Thursday, May 31, 2012
Being Idle Is Not A Crime
The Deming Arts Council is located in one of Deming's historic buildings -- an old bank, with walk-in vaults still intact -- on the corner of Spruce and Gold. This intersection is in effect the entrance to downtown Deming from the 180, and arguably the busiest intersection in town. The arts center shares this block of Gold Street with a charismatic church, another art gallery, and several other small businesses: cafes, retail, a couple of loanshark businesses, and some medical offices.
Outside the DAC building is a black iron bench, at a good spot to take a break from the sun, whether one is doing the historical walking tour of downtown Deming or just out doing a sequence of errands or perhaps walking the kids in a stroller (he said, raising his hand).
When we moved here in 2008, there was a young poetry scene active in Deming. There was an open mike at the arts council, and often I would arrive early to see high schoolers on this bench, hurriedly polishing the poems they would read that evening.
Recently, I noticed that a little sign has been scotch-taped to the window inside DAC, peering over the shoulder of that very bench.
This is mostly a quotation from city ordinance 6-1C-19, subsection B, regarding loitering in a public place. The sentence in bold, "No person shall loiter in a public place," is not part of that document. The definition of loitering is from the ordinance, but loitering itself is not the offense described in the ordinance: it is not a crime to be idle. As stated very clearly in the ordinance, what is against the law is loitering for the purpose of disturbing the peace, blocking traffic or interfering with other people, bothering people, making them worried for their safety. Simply being idle, "loafing," or "walking idly" (something I do every day) is not an offense.
It looks like -- and this is not proof, of course, it is simply an appearance -- that somebody at DAC doesn't want folks sitting on that bench, so they made this misleading sign that implies that sitting there is a crime for which they will be punished.
What the ordinance actually says is that if you are disturbing the peace or doing other things defined in subsection B2, a police officer will simply ask you to leave. If you refuse, then you've got a problem. As far as loitering ordinances go, this is all pretty reasonable.
Whatever the intent was, the sign is misleading and unfriendly. It also misstates the law, including a statement in boldface print that is not part of the ordinance at all. DAC has invented its own loitering ordinance, and it is much tougher than the city law.
Some loitering is what our downtown needs. It needs people walking around idly, looking in the shop windows, stopping off for lunch at Si Senor or Palma's or the brewery, noticing something cool in the window at Room With A View, and then maybe nipping in to check out the exhibit at DAC itself, or asking about art classes that they offer.
Perhaps the sign is in response to the other kind of loiterer -- the kind without money, perhaps even without a home. Perhaps someone unpleasant looking sat on this bench, perhaps someone with an odor. I can only speculate. There are homeless people in Deming, and a very high percentage of people in our county are unemployed -- much higher even than the current national average.
If that's the problem, however, there is a vagrancy ordinance: 6-1C-3. Interestingly, it is very brief, and only forbids two things: hanging out around a school for no reason, and begging. Sitting, even napping, on that bench would not violate any ordinance. Unless, of course, it blocked pedestrians or somehow caused someone to feel unsafe.
Kids with skateboards? Well, there's already an ordinance for that, too. (7-1-4.) No skateboards, roller skates, or roller blades in the business district, and bicycles need to be in the road.
Whatever problem DAC is addressing, and allowing for the possibility that its proximity to the bench is an innocent coincidence, this doesn't seem like the way to do it.