Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Have Mercy On Me

A modern city bench. You might even say "postmodern", just because. But this is not just a bench. This is a political and legal device. It is a very particular and intentional part of the furniture of a contemporary urban environment; a product placed to "design out" another particular part of the furniture of a contemporary urban environment - the homeless.

My friend and graduate from a degree in Law wrote his final year thesis on begging - specifically, the legal response to it in a UK city. This bench represents one such response, designed as an "anti-sleep" bench and thus functioning to eliminate the homeless/beggars by forcing them to lay there heads elsewhere. The hope for this displacement is that either the homeless will leave the city, or they will pursue criminal activity to compensate for the loss of revenue gained in prime locations, thus giving the police the chance to incarcerate them for a significant period of time.

But why beggars? Are they dangerous, and thus necessary targets of the law? Not exactly.

The reasons beggars are unwanted in cities are far more, shall we say, capitalistic. The first is aesthetics. Cities seeking capital investment and tourist revenue need a pristine image to portray for their potential investors. Beggars are a blight on that image. They do not meet the desired aesthetic demands, and are therefore seen as a hindrance to the economic growth of the city.

My friend briefly mentions the case of graffiti to highlight the aesthetic sensibilities of the law. "He is no Banksy" was a prosecutor's case against one particular graffiti artist, who faces jail time on account of his graffiti being seen as "vandalism" as compared to Banksy's "art". The law, it seems, is far from blind when it comes to taste.

The second reason beggars are targeted is because they are "flawed consumers," or even "non-consumers". The city centre is first and foremost a place for consumption. Beggars work right against this ethos - they actually take money from consumers, money that could be spent in one of the nearby shops. There is an opportunity cost when one gives one's pocket change to beggars, and the authorities are determined for you not to miss out on an opportunity. Beggars are also just plain bad for business, with people less likely to enter a shop that has a beggar sitting in front of it. In fairness, given the society we have created for ourselves, what could be more punishable than anti-consumerism? (This reminds me of the Roman Empire's issue with monks, and Eisenhower's declaration that "It is the duty of every American to consume".)

There is much more that could be said. The thesis is both simple and fascinating to read, written with clarity and with a passion that has taken on far greater forms than the academic, but which translates well into this 10,000 word piece that is at once easy and uneasy reading. If you want me to send you a pdf copy just let me know.

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