further criminalized–is how enviro and “community action” groups get most of their money, some of which goes to the organizations’ underpaid piece-laborers before it is sent to lobbyists and lawyers in Washington. Moving the time up to 7pm would have cut the prime soliciting time in half. The rights of NGOs are not to be meddled with.

The other rejected proposal would have banned roadside solicitation in the whole city. Few seemed to mind that roads are the homeless’ best begging spots, though some did worry that this law might have made it more difficult and possibly illegal for (largely immigrant) day laborers to make arrangements with their employers, which is usually done on the street outside the city’s lone day-labor center (which was moved away from downtown a few years ago, when the city began its downtown revitalization campaign). But for the council, the decisive opposition was from charitable groups that solicit contributions at intersections and from rehab groups whose patients reintegrate themselves into society by selling flowers along busy roads. Roadside solicitation is fine if it’s used to produce docile bodies.

The two amendments that passed pertain only to the downtown area. One of them outlawed all panhandling and the other forbade sleeping and sitting on sidewalks and streets. These were the desire of the “downtown community,” i.e., the high-income residents who have moved downtown since the advent of city-sponsored gentrification and the downtown businesses that play such an integral part in “keeping Austin weird.” These are fairly standard policing actions that have been enacted by many American cities, but the interesting twist here is the (selectively) expansive definition of downtown the city took. It included in the ban the area that includes the favorite shopping haunts of the city’s petit bourgeois, Whole Foods, Book People, Waterloo Records, Katz’s Deli, etc., which are usually thought of as quite far from downtown. On the other end, the ban ends at the highway that bisects not only the city’s geography but also its social, racial, and economic life. The homeless are free to pursue their disruptive activities on the “other” side of the interstate, where blacks, Latinos, and the poor live.

Austin’s civil society dutifully performed its role in enforcing the city’s rule. Liveable City, a pwog group fond quality-of-life politics, opined that the council should not adopt the ordinances, but it did provide legitimacy to the laws’ basic goals:

The Board of Liveable City recognizes the right of all Austin residents to live, work, and play in a safe and healthy community. The Board understands the concerns the “Public Order Ordinance” are intended to address but believes the amendments as currently written will lead to unintended consequences which will harm hardworking Austin residents and our community.

The Board believes that enforcement of current laws is sufficient to address the majority of the stated public issues regarding public order until such time that a more comprehensive and caring policy can be crafted.

The number of lines drawn in these few sentences is simply astounding: hardworking/not hardworking, residents/nonresidents, the safe/the dangerous, the healthy/the unhealthy, etc.

For its part, the activist left was largely absent when the racism and human-rights violations they so deplore in Iraq and Afghanistan were being carried out in their backyard. I suppose I should be more forgiving: I think the Jensenites were busy contemplating the correct course of action in their role as citizens of the empire and cueing up tedious leftist documentaries in their tireless quest to educate the masses.

Obviously, I think the stakes involved here are huge. This type of law-making isn’t merely the oppression of a certain group or the criminalization of certain activities. The sorts of regulations codified through the city’s ordinances–controlling movement, defining and delimiting space, granting (or not) recognition, providing (or not) legitimacy–represent the state’s primary function, its most insidiously effective mechanisms of control. These are the politics of the everyday, the daily arrangement and reminder of power, and to my mind the primary ground on which we should wage our fight.


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