Here we go again. The “filth and contagion” narrative has been resurrected in Seattle with the proposed parks smoking ban. And, once again, this powerful frame, which deftly mobilizes public emotions of disgust to legitimate intolerance, is aimed at the very poor.
In 2008, Seattle had been at war against homeless encampments for more than a year. The economics of a downtown condo boom were at odds with the growing number of unsheltered and visible homeless people. Mayor Greg Nickels adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy on urban camping that ranged from rousting people at bus stops at 4 a.m. to systematically dismantling homeless encampments wherever they were found.
Newspapers, television and radio were filled with reports of hypodermic needles, human feces, jars of urine and tons of trash collected from encampments. We noticed a consistent symmetry between these reports and comments from city officials, and Real Change asked a group of professors and grad students at the University of Washington (UW) to analyze the media coverage along with internal documents from city hall.
“What we found throughout the documents we examined was a kind of dehumanization of the homeless and their living conditions, much of it originating in the City’s public relations campaign,” said project coordinator and co-author Gail Stygall, UW professor of English.
Smokers might be the easiest group of all to hate on. And guess what? The majority of them are low-income people. Average income for the bottom quintile of Seattle residents in 2013 was $14,300. Smokers number about one in three in this income range, with the highest rates among African-American men.
Among homeless people, smoking rates are likely even higher. The average age of mortality among homeless people in Seattle is 48 years old. Compared to last year, this year Seattle’s unsheltered homeless count rose by 21 percent.
If you’re looking for a legitimate public health crisis to resolve, look no further.
But this is not about smoking cessation. The proposed parks rule quickly escalates penalties for public smoking from a verbal warning to a written one to an order for park banishment. The ban on smoking is simply a new tool for dispersing the poor from public space, couched as an urgent first-world problem.
“We know the dangers of secondhand smoke,” Mayor Ed Murray said in the Seattle Times, “and we know that cigarette litter is abundant and harmful to our environment, especially for the wildlife that inhabit it.”
Sure. Smoking is bad for children and seagulls. But if anyone wonders who this rule change will mostly affect, I invite you to try an experiment.
Real Change is a block away from Pioneer Square’s Occidental Park, where the new seven-story Weyerhaeuser headquarters is under construction on abutting land. The other day, cigarette in hand, I strolled through this small park to see what I’d find.
Maybe 20 people dotted the landscape. About half looked homeless. I counted seven in all that were smoking. There was me. There was a tourist with a camera, and there were five homeless people, all but one of them black. No one was bothering anybody.
Who among these is most likely to get banned from the park under the proposed law? Will it be the tourist? Me?
Or will it be the African-American guy with a backpack, seated alone, talking out loud to the empty air?
While I was there, I spoke with a barista who often takes smoke breaks outside. “Public space,” he said, “really isn’t public anymore.”
He’s right. Public space is an amenity, designed increasingly for the corporations and more affluent residents that cities like Seattle attract.
In 2010, an earlier attempt to ban smoking in parks resulted in a sensible compromise that kept second-hand smoke away from playgrounds and other people. But that was not the Bum-B-Gone tool that this mayor now wants.
The proposed smoking ban takes Seattle in the wrong direction at exactly the wrong time. We need fewer reasons for cops to escalate conflict over small things. Not new nanny-state laws that offer mixed messages to police rank and file.
A public hearing is scheduled for April 16, 6:30 p.m., at the Seattle Parks and Recreation Headquarters on 100 Dexter Ave. N. Please join us.