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Eugene Weekly : Cover Story : 8.19.2010

 

Drawing the Line

Dealing with Eugene’s Downtown Exclusion Zone

by Rick Levin

Exclusion is an ugly word. Applied to human beings and the public space they occupy, terms like “exclusion” and “sanitizing” and “cleaning up” can spark powerful historic images, none of them particularly nice: the Warsaw Ghetto, Kristallnacht, South African Apartheid, fire hoses opened up on Southern blacks and other such insidious experiments in cordoning off society’s so-called undesirables.

For the past two years and change, downtown Eugene has been boxed in by an imaginary but supposedly legal zone of exclusion. This zone has been dubbed — in somewhat Orwellian fashion — the Downtown Public Safety Zone (DPSZ). At the behest of law enforcement and to address the concerns of beleaguered establishments in Eugene’s business core, the City Council on Aug. 11, 2008, passed by a vote of 5-3 an ordinance that draws a line in the civic sand, and inside those lines the city has declared a sort of soft-soap War on Misbehavior in the umpteenth degree.

I spent some time hanging out in the zone with Obi James, a 31-year-old homeless guy who’s been selling his jewelry for the past few weeks in front of the McDonald Theatre. James told me he’s been cited for criminal trespass in the DPSZ. “I wasn’t criminally trespassing,” he said. “I was sleeping. It’s kind of ridiculous. My big thing is being discriminated against because of my position.”

The sun was scheduled to set on the zone Aug. 11 of this month, thereby repealing the code. But as any street kid knows, the sun also rises, sometimes unexpectedly. The council voted to extend the municipal code another 90 days in anticipation of the long-promised police report on the DPSZ’s effectiveness. The vote was 6-2 this time.

Beyond this, nobody knows precisely what the police report is supposed to show: Some want proof the cops aren’t profiling certain street kids; others want to know if the zone has benefited businesses. How this is to be shown isn’t clear.

Historical hindsight tells us that when the shit really hits the fan, exclusion can lead to extermination. But don’t fly off the handle: Nobody’s suggesting Eugene will start gassing 16-year-old kids for sleeping on grates or jaywalking. We’re not talking about the rise of Brown shirts (we do have red hats) and midnight beatings; that would be ridiculous. It can’t happen here.

No doubt, there are times when downtown Eugene is no picnic. Downtowns are rough all over. Many people who oppose the DPSZ, and even some kids on the street, are willing to admit there are mean, crappy people hanging around. At night especially, with so few folks in the area on week nights, getting around can be a bit scary. And yet, Eugene’s crime rate remains relatively low. It is possible to acknowledge that downtown isn’t exactly Shangri-La without simultaneously scapegoating street kids and pushing for more police and harsher enforcement.

The question, it seems, is not whether the DPSZ is effective but whether it’s desirable. Is the creation of an exclusion zone really the way Eugene wants to make itself a more attractive, safe and economically vital place to be? Does the DPSZ promote civic understanding and economic growth, or does it simply reveal a desire to sanitize and whitewash the urban core in order to attract more middle-class money? Is there an ironic and perhaps hypocritical contradiction between Eugene’s vaunted liberal image and the exclusion of certain “undesirables,” many of whom are being pushed over the line without being convicted of a crime? Is this public policy just a pig in a poke, a means of appeasing jittery yuppies who can’t tolerate the gritty realities of an economically struggling city? For that matter, is the DPSZ even constitutional?



How exclusion works

As set out in Eugene Code 4.873, the Downtown Public Safety Zone is a 20-square-block area centered on the LTD station and bounded by 7th Avenue, Lawrence and Lincoln streets and 11th Avenue. The ordinance does not require a criminal conviction before the exclusion period is imposed. The alleged offenses that can get you kicked out of the DPSZ include property damage, intimidation, controlled substance violations, menacing, urinating or defecating in public and criminal trespass. A police officer claiming you violated any of these state or municipal codes can get you excluded for 90 days, and should you violate this three-month probationary period — barring certain things like consulting your lawyer or seeking medical help — you can get booted for a whole year. If you cross the line a third time, you might get tossed in jail.

