On Again Off Again Civics

 

Standing room only in the Council Chambers

Standing room only in the Council Chambers

At last week’s Santa Cruz City Council meeting hundreds of locals showed up to express their concern about the purchase of an armored rescue vehicle known as the BearCat. As someone who frequently attends these meetings, the showing was awe inspiring. Yet what was truly moving was the level of discourse that took place, both positive and negative. While the dialogue surrounding the BearCat was laughably one-sided (against), and sometimes plain disrespectful (people literally telling the Council and Police to “F@#k off”), it was the spillover of the BearCat crowd into another impassioned debate that really got me, the debate over the “stay away” ordinance.

For those of you who don’t know, the “stay away”ordinance would ban repeat offenders from public parks and beaches for various periods of time, depending on the number of infractions they have received. The ordinance is controversial because this includes infractions like sleeping/camping, and being in these spaces after hours, which many homeless people are cited for despite there really not being anywhere else for them to go.

Supporters are adamant that the intention of the ordinance is to crack down on anti-social behavior, drug use and littering, not to punish crimes of necessity like sleeping.

Opponents, acknowledge that this type of behavior is unacceptable, but believe that the way the ordinance is written effectively makes it a crime to be homeless.

Both arguments have merit, and from watching the debate take place, I genuinely believe in the intentions of both sides. I was also inspired by the level and sincerity of dialogue that took place. The ordinance did pass 6-1. It also seems seems a future compromise of some sort is imminent.

However, of the hundreds of people who showed up to rally against the BearCat, less than half stuck around for the “stay away” discussion. And while I can admit that the BearCat is symbolic of a larger, national discussion around police militarization, the “stay away” ordinance is much more impactful to our community and our local civil rights. The BearCat, if purchased, will hardly go noticed, while the “stay away” ordinance will likely affect hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people over the next year. So why did all of these caring and concerned citizens disappear?

To me this touches on a larger problem: it’s easy to get upset about symbolic issues, like the purchase of an armored vehicle, but when faced with something that’s not as black and white or as sharable across social media, people tune out.

I am genuinely curious about why this is. If you were one of the supposed activists who showed up to protest the BearCat, but left before the “stay away” debate began than I would love your help in understanding this problem. Why did you exert so much energy about that issue in particular, but not about the other, when they largely represent the same type of issue, that is the role of the state in dictating the limits on individual rights, whether that be the right to peacefully protest or the right to sleep.

Furthermore, why did you choose to become engaged in just that one issue, or go to just that one meeting? Why not go to City Council more often? If 1,000 people can stop the police and fire departments from taking free money to buy what is essentially an armored truck with some holes drilled in it, than what’s stopping 1,000 people from addressing our local housing problems, or solving our water crisis? The answer is nothing, only the will to want to solve those problems, of which there is little beyond a small group of committed people.

So here is my challenge to you, the average person, the BearCat protester, the Mom or Dad who laments the state of our local parks and beaches: Stay Engaged. Your primary issue may have had it’s day, but someone else’s may be just around the corner, and we as a community have been afforded a tremendous freedom of self-determination. This means that we really can dictate what our values are and see them through to implementation if we try.

It’s not as if this is really difficult. Every week I personally examine a multitude of different publications, pick out the items I think people will care about most, and then send them out to as many people as possible for voting and feedback. Chances are, if you are reading this blog right now that you have seen me do this. I don’t just do it for myself – I want people to use these tools to help promote greater civic engagement in general. That’s why they are completely free and open to everyone. Even if you don’t use our site for whatever reason, use something else. The Credomobile app was used to collect over 1,000 signatures petitioning the city to give the BearCat back – that’s great! I wish I had 1,000 votes on the over 50 water proposals that we crowdsourced for the city, but we don’t. So I am still pondering…what will make you stay engaged?

4 Comments

  1. Excellent observations, and well-written article. I can only guess about “current” civic human behaviors. Maybe it is because communities want immediate response for everything. In ancient times, I would be happy to write a letter and get a response within a month. Nowadays, if it takes more than an hour, move on! And on that topic, look at MoveOn’s success. With quick flashy emails, they get millions of people to respond by giving $5-500. No further investment required. Look at the BearCat issue: one night commitment. Whereas the stay away ordinance, parks, etc., all require much longer “knowledge” investment and time commitment. Sadly true my friend.

  2. Doug is right. There’s also a NIMBY-type issue here: Do I see myself possibly harassed by a police armored vehicle while I’m out protesting something? Yes. Do I see myself as someone potentially harassed by the police for over-staying my time limit in the park, or sitting on a bench for 61 minutes, etc? No. The issue you raise, Robert, was the issue raised by Pogo so many years ago: We have met the enemy and it is us. As long as we choose not to identify with some “other,” we all remain potentially at risk…

  3. Suzanne says:

    I think people are more conflicted when it comes to the homeless restrictions. On the one hand we don’t want to have to step over the homeless, or even walk near them with our small children for fear of a confrontation or violence, but on the other hand we don’t want a police state for these people when they have no where else to go. People might not realize that turning your back, and letting the police “handle” it isn’t the only solution. But as Doug wrote above it takes an investment of learning about the issue, and a time commitment. It’s much easier to ignore it than face our feelings of being inhumane and not wanting to deal with it. And we can piggy back on someone else’s decision.

    Thank you for the article, definitely well written. I am inspired to learn more about the homeless issues in Santa Cruz. I wasn’t at this meeting because I didn’t know about it, but will figure out how to be alerted to issues going before the City Council.

  4. CM Berger says:

    Wow. Sheesh..I feel attacked.
    “we don’t want to have to step over the homeless, or even walk near them with our small children for fear of a confrontation or violence”
    Um, you are walking near homeless people all the time in Santa Cruz – and you don’t even know it 99 percent of the time. I probably even breathed on your children at some point. I look like a nice lady – but I’m really just a HOMELESS WOMAN.
    People really need to understand that there are thousands of homeless people in Santa Cruz of all types – people who work in your neighborhood, many waiting on you at some extremely low-paid retail or restaurant venue of the types that abound in this city and county with the complete assent of those in power. I probably waited on you cheerfully just this afternoon and you thought I was “normal” and “just like you” and “Not Homeless”. But instead, I’m at risk every night of getting a ticket for sleeping in my car. What a deviant I am. I might get violent.

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