“Panhandling is common in Kennedy Plaza,” said a reporter at a Jorge Elorza press conference yesterday, “is that going to be addressed in addition to the drug dealing?”
Providence Commissioner of Public Safety Steven Paré was standing behind a podium, having just announced the results of a months long effort to arrest drug dealers in and around Kennedy Plaza downtown. The drug dealers were selling prescription drugs, like Oxycontin, as well as cocaine. Police were particularly concerned because Kennedy Plaza is a spot where hundreds of schoolchildren transfer buses every day.
The question, from a female reporter, was off subject, and suffused with ugly assumptions about the homeless, equating being poor and asking for help with selling drugs to children.
To his credit, Paré was unequivocal in defending the rights of panhandlers to ask for money. “Panhandling is legal, so, by standing in an open space and asking for a donation… is legal and we will not be doing anything because it’s been deemed a constitutional, legal right. Panhandling has nothing to do with [the drug dealing arrests]. This is illegal behavior, the selling of drugs. Any other illegal behavior will not be tolerated as well. We will focus on that kind of activity that is illegal and makes people feel unsafe.”
So one reporter went off on a tangent and Paré shut it down. End of story, right?
“Some would argue that [panhandling] is also a safety issue,” countered a second reporter.
Paré reiterated that panhandling is a constitutional right, decided by the Supreme Court. It is not an illegal activity, it is a protected, First Amendment right. Blocking people and demanding money is not panhandling, said Paré. Such behavior is a crime, but standing or sitting and asking for money is not illegal.
That should settle it then, right? This is, after all, a press conference abut the arrests of 14 drug dealers…
A third reporter now asks about a meeting Paré had with various groups in Providence about the court decision that upheld panhandling as a constitutionally protected right.
“What was the outcome of that meeting?” asks the third reporter.
Paré explained that the meeting was called to discuss the ruling and to deal with safety issues around Kennedy Plaza. “Panhandling is something completely different than what we’re talking about,”said Paré for a third time. Drug dealing, he said, “is criminal behavior.”
So what happened?
Three reporters at this press conference worked very hard to equate being poor with being a criminal. To his credit, Paré did not take their bait, but this line of inquiry from the press does raise serious questions about the media’s complicity in promulgating stereotypes about homelessness and the criminalization of poverty.
Barbara Kalil, a homeless advocate who works downtown, told me after the press conference that she was happy to have Paré on video so strongly advocating for the rights of the homeless. The arrests downtown were of drug dealers, and the homeless community was not involved, she said. In fact, until this press conference, she was unaware of these arrests.
Note: Because of the noise on the street and the fact that my camera was on Paré and not on the reporters, I had to amplify the sound artificially when the first two reporters spoke. The third reporter was right next to me.