One of the strange offshoots of the whole DPSZ issue is the “trespass letter of consent” that was passed around to businesses, requesting that owners and managers of downtown establishments sign a paper that designates “each and every police officer” as “my agent for the purpose of enforcing” certain of the city’s municipal codes regarding criminal trespass. Seeing as this is sort of what police are supposed to do anyhow, the letter has something nervously pre-nuptial about it — an arrangement that seems to legally pre-empt questions about why it is that cops get to decide who is and isn’t a legitimate customer.

Even stranger was the sudden appearance of that painted white box on the sidewalk near the bus station. The box runs from the southwest corner of 10th and Willamette past the LTD station, after which it doglegs at the corner of 10th and Olive near the Rosa Parks statue and continues halfway up Olive to the western entrance to the bus station. Written at intervals within the box in stenciled yellow letters are the words:

“Do Not Block Public Right of Way.”

For fans of unintentional irony, it should be noted that a person could stand on the bench next to Rosa Parks and, with a vigorous leap, land directly in the middle of a box limiting, the civil right to assemble in public.

If the box is a literal interpretation of the intent of the safety zone, it also seems a rather subjective and arbitrary one. In an email sent May 18 to Mayor Kitty Piercy and the Eugene City Council, City Manager Jon Ruiz refers to those “timely” white lines as the “Magic Box Project,” which he says addresses the concerns of pedestrians “forced to walk a gauntlet of aggressive panhandlers, out of control dogs, and other unpleasant behavior.” Ruiz asserts in the email that “large groups of 100 or more” sometimes block the sidewalk by the LTD station, and he goes on to note that the magical box “is a good example of our employees continually providing innovative solutions to problems, often at little cost.”

It’s unclear whether Ruiz’s assertions are based on reality. I’ve made numerous visits to the area in question and have never observed 100 people creating any kind of gauntlet (or gantlet for that matter), and I’m not even sure that many people and their “out of control” dogs could pack into such a small area.

The city manager claimed that “the City received 100 positive comments” about the magic box. Ruiz, however, fails to provide any names of those who offered positive comments, or whether he even checked that other comment mailbox marked “negative.” 

In an email to Police Chief Pete Kerns, Piercy appears to take to task those who acted without the knowledge of the rest of the department or the approval of the mayor or the city council. Apparently, Sgt. Terry Fitzpatrick asked Ruiz if he could paint the box, and then he had a city employee go at it. “I had no idea the sidewalk writing was the result of downtown safety meetings or any upper management decisions,” the mayor writes, adding that she “never heard there was a review by the city attorney.”

Kerns did not return calls requesting an interview.

Walt Hunt, who owns New Odyssey juice bar at the corner of 10th and Willamette, called the box an “awkward” attempt to address the issue of people blocking the sidewalks downtown. Hunt said he’s been trying for years to take the “old school” route of fixing the problem by bringing people together to iron out their differences in person, to no avail. “We weren’t making any headway,” he said, adding that he’s not opposed to the box per se though he would have preferred “something more fun and not quite so weird.”

“Seriously, it was done from beginning to end in about 30 minutes,” Hunt said of the Magic Box Project. “It took longer for it to dry.”

Hunt said he supports the idea of the DPSZ so long as it’s used properly to deter dangerous or antisocial behavior. Having been involved in some intense and potentially violent confrontations with unruly customers, he said there are instances when certain people have burned up their chances and need to be dealt with. In this sense, he said he appreciates the DPSZ as an attempt “to create a way not to put somebody in jail.”

According to Hunt, his initial concern was that police not target or profile certain individuals. “This is not to be used against homeless people,” he said. “It’s not a witch hunt.” Hunt said he’s satisfied the DPSZ hasn’t been mishandled, noting that he believes there were fewer than 50 instances of people actually being excluded during the past two years. “That doesn’t seem like abuse,” he said. 

Hunt, who also supports the recent 90-day extension of the DPSZ, said it’s unrealistic to oppose the zone on principle without a street-level understanding of what goes on downtown all day every day. “Some of the people in our community are very reactionary,” he said. “They’re not down here. Are business owners struggling? Yes. Are they blaming street kids? No.”

Principal Mary Leighton of the Network Charter School, a self-identified peace activist, also supports the Downtown Public Safety Zone. “It looks to me like it’s working,” she said, adding that people opposing the zone might be “nurturing an unhealthy skepticism” toward the current Eugene police force. As someone who deals at her school with otherwise good kids who “fall through the cracks,” Leighton said she’s found Eugene police have shown uncommon concern about the welfare of wayward youth.

