There is an enormous difference between a beggar sitting next to a hat with a sign on a well travelled sidewalk asking for spare change and someone who walks down an (not coincidentally) empty sidewalk and accosts only the odd man out (i.e. “the middle class white guy”) and asks him for money.
Two of my favorite restaurants are located along the gauntlet that is Main Street north beyond The Student Prince.
Walking beyond Fort Street I have to steel myself against what is coming. I’m not “asked for money” directly. I know the bit now so I have my tactics. Whoever “he” is this time will make a gesture or an indication that I should stop…just to talk. A conversation about philosophy, the weather, human kindness, or any such thing is proffered. The ploy is to get me to stop. Once that happens the bullshit story starts: car broken down; needs bus ticket to “home” (funny, I see you on this stretch of Main Street ALL THE TIME), kids need money for baseball uniforms (somehow having a laminated paper is supposed to be impressive); whatever. The key is not to stop. My response is “no, thanks” whether or not it is a logical response to the query.
-How ya doin’?
It pisses them off. “That’s right, I know your only intention is to get me to stop, and I’m not going to.” Somehow none of them recognize me from the prior 18 times we’ve danced this dance. I have the look of an easy mark. It helps actually. They don’t bring their “A” game and by the time they realize that their weak shit isn’t going to work I’m 3 steps beyond them. That’s when the yelling starts but at this point their only choice is either to give up on extracting any cash or to mug me. They’ve never gone for option number two.
These people are criminals and thugs. They want to use intimidation and fear, to shake down anyone who looks compromised. I’m sure that there are a thousand reasons why they feel they need to do what they do. “If our society were more equitable and there were greater opportunities for employment…” “If not for red lining, and the war on drugs…” All sadly part of the root causes of many of the problems plaguing inner city America, but that doesn’t excuse using intimidation to extort money.
Just this week I heard a commentator bemoan police state America. I agree. But police state America is defined by a militaristic police force intruding on private lives and private homes and enforcing sometimes non existent or illegitimate laws and using arbitrary force. When the commentator used the treatment of panhandlers as an example of overreach I had to pause; no doubt he is thinking of the person with “the sign” and “the hat”. To me panhandling has a much darker side; it is part of a culture, and yes perhaps a cycle, of violence and intimidation.
And therein lies the issue. My problem with a police state is its reliance on violence and intimidation, but to think that there are no individuals who would prey upon others in the total absence of a legitimate police presence is stupid and naive. I want a state which interferes as little as possible with the individual. I want cops who know where their legitimate authority begins and ends. I want cops who defer to the rights of free speech, association, and assembly.
And I want cops on Main Street.