Response to panhandling notice

By Eric goldfischer & maya pisel

On Friday, Nov. 4, the Daily Piper ran a notice advising Macalester community members that “we have had several persons on campus panhandling.” Additionally, the notice referred to panhandlers as “perpetrators,” and advised students to report all such activities and “persons” to the police, and to “not engage in the conversation and walk away.” As members of the Macalester and Twin Cities communities who enjoy work and relationships with people experiencing homelessness and distress, many of whom would be considered “perpetrators” by the above notice, we find such language extremely disturbing and completely unacceptable. Referring to panhandlers as “perpetrators” may be legally accurate, but only serves to perpetuate a narrative that criminalizes poverty. Indeed, calling law enforcement to issue a citation for panhandling continues a cycle of systemic state violence against dispossessed and disenfranchised people, while covering and sweeping aside a racialized structure of inequality. Moreover, ticketing and arresting panhandlers is an expensive misuse of public safety resources. Who gains from this punishment? This notice does not stop at criminalizing those who ask for help, but goes as far as to dehumanize panhandlers. The admonishment “please do not encourage this behavior” is more fitting for a notice on feeding the squirrels on campus than it is for interacting with fellow human beings. The assumption that people who, for whatever reasons, desperately need money are somehow a threat to this community contradicts much of what this community supposedly stands for. People who are compelled to ask for money on the street are simultaneously excluded from and confined to public space. By ignoring those in the community around us who do not “own” space the way that Macalester students and faculty presume to, we deny our common humanity and continue to choose complicity with the dominant structures that create homelessness, poverty and disenfranchisement. Panhandlers are not squirrels. They are not trash, and they are not even violent criminals. And even if they don’t actually have a flat tire, some important need compels them to ask strangers for money. For an academic community to encourage its members to eschew conversation with others in exchange for running to the police is hypocritical at best and willfully exploitative at worst. What do we value in our human relationships, and why? The influential theorist Paulo Freire said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” By walking away, we wash our hands.