“Our kids are the ones who hang around Eugene Station, much to my chagrin, but they don’t go inside those boxes,” Leighton said. “I can say that the police I run into every day downtown know their neighbors. I think they’re decent people. They spend a lot more time than they need to solve a problem.”

Leighton said she is well aware of both the troubled past of the EPD as well as the nasty connotations of social exclusion. “The theory of exclusion is horrible, but the practice is okay, I think,” she said. “We have to make sure that the safeguards currently in place result in the equitable exclusion of people the community properly don’t want in the concentrated section of downtown. If the data can’t tell us that, we should be kind of mad.

“Technically, due process is missing,” Leighton said about the fact that a mere citation can get you excluded from the zone. “But practically they have such a preponderance of evidence before they apply it, it’s not like they’re fragrantly strewing it about. They are, as far as I can tell, applying it very prudently.”



Country club versus constitutional rights

The issue of the DPSZ and due process, on the other hand, is one of the major reasons Eugene City Council member Betty Taylor voted against the ordinance in the first place, as well as nay-saying its extension. Taylor said that “one of the really bad things” about the safety zone is that “a number of people have been excluded before they’ve even gone to trial. I think if people are doing something wrong, then charge them with that.”

Taylor’s perspective on the matter is cosmopolitan, in that she believes “downtown’s the best place for all kinds of people,” and she goes on to make a distinction between downtown and residential real estate. “I don’t believe in excluding people, especially downtown,” Taylor said. “It’s the best place for people to be. If it was a neighborhood, it might be different. If they’re criminals, put them in jail.”

Neither does Taylor believe that any perceived upswing in the social or economic vitality of the downtown area should be directly linked to the creation of the DPSZ. “I know a lot of people think things have gotten better, but that’s like saying those people did all the bad things down there,” she said. “If they’re bad people, it might be better to have them down there where there’s more people to watch. If they’re bad people, I don’t think we want them gathering in the park.

“I just don’t think it’s the right way to do it,” Taylor said of the whole idea of an exclusion zone. “If we get more people downtown, it will just be local color.”

As a UO law student, Katy Ann Crosslin became interested in the social and legal implications while serving an internship at the Civil Liberties Defense Center, where CLDC executive director Lauren Regan assigned her the project of researching the issue. Crosslin argued against extending the DPSZ at the Aug. 11 City Council meeting, saying that the zone is “unconstitutional, ineffective at stopping crime and is being used to profile the homeless, mentally ill and diverse youth.”

In an interview last week, Crosslin said that “the only purpose of the exclusion zone is to comfort the wealthy business owners, so that they can feel like they live in a classy area with high property values.” She said that although the DPSZ was touted as a way to stop crime by creating an “intangible” border, the reality is that the zone has been used to “systematically remove people that commit any number of minor and vague offenses such as ‘disorderly conduct’ and ‘interfering with pedestrians.’” The business owners who pushed for implementing the zone, Crosslin said, made the argument that many of their customers were too afraid to enter the area due to the “offensive behavior” that takes place there.

“I have found this fear of downtown to be unwarranted unless people are referring to the homeless, mentally ill and diverse youth of Eugene to be ‘offensive,’” Crosslin said. It’s obvious why downtown has become a gathering place for people of all sorts, she said, pointing out that many disadvantaged people need access to things like the bus station, FOOD for Lane County and the public library.

There are plenty of better, more humane solutions to dealing with whatever problems downtown Eugene might be experiencing, Crosslin said. “I think that the police should enforce most of the laws that are listed in the list of offenses that one can get excluded for,” she said. “Police should utilize existing crime-stopping tools and dish out appropriate fines or punishments without completely throwing out our constitutional rights.”

Crosslin’s investigation into the uses and abuses of the DPSZ have led her to some pretty disconcerting conclusions about the city in general. “I think that Eugene has this reputation to the outside world that it is a unique city with people that live alternative lifestyles and have refreshing ideas and beliefs about society, acceptance and diversity,” she said. “I now feel like Eugene resides within its own Bible Belt” where “the ones that called the shots on this exclusion ordinance are not very accepting of diverse people or the U.S. Constitution.”

Crosslin noted that downtown is “not a country club for members only” but a public space. “Kids on the street are saying that cops have threatened them not to even set foot in the box at all or they will get a ticket,” she said. “But in public statements and interviews, the cops deny that they have told anyone not to set foot in the box.”

