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Lies that Punish the Poor
If you’re going to lie, lie big and lie often. Memorize the lies of power, and align your lies with theirs. Lie firmly and confidently. Lie with data, and build fresh lies over the old. Lie cordially. Lie serenely. And most importantly, never stop lying.
These are the rules I’ve observed over my recent stint as Seattle Council Member Tim Burgess’ anointed nemesis. Most people think of Burgess in terms of his preferred narrative: a former beat cop who quickly rose to detective, and has now turned to a career in public service. A compassionate conservative. A Christian.
Burgess’ twenty-two years as an adman—a liar for hire—are far more relevant, and his campaign for the new panhandling law offers a veritable catalogue of the form.
This lie states part of the truth, while intentionally withholding information. The Seattle Human Rights Commission, in their 9-0 rejection of the Burgess ordinance, rigorously analyzed the data presented to support the need for this new law. The claim that vital tourism and trade dollars are at risk, they said, has no basis. Public concern for this issue, since 2007, has declined. Three quarters of those surveyed felt safe downtown. Taken in context, the SHRC found the data “insufficient to support the substance of the proposed ordinance.”
This would be the statement, made at the Human Rights Commission forum last month, that Mayor McGinn supports this legislation and City Attorney Peter Holmes “wrote” the law. McGinn, who until recently has made no statements for or against, is now poised to veto. Holmes, who has been similarly silent, has merely stated that the law, written by City Council central staff, would likely pass prima facie constitutional review.
Lies of Omission
Tim Burgess claims that his law has the support of human services advocates, and trots out a handful of providers with unusually close relationships to major downtown business interests as evidence. The human services community is broadly appalled by this ordinance and has repeatedly lined up to say so. Burgess says his ordinance has popular support, and yet his own 36th District Democrats, along with the 34th, 37th, and 46th Districts, have passed resolutions to oppose. The Seattle Community Council Federation, representing 18 community councils, unanimously voted to oppose as well.
Lies of Exaggeration
Burgess routinely compares his law to Tacoma’s, and says they have virtually eliminated panhandling without ever writing a single ticket. This is offered as evidence that the desperately poor won’t really be issued the $50 citations that the law creates, or be jailed when those tickets are ignored. As it turns out, cops in Tacoma do write tickets, and while less visible in commercial areas, poor people still panhandle. San Francisco, after 15 years of a similar law, issues an average of 12,000 citations annually.
Lies of Fabrication
This variety of lie sounds plausible, but is not based in fact. Tim Burgess routinely states that his ordinance is “carefully and narrowly crafted,” and will only impact the bad actors on the street that no one wants. Legal advocates see the ordinance as exceedingly broad, poorly written, and extremely vulnerable to constitutional challenge.
The Big Lie
What’s good for business is good for Seattle, and if the Mariners, Starbucks, Samis, Clise, and the Downtown Seattle Association all say jump, the only question our City Council should ask is “how far?”
This law transparently panders to the business interests, punishes the poor for merely making us uncomfortable, and places the burden of the recession on those who have nothing. The Seattle City Council should find their integrity and vote to reject.
Tim Harris is the Executive Director of Real Change, an advocacy group for low-income and homeless people.
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