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Shawn Vestal: Downtown Spokane concerns expose hypocrisy

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

There’s a wonderful scene in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,” in which officers in the British army that is violently “colonializing” Africa display their obtuseness when they are told a man has had his leg bitten off by a tiger.

A tiger?” goes the dumbly perplexed chorus. “ In Africa?”

The joke works, despite the fact that tigers are actually not African – despite the fact that the joke about obtuseness is obtuse itself. We’ve had two very tiger-in-Africa moments recently in Spokane regarding our continuing attempts to wrestle with the concept of who does, and does not, belong downtown.

The first came when the business community once again attempted to explain its concerns about the STA Plaza by first insisting it had nothing to do with snobbery or class disgust. This time around, the Downtown Spokane Partnership has raised the “issue” of people at the bus plaza lining up for the bus and impeding the free flow of pedestrian traffic.

A line for the bus? At the bus plaza?

Then, last week, Apple cultists camped out on the Riverpark Square sidewalks to await the latest technological sacrament. A few people began wondering: How does this fit into the city’s sit-lie ordinance? Isn’t camping on sidewalks against the law now? Aren’t those campers impeding pedestrian traffic? Shouldn’t someone give them the bum’s rush – plus, perhaps, a pamphlet for mental health services?

Of course not. Just as with the plaza concerns, the city’s new law is indirect in its intentions, but its intentions are absolutely obvious – it provides a way for police to roust a certain type of person, and a certain kind of person only. The notion that it is based in any way on sitting or lying is ridiculous. When it was passing the City Council, its supporters pledged, hands over hearts, that it was definitely, absolutely, totally not an attempt to criminalize homelessness.

Whoops. The Apple fanatics proved the obvious. They went unharassed and uncomplained-of while they camped out on the city’s sidewalks with their camp chairs and coolers, waiting to shell out hundreds of dollars for the latest overhyped hand magic.

The sit-lie ordinance is not about sitting or lying? It’s only about certain people sitting or lying?

Tigers in Africa. Spokane Police Department spokeswoman Theresa Fuller – perhaps forgetting the official line – said as much to the Inlander last week: “The issue is when we have homeless people sitting and lying, trying to get in people’s way to get handouts, that sort of thing.”

You know. Criminalizing homelessness.

Spokane’s war on riff-raffery has gone through the looking glass several times by this point. The council passed a no-panhandling-on-the-corners law, dressed in a gown of concern over public safety, and meanwhile panhandling on the corners thrives. The sit-lie ordinance was draped with so much denial that when Fuller declares the simple, obvious truth, it sticks out like the sight of a non-homeless person sitting on the sidewalk.

The concerns about the bus plaza are so nakedly, obviously aimed at certain kinds of people – a DSP official referred to them as “elements around the plaza” – that the ever-increasing elaborateness with which Plaza opponents try to deny this is becoming impressively acrobatic, indeed. The new notion that people in line for the bus are somehow impeding the pedestrian and that’s what all this is about – well, let me just say from a lot of firsthand experience that it’s very, very, very easy to navigate those sidewalks, unless you think they belong entirely to you.

The defenders of downtown decency may not realize they are fostering a flawed and ignorant picture of downtown in the minds of many in our region – the notion that it is a dangerous place to be, a hellhole. I hear on a regular basis from people who say they never come downtown, that coming downtown is akin to taking their life in their hands. It couldn’t be the continual drumbeat of complaints like these, could it? The constant elevation of routine urban molehills into mountains?

Plenty of people raised their eyebrows about the lack of enforcement of the sit-lie ordinance outside the Apple Store. Some did more – spouting outrage about it that seems a little forced. Council President Ben Stuckart has drafted an ordinance to prohibit “bias-based” policing. But on this issue, our pretenses are a bigger problem than our police.

Of course those Apple cultists were not charged with anything – or harassed or bum’s rushed. They weren’t, and they shouldn’t have been, and there is nothing surprising – not one single, solitary bit of it – in the fact that they weren’t.

Had they been dressed differently, had they had less money in their pockets, had they been asking for change – had they been merely people and not customers – their legitimacy to sit and lie would have been much different.

Of course. Duh. Tigers in Africa.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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