I spoke with dozens of street kids and heard a lot of these kinds of stories.



How the other half lives

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent time sitting on the sidewalk — which is criminal trespassing — talking with many of the people who hang out downtown smack in the middle of Jon Ruiz’s Magic Box Project. Over and over again, I heard stories about kids getting hassled by the man, about being told to move along before getting busted, about not stepping over the white line. If this is untrustworthy second-hand news, it’s also some pretty widespread second-hand news.

As I sat talking to a couple of guys outside the entrance to the McDonald Theatre one afternoon, a jacked-up hot rod laid a smoking patch of rubber as it squealed through the stop sign. I also witnessed numerous people driving and talking on cell phones at the same time. I also saw cops riding bikes on the sidewalk.

Neither of the first two potentially deadly offenses I mention can get you excluded from the Downtown Public Safety Zone unless you want to bundle those crimes under the vague catchall category of criminal trespass. On any given day, Eugene Municipal Court seems to be handling a lot of criminal trespassing charges, mostly against poor kids, and many of which lead to a reduced fine when the trespasser agrees to do time working on the city’s road crew.

Andy Pew, 23, like Obi James, has spent the last couple months stationed on the sidewalk outside McDonald Theatre, selling jewelry. Right now, Pew said he’s doing some couch surfing, though he balks at the term homeless. “Houseless, yes,” Pew said. “Homeless, no.”

Pew said he’s seen as many as 10 to 15 kids get cited for violations in a single day for things like criminal trespass and drug possession. His major beef, however, isn’t with the Eugene police, many of whom he said can be pretty cool. Pew, like many of the people I spoke with, reserved his criticism for those guys in the red hats and white shirts — the downtown guides employed by Downtown Eugene, Inc., an organization funded by the city and headed up by Chamber of Commerce president Dave Hauser (who did not return my call for an interview). The kids hanging out in the DPSZ have several nicknames for these guides, including “the red hats” or the “British” (as in, “the red hats are coming”) and, my favorite, “bloody tampons.”

“There’s not a lot of positivity about the red hats,” Pew said. “They like to talk like they have the authority to detain you and make you wait for the cops to show up. The red caps seem to be the worst of the worst, abusing authority they don’t even have.”

Pew said he’s seen the dudes in the red hats follow groups of kids around before they’ve even done anything wrong. And the ironic thing, Pew said, is that “the street kids are way better guides than they are,” often providing directions.

James said he’s seen the red hats “rolling around in the passenger seat of cop cars.” He said he wouldn’t have a problem with them if the guides treated everybody equally, but from what he’s seen, “they target the kids.”

James, who arrived in Eugene a few months back after traveling up the coast from Sacramento, said he understands the idea behind the ordinance as a means of dealing with certain dangerous or predatory people. What bothers him, he said, is that law enforcement seems to lump all homeless people into the same category, which makes it difficult for someone like him, who is trying to “come up” and improve his life in the down economy.

James said that, from what he’s seen, profiling is taking place regarding who is being targeted or cited in the safety zone, which in turn is creating an environment of stereotyping. For instance, James said that when he goes into a fast food restaurant and orders food, “They don’t ask me if I want my food for here or to go.”

The exclusion zone, James said, seems more than anything to be money driven, and an obvious gambit to sanitize downtown. “I think they are super ready to give tickets to kids to drive them out of town. It wastes money and time when they could be doing other things,” he added. James suggested that the city should issue temporary permits to street vendors for $10 or $15, as a way of helping them do the all-American thing of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

Instead, as James’ friend Pew pointed out, “I’ve seen three cops roll up here at once to write somebody a $65 littering ticket.” And when cops are confronted with breaking city code by riding their bikes on the sidewalk, Pew claims he’s heard them respond several times: “We’re exempt.”

“You can’t argue with an officer,” James said. “All of a sudden, now you’re resisting arrest.” Nonetheless, he added, “there are a lot of really good cops here. It’s definitely a mix. It’s just a mentality of picking on someone. I really think they need to focus on the real problem.” As problems, he offered the lack of trash cans downtown and the paucity of public restrooms. James said it’s no mystery why people are being cited for pissing and pooping in alleys.

“I’m not going to shit in my pants,” James said. “These are the only pants I have.”