Police accountability seems to be a real issue these days. As more and more police departments use excessive force and unfair tickets against protesters, mostly with no reprimand, police across the country seem to be taking notice. Handing out citations and making arrests is no longer a remedy for a dangerous individual, it is now used as a tactic to squash dissent or “get rid of” people the police would just rather not deal with. For protesters here in Madison this is a rather new thing. The Wisconsin State Capitol, in fact, was built for petitioning the government and includes certain structural enhancements to make sound amplify naturally. For the homeless, however, this harassment is not new.
Before Scott Walker was Governor, the Wisconsin State Capitol was open to the homeless people at night. Given as the building required 24 hour police in the basement anyways, homeless were allowed to sleep there at night when the building was closed. They would stay in the basement, but this seemed to work quite well. When the massive protests started, it was decided that the basement would better serve as a mass police facility so the homeless were kicked out. After the “need” for police lowered, the Department of Administration, a department under Walker, made the decision not to allow the homeless back in. Naturally, with homeless services lacking and temporary, this along with other factors have led to an increase of citizens sleeping on the streets.
It is no secret that police target homeless people for all sorts of tickets and arrests. It is something society tries to keep hush-hush, although few refute that the problem exists. I find this an issue for human reasons. Homeless people are people as well. It is much harder for a homeless person to get a job than one who is not. There is a stigma and bias towards the homeless. I find this inhuman and sickening and realize it is very very difficult to come up from being homeless. But even the people who believe homelessness is always the person’s fault and they just need to “figure it out” on their own should be concerned. A system of constantly ticketing and jailing the homeless and creating ordinances to allow or further harassment costs major money. It usually takes at least two days to see a judge in Madison if you are arrested. Even if a homeless person is only arrested once a month, it costs the city and county more money to house them than to buy them an apartment.
Things seemed to have progressed on May 21, 2012, when the Madison Police Department decided to interpret a city ordinance in a way that would sicken most anyone. A comrade in the Wisconsin struggle, Matty and I had stepped outside to have a cigarette. A local homeless man by the name of Moses crossed the street and kindly asked if either of us had a spare cigarette for him. Matty said he did and handed him one. Seconds later we were surrounded, two bicycle police and one squad officer. The police asked Matty if he gave the man a cigarette. Matty said yes and he immediately proceeded to write Moses a ticket. He explained this was a new policy and they now interpret the local panhandling ordinance (MGO 24.12) to include asking for a cigarette, water, food, a pen, or anything of any value. The officer had said that this was decided by Police Chief Noble Wray (608) 266-4022 and Mayor Paul Soglin (608)-266-4611 because “the homeless and their panhandling has become a detriment to quality of life downtown.” I then started recording a video:
As you see towards the end of the video I then decided to test this policy. I asked the police and random people passing by if I could get a cig and held a sign saying “Can I Bum A Cig?” The police passed me many times and waved. They then watched me from down the block but still no ticket. I have a home, but I do not agree with selective enforcement of ordinances based on whether one has a home or not. Additionally, the city headed by Mayor Soglin, evicted Occupy Madison despite sharp criticism from the Common Council. The reasoning was due to plans to build on the parking lot the encampment was located on. Almost a month later, no development seems likely in the near future. Basically, Soglin decided to shut down an encampment that actually was helping many of the homeless and cost the taxpayers not a dime. Then he decided to waste taxpayer resources having police ticket homeless for anything and everything, pretending as though tickets will help the homeless problem.
Earlier today I confronted Paul Soglin. I informed him that homeless people are getting tickets for simply kindly asking for a cigarette. He replied “that and beer.” I informed him that this instance (Case 137453) there was no beer and to stop changing the subject. He said homeless people have a choice, they can deal with the services available or they can enter the county jail and corrections system. Will Gruber, a fellow comrade who was formerly homeless and found a place while at Occupy Madison told him that they have to jump through so many hoops. Paul angrily snapped back “Then they jump through the hoops, we all make our choices.” He then took off.
Mayor Soglin is usually viewed as a progressive. His ignorance towards homelessness is not just confined to him, it is a larger societal problem. For decades we have said that the homeless should choose to better themselves and magically they could find jobs and houses. Reality sets in, however, and we realize this thinking doesn’t work. Whether you believe it is the fault of the homeless person, the fault of society and government, or a combination of both there remains one truth. Talking about what the homeless could or should do is not going to change anything. Bombarding them with tickets only drags them further down, this is fact.
Please call Mayor Soglin at 608-266-4611 and ask him to stop this harassment and return enforcement of panhandling statutes to only harassing panhandling as the ordinances were originally created for. I was homeless once, it is not easy to get out of. In these economic times it can happen to any of us. Many of the homeless are also veterans, making it even more sickening. We need to stand up for the homeless and stand against harassment. We must fight especially for those who cannot fight for themselves. We can send a message to Madison Police Department that we are watching. We can fight this, and we can win.
One day longer! One day stronger!
Segway Jeremy Ryan has become a full-time member of the protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol. Formerly a businessman, he gave up his business to join the fight for the middle class in the State of Wisconsin. He rides a Segway due to a heart condition. Through videos and writings he has informed hundreds of thousands of people about what was going on at the Wisconsin State Capitol once the mainstream media had mostly abandoned the protests. He has been arrested over 31 times for silently filming or holding up a sign in the Capitol.