Urbana Adopts a Soliciting Ordinance
After several meetings with active public participation, on August 1, the Urbana City Council adopted an ordinance banning “ aggressive solicitation of money or other thing of value, including a request to purchase an item or service of little or no monetary value in circumstances where a reasonable person would understand that the purchase is in substance a donation.”
Aggressive solicitation was defined as “soliciting in a group of two or more persons or soliciting accompanied by any of the following actions: (1) Touching another person without that person’s consent; (2) Blocking the path of the person solicited or blocking the entrance to any building or vehicle; (3) Continuing to solicit or to request a donation from a person after that person has refused an earlier request; (4) Following or remaining alongside a person who walks away from the solicitor after being solicited; (5) Making any statement, gesture, or other communication that would cause a reasonable person to feel threatened into making a donation; or (6) Using profane or abusive language during the solicitation or following a refusal to make a donation.” Further, soliciting is prohibited with 20 feet of an ATM or entrance to a bank, other financial institution, or check cashing business. It is also prohibited on private property if the owner, tenant, or occupant has asked a person not to solicit or has posted a sign prohibiting solicitation. Mayor Prussing and council members assured the public that the police would issue only warnings for first infractions. Second infractions would carry a fine of $50 and subsequent offenses, $165.
At every meeting, a large majority of the attending public spoke against the ordinance. One area resident presented a petition against it with over 300 signatures. While this was not enough to stop the ordinance, public input and pressure did result in significant revisions. In one instance, the original document used the word “panhandling” rather than “soliciting.” Many felt that the term “panhandling” was stigmatizing of those in desperate need. This concern was also raised regarding fines. This public input resulted in the council adding a provision that “remunerated community or public service will be made available by the city as an alternative to these fines and to court expenses.”
Public input also had an impact on the range and scope of the ordinance. Unlike the final version, the original draft applied only to the heavily minority area around the Philo Road Business District. It prohibited soliciting for money within 10 feet of a taxi stand or MTD stop, at any vehicle parked or stopped on a public street or alley, in any transportation vehicle, in a line waiting to be admitted to a business or government office, on public property in the Philo Road District, and on private property unless the “panhandler” obtained prior permission from the owner or occupant.
Public involvement also led to the inclusion of a provision for review and evaluation of the ordinance in 18 months. Despite these modifications, serious problems remain. The ordinance includes language that is vague and leaves considerable ambiguity regarding enforcement. As was mentioned earlier, one definition included in the ordinance for aggressive solicitation is: “Making any statement, gesture, or other communication that would cause a reasonable person to feel threatened into making a donation.” As Heather Stephenson, the only council member to vote against the ordinance, asked, who is such a reasonable person?” This provision is directed at how a person reacts to the behavior of another. Survivors of violent incidents may be afraid when approached, not to mention spoken to, by someone they do not know. Some whites are fearful when approached by blacks and, if spoken to in a manner they deem to be rude or impolite, may interpret that as threatening behavior. Though there may be reasons behind these fears, are they “reasonable?” Some of this type of confusion was manifested at the meetings by the very people who came to support the ordinance.
Councilperson Diane Marlin, who represents the southeast ward and was a strong supporter of the ordinance, said that she was particularly concerned about the fears and safety of older women in that area of town and the possibility that they might stop shopping there. I don’t want to trivialize that concern. But it is always better to proscribe specific aggressive actions rather than relying on how people interpret actions that may or may not be meant to be aggressive or threatening. Interpretations are too often determined by cultural and experiential conditioning.
Police enforcement is problematic as well. If the police do not actually see a given interaction, they will have to rely on the account of someone who made a complaint after the fact. How will the police determine if the behavior was meant to be threatening? If the case goes to court, it goes to a “city court” where the accused has no right to a public defender. Can the accused compel the accuser to testify or would the word of the accused be weighed simply against that of a police officer who may or may not have seen the incident? In either case, the adage holds “only a fool defends him/herself in court.” In my observations of Champaign’s city court, the poor, and overwhelmingly blacks, are forced into the role of “fools” by this system.
Looking beyond the language of ordinance reveals further areas of concern. Examining the official government processes and response in this case raises questions as to underlying motivations and the impact of political clout and power in the operation of our local government. Proponents of this new ordinance argued that the police did not have the necessary tools to deal with aggressive solicitation. However, research presented to the council by members of the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Racial Justice revealed that almost all of the behaviors mentioned are covered by existing ordinances. This leaves one with the impression that a kind of symbolic politics was going on here, an attempt to provide a more dramatic signal to specific political and economic constituencies that the city is really serious about protecting public safety in the Philo Road Business District.
Power was very much at play here. Shortly before the ordinance issue came before the council, Urbana citizen Durl Kruse presented them with data analysis showing that the pervasive differentials between police stops of blacks and whites had reached historic heights. Mayor Prussing was completely dismissive of these data and resistant to any suggestion that there really could be a problem of injustice here. In this case of a citizen raising questions about city issues, little action was taken. However, when a tiny group of white citizens came to the council–with no data showing that aggressive soliciting had increased over time, but laden with stories of how they disliked and feared even non-aggressive forms of solicitation and conflated it with violent crime, the response was swift.
While it is important that people be free from violence while on public or private property, we must also be wary of violating the right to free speech and criminalizing poverty. Thus, a sharp public eye needs to be cast on the enforcement of this ordinance.