Ben Boliver, who said he has been homeless for three years, is known to many on Main Street as a regular panhander. Boliver, who said he served in the Army National Guard, said he panhandles to raise money for his medications and for food. Purchase photo reprints »
Atty Bill Newman in his Northampton office
NORTHAMPTON e_SEmD “I’ll be waiting for you on our bench,” my wife told me on the phone.
Having walked downstairs to the sidewalk from my downtown Northampton office and sensing something amiss, I immediately asserted, “I’m on time,” modified quickly by “more or less.” Then, to forestall any focus on my chronic untimeliness, I added the verbal feint, “But I’m here.”
“But it’s not.”
In my mind I quickly counted the times that day I had walked by that spot and not noticed that our bench had vanished, replaced by memory and vacant space over a concrete slab in the brick part of the sidewalk. It’s not really our bench. It’s the city’s, and we share it. When I was a kid, my friends and I had a meeting place. Our bench was an adult version of that.
Being ever helpful, I asked, “Who would steal our bench?” But, it turns out, six benches in downtown Northampton were not stolen under cover of darkness. Rather, they were removed by the city’s Business Improvement District — under cover of darkness. The BID claimed that too many people were plopping themselves and their stuff down on them for too long, and those people had to go, which meant the benches had to be disappeared.
Per executive order, those six benches, alleged to be the worst of the worst, were removed without notice or a hearing and secretly transported to a secure government facility where, behind high fences and multiple locks, they were indefinitely detained.
A primary motivation for removing the benches is the desire to rid downtown of people who, some business owners assert, may make potential shoppers uncomfortable and dissuade them from patronizing their stores or even visiting the city.
This thesis is not self-evident. After all, many people come to Northampton to observe the parade of humanity. Shoppers who wish to stroll in an antiseptic, homogenized, air-conditioned, humidity controlled, cookie-cutter-created environment that displays no blemishes of societal discord and plays Muzak instead of music already can frequent the Hampshire or Ingleside malls.
And certain types of panhandlers are liked by everyone, or at least tolerated without complaint: local boys and girls collecting for their sports teams; Planned Parenthood seeking members and money; political canvassers itching for your signatures and your cash; the Salvation Army bell-ringers with their kettle at Christmas time.
In 1997, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the state’s anti-begging law, ruling that for First Amendment purposes there is no difference between those who solicit for organized charities and those who ask for alms for themselves.
The state’s highest court said that “a listener’s annoyance or offense” cannot dilute the First Amendment guarantee of the right to ask for help. After all, the court reasoned, people are free to walk away from a beggar’s request.
But what about crime? Some business owners assert that panhandlers commit crimes such as assault and battery or selling drugs, that they make threats, block entrances and impede pedestrians and that the police aren’t there to help. The police counter that if they aren’t called, how can they respond? This argument has gone on, and gone unresolved, for years.
If panhandlers actually pose a crime problem, a cop downtown on foot or bike patrol would more than solve it, so why not take the cop out of the Northampton schools and put another officer downtown during daylight hours? After all, as the police department’s response to a recent public records request shows, the school resource police officer has made two arrests on school grounds in all of 2012 and 2013, both for minor misdemeanors.
After a week in exile, (“Free The Bench Six!” our neighborhood listserve proclaimed) the benches are being returned. But the problems, misunderstandings and competing interests that motivated their removal remain.
Discomfort, I suggest, is at the heart of the matter, an understandable discomfort. When you are passing a panhandler, do you avoid his gaze and pretend you don’t see him? Do you wonder whether he’s scamming you? Do you walk faster to make your uneasiness dissipate more quickly? Really, on the way to buy lunch, who wants to be asked 10 times for money so that another human being might eat? The economic schism is too wide for comfort, and the discordant reality too palpable to ignore.
On some level the act of being asked makes us, the privileged, acknowledge that there, but the fortuity of birth family, the beneficence of others and the blessing of good fortune, go I. And as Napoleon Bonaparte said, “A throne is only a bench covered with velvet.”
William Newman is a Northampton lawyer. His column appears the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.