Heartless laws lead to harsh law enforcement. This was demonstrated last week when a police officer knocked down and viciously slapped a homeless man who was on his way to use a restroom in a bus station in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During the past year Mayor Seiler and the City Commission passed a series of laws that essentially criminalized homelessness, as well as virtually abolishing the outdoor feeding of the homeless. Their actions led to the police issuing criminal citations to 90 year old Arnold Abbott, two clergy and several others for illegal feedings.
Unjust laws can be enforced with more or less cruelty. But it is impossible to justly enforce unjust laws. This fact was demonstrated in the disgusting display of abuse by a nine year veteran of the Fort Lauderdale police department. His actions, and those like them, take place far too often and they are usually not caught on video. But they remind us why it is so important to heed the instruction of scripture, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).
This past Saturday I was with a few other ministers, a number of homelessness activists and people of good will outside of the Fort Lauderdale Police Station. We were protesting against the callousness of the police officer who humiliated and hit a homeless man who had done nothing wrong. Part of the group entered the police station to deliver a letter signed by all of us to the Chief of Police.
Among other things, the letter stated, “While we recognize Officer Ramirez’s violent abuse of this man as beyond the pale of what generally is understood as acceptable police practice, we also acknowledge that such behavior does not arise out of a vacuum. Rather, your department, along with the City Commission, has defined a culture of abuse of the homeless for many years, though never more than during the one recently past. Such is the oppressive culture out of which Officer Ramirez’s slap across Bruce Laclair’s face sprung.”
The violence of this single officer does not stand alone. It is an expression of the violence of the Mayor and City Commission who have decided to address the problem of homelessness, not by helping the homeless, but by oppressing them. This is not to say that they have done absolutely nothing to help. But the needs are far greater than their constructive efforts. They have compensated by implementing destructive, punitive measures of systemic violence. Over two dozen other cities have taken similar actions.
One of the ordinances put in place in Fort Lauderdale essentially requires homeless people to have all they own with them all the time. Police can confiscate the little property homeless people possess if they leave it behind a bush or under a bench on public property. In this city where there are no public restrooms downtown, a law has been put in place that harshly punishes those who urinate or defecate outdoors. Though the homeless have no means to support themselves, all panhandling has been outlawed.
It is not only against the law for homeless people to sleep on private property without permission, it has been made it illegal for homeless people to sleep on public property as well, calling this illegal camping. Consequently, homeless people now become criminals simply by going to sleep. The Fort Lauderdale City Commission decided to go one step further by outlawing compassion. They did this through making outdoor feeding of the homeless illegal in virtually all instances.
These are discriminatory laws aimed at a weak, vulnerable, largely helpless class of people. If someone who doesn’t look homeless decides to lie down and take a nap in a public park or on the beach, no police come to harass them or take them to jail for “camping” on public property. With no fear of prosecution, large groups of residents or tourists can share food with each other in parks or on the beach without complying with the requirements of the outdoor feeding ordinance. The homeless are not allowed the liberties others can take for granted.
The Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Development Authority are among the enthusiastic supporters of the laws that oppress the homeless. They want to “beautify” the city to make it more appealing to investors and tourists. The homeless population is regarded as an ugly bump on the road to greater profits. Despite any claims to the contrary that come from City Hall, it is evident that the aim behind the laws is to make life impossible for the homeless so they will flee in desperation.
So while the violent action of a police officer against a homeless man who simply wanted to use the restroom is intolerable, no less violent, morally deplorable and worthy of condemnation are the actions of the city officials who put in place laws that criminalized homelessness. We shouldn’t forget that it was not with favor that the prophet wrote of those “who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice” (Isaiah 60:1). And we should not offer them our favor either but instead give them our resistance for the sake of the weak.