There’s a group of South African guys who hang out in the park outside my apartment drinking, and police dump their beers out multiple times a week. Usually the bicycle cops do it—they ride across the park at a leisurely pace and surround the guys, write them tickets and then dump their beers out. The interaction usually lasts 20 or 30 minutes. Once it was a police SUV—after the day-drinkers departed, the cops lay their 40s in the street and drove over them, squirting beer and shattered glass everywhere.
While there are serious systemic problems with America’s police force, I’m not someone who thinks the majority of cops are bad people, or that there should be no police—last week a guy on the first floor of my building who struggles with mental health issues started throwing things out his (closed) window and the police restrained him for a much-needed trip to the hospital. A few years ago, when I got the shit kicked out of me while walking home from a party (at 2 am, on Rainier, blind drunk, singing at the top of my lungs like an idiot) it was comforting to talk to the cops afterward.
It’s just that every time I see these guys’ beers dumped out, I remember a story a woman I worked with told me about drinking in Cal Anderson. A policeman walked up to the bench where she was sitting and said, with a smile, “You better chug that.” No ticket was written. This sounded like a sensible (if power-trippy) reaction, but the reason I remember it when I see my neighbors interact with police is that my friend is a young, relatively middle-class, white woman. Everyone knows open-bottle laws are ridiculous Puritan horse shit, and it’s great that one policeman’s behavior acknowledged that, but no one deserves that kindness more than the homeless.
You feel like a beer after a rough day at work? Imagine no job prospects on the horizon, no job interview-appropriate clothes, nowhere to even wash your clothes and shower for an interview. Shelters are crowded, and if you’re queer, many of them, run by religious organizations, won’t even admit you. You would have to be allergic to alcohol not to want ten fucking beers.
I know little about my neighbors (besides that they love Bill Clinton, and have called me Bill since discovering the former president and I share Irish heritage) but I’ve observed cheap beers and conversation in the park make them happy. I’m sick of homeless people being blamed for their own predicament and treated as an inconvenience comparable to an overflowing dumpster when the problem is a lack of affordable housing and often access to mental health care. A recent Times article mentioned homelessness expert Barbara Poppe’s assertion that tent cities aren’t doing anything to assuage the homelessness crisis. The article mentioned her observation that rising rents are a major cause of homelessness, but for some reason not her proposed solution–more affordable, low-barrier housing.
I understand the task of the police is to uphold the law, but police are also human beings. If you’re a police officer and you see homeless people drinking in public, and they’re not doing anything dangerous to themselves or others, please just smile and say “cheers.” Or do nothing. It’s not a .45 with the serial number ground off, it’s a bottle of Mickey’s–morality is slippery, and sometimes the right thing to do is not what the law dictates.