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Herb Rothschild Jr.: A challenge to Ashland peacemaking

When we created the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission in 2015, we recognized that the city already had gone a long way toward becoming a community marked by mutually respectful and caring relationships among its residents. We also knew, though, that further progress would require self-conscious effort. One aspect of the city’s life that requires such effort is the tension between the unhoused who congregate in the downtown area and the enterprises that depend on tourism.

Such tension is confined neither to our place nor time. What until recently was called vagrancy has challenged notions of proper civic order for hundreds of years. Until the late 1960s, there were no legal constraints on municipal authorities when they wished to clear out the homeless as unsightly or annoying. But then, in the U.S., the federal courts articulated a distinction between status and behavior: while the latter could be criminalized, the former could not. So almost all the vagrancy statutes, which gave police discretion to arrest those with no apparent means of support, no valid address, etc. were struck down. That crucial distinction between who you are and what you do took a long time to establish in practice as well as law, but Ashland abides by it.

So the tension that Ashland experiences can’t be resolved by chasing away those whom I suspect most of its residents and visitors would prefer to have vanish. The tension can only be managed, and to manage it well requires the skills of peacemaking. One skill is to sympathize with everyone involved, whether it be a homeless vet suffering from PTSD or a theater-goer frightened by an aggressive panhandler. Another skill is to listen carefully to people’s explanations and refrain from mischaracterizing their actions or intentions.

Many of my acquaintances sympathize strongly with the plight of the unhoused, and in the past some worked to shield them from illegitimate schemes of municipal control. So I’m not surprised that they reacted strongly to the City Council’s recent approval on first reading of a new ordinance giving police the authority to charge with a Class C misdemeanor someone who refuses to provide his name and date of birth when he is being cited for behavior that violates a city ordinance.

I heard comparisons of this new ordinance to New York City’s notorious stop-and-frisk ordinance, and the claim that it’s an unnecessary new tool to harass street people. So I investigated the matter. I read the ordinance. I talked to the chief of police and the city attorney. I read Oregon v. McNally, the 2017 state Supreme Court case that took away the legal tool the police previously had to make sure they could write citations if the violator of an ordinance refused to identify himself. I compared the possible penalties of that tool with those of the new one. I’ve concluded that my acquaintances have mischaracterized the power the new ordinance confers on the police and their motive for seeking its passage.

Although a bit complicated, the matter isn’t hard to understand. Nonetheless, I haven’t space to justify my conclusion. But my main point is to urge us to rise to the challenge of peacemaking in a vexed area of civic life by seeking an accurate understanding of this aspect of it and how the city has responded. When that effort’s been made, some still may think the ordinance shouldn’t have been adopted, but they’ll speak differently both of it and of those who favored it.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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