Have you ever been really tired? I mean, so tired that you fall asleep on a bus, a train, or a park bench? You're far from home, weary, and a ways
away from rest, and you just need a few minutes to shut your eyes and sleep? I'm going to bet that this situation has happened to nearly everyone at
one time or another.
I imagine if any of you are university students, you'll know exactly what I mean: University lounges, quiet hallways, and benches in odd corners, are
always filled with sleeping students. It's one of the great things about university: Everybody gets it, and no one bothers a sleeping student (as long
as they don't look like a homeless person trespassing.)
Have you ever fallen asleep on a park bench, a bus, or a train, only to be woken by the police, asking you what you were doing? If you've ever had
this interesting privilege, you may have noticed something rather odd: The moment that they realize you're not homeless, they let you go.
Most public parks have signs telling people not to sleep, or else they have benches designed to prevent people from lying down. If you're just an
ordinary fellow, you've probably always assumed that these signs were there as warnings to everyone. But that is not really the case at all.
The reality is this: We only punish someone for sleeping in public if they are homeless.
Let me say that again, with added emphasis:
"We only punish someone for sleeping in public if they have nowhere else to sleep.
Is this not absurd? Surely, those who have a home should be held to higher account for sleeping in public than those who literally have nowhere else
to lay their head. A man with a home has no excuse -- especially if he is rich. Why, he could call a cab! Or a friend! Why then do we forbid the tramp
to sleep in the park, but let a landed or otherwise presentable gentleman nap wherever he likes? True -- the police may wake you up if you are
sleeping in public, but the moment they ascertain that you do in fact have a place to say, they will let you on your way. The homeless man who tries
to do the same thing is likely to be arrested. He'll find somewhere to sleep then -- but only at the cost of his liberty.
Is this not abject? Is this not absurd? Has no one else noticed this?
Let's go even deeper:
Have you ever been short a quarter for a cart, a parking meter, or a telephone call? If you're like most of us, you'd probably feel pretty silly
asking a passer-by for some help. But chances are, if you did, someone would accommodate you -- so long as you were dressed for success. In fact, I
bet that most of us, at one time or another, and not otherwise hard up, have asked a stranger for a nickel or a dime or a dollar.
This is, strictly speaking, illegal. Panhandling, in most jurisdictions, is illegal. But have you ever been arrested or accosted for this? Have you
ever bummed a cigarette from a stranger, or asked for a light? Have you ever been arrested or imprisoned for this act?
Probably not. And why? Because you're not homeless.
And this is the real, terrible, and morose truth:
The laws of the city and state which prohibit sleeping in public, or asking strangers for help, are not really meant for us at all. No, they are meant
only for the poor. And the proof of the thing is in this fact: That all men, at one time or another, have broken these laws without thinking, without
worry, and without fear. Because we do not recognize these things as crimes unless they are chronic. And this is the very essence of a bad law -- an
unenforceable law, a mean
law: That we do not, have never, and will never prosecute a rich man for these crimes. Indeed -- we do not even think
of them as crimes unless they are committed by the poor.
Are these the only cases? Surely not. I can think of countless others; from the possession or admitted use of narcotics, to the childish acts of minor
vandalism and hooliganism that are always deemed indefensible when committed by the poor, but pardonable when committed by the rich.
I say that this is a travesty. If The Law is to be just, and if we care anything for justice, than it should be obvious to all of us that the same law
that applies to a bankrupt should apply also to a banker -- that a crime committed by a tramp should still be a crime when committed by a Senator.
But this is not the case. And the reason is one quite apart from any notions we might have of "repeat offenders" or "chronic conditions". The reason
is not that these crimes are a bigger burden on society when committed by the poor: I have been asked for a cigarette on the street more times by
well-dressed passers-by than I ever have by a bum, and the honest truth is that the minor irritations and vexations I experience when accosted by
these requests is no different whether the man smells of urine, or smells of perfume.
No, the reason is not that these crimes are greater when committed by the poor, or even that they are less likely to be repeated: the real reason is
something altogether more sinister, mean, and capricious.
The real reason that a policeman does not punish the rich for the same crimes as the poor is not that he cares not -- it is that he dares not. The
real reason is that such laws, when applied equally, evenly, and on the whole to everyone; are so absurd, repressive, and otherwise malicious that we
would not stand an instant being subjected to them: We would bang our fists on the table, and shout to high heaven that the law had run amok, and free
men had become slaves, and the principles of justice had been perverted and corrupted beyond all recognition. We would gaze wildly around to our
fellows, and shout out in one collective voice that "we will not stand this tyranny for an instant!"
...But the tramp has no table to even bang his fist upon.
More than one hundred years ago, writing about the "Bewildering of the Tramp", GK Chesterton remarked:
"A little while ago two tramps were summoned before a magistrate, charged with sleeping in the open air when they had nowhere else to sleep. Each
of them eagerly produced about two pence, to prove that they could have got a bed, but deliberately didn't. To which the policeman replied that two
pence would not have got them a bed, and therefore (argued that thoughtful officer) they ought to be punished for not getting one.
"The intelligent magistrate was much struck with the argument, and proceeded to imprison these two men for not doing a thing they could not do. But he
was careful to explain that if they had sinned needlessly and in wanton lawlessness, they would have left the court without a stain on their
characters; but as they could not avoid it, they were very much to blame."
...And that is the real, sad, and sinister truth of the whole affair: That when it comes to the crimes of public nuisance, we punish only those who
cannot help but stray. Those who can help it, we pardon. And the reason we do this is because we can: Because we know that the homeless man is
unlikely to stand up for himself, join a protest, start a movement, or speak to a reporter on the TV news. We bewilder the tramp because we don't like
tramps. We convict him of crimes of which we ourselves are guilty without even seeing our own actions as crimes.
There is no equality under the law when enforcement is biased.
edit on 5-3-2013 by RedBird because: (no reason given)