Inner City Diary
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Mayor Rudy pointed the way to cleaning up streets
February 3, 2002
I saw him leaning against a storefront at a fairly busy corner in the South Bronx. He was playing a role – the clothing, stance and the glare of a gangster.

While other people moved to avoid him and his stare, I decided he was exactly the guy I wanted to talk to.

I was taking an educational expedition through some major American ghettos. I wanted to learn more about what was fact and fiction on the frontiers of urban revitalization. I figure that learning involves more than books and lectures from visiting experts. So I drove into the “worst” areas in Milwaukee, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philly and my alma mater – New York City. I parked the car, and started walking and talking my way through the neighbourhood. I met some amazing people and learned some important lessons.

On that corner in the South Bronx, I greeted the gangster – playing at my own role of naïve Canuck. As we started talking, I asked him what he thought about then mayor, Rudy Guiliani. “I talked to a couple of people who say this Rudy guy has done a real good job for New York.” He quickly snatched up the bait, launching into a profanity laced litany against Rudy’s reforms.

“The man’s crazy! I can’t do nutthin’ anymore. I don’t wait for a green light, I get busted walking across the street. I turn up my radio, I get busted. One time a cop sniffed my fingers and took me down to the station for questioning cause my fingers smelled like weed.” I found it a little hard to imagine New York’s finest sniffing fingers of people on sidewalks, but I didn’t interrupt.

He continued. “This Rudy ain’t doing me any favors! I figure he’s doing that racial profiling thing. He’s getting racist cops to hassle us based on the color of our skin.”  I figured he may have a bit of a point with a few cops, but the fact is that he’s probably getting picked on because of the color of his bandana, not the color of his skin. Looking at him again, I realized he does more to profile himself as a gangster than any cop or politician could.

He eventually got off the Rudy rant to discuss the higher social objectives of the gang to which he belonged, how they’re not really that bad, just people who like to hang out together. Back in Winnipeg, I’m still reflecting on our conversation.

I figure when people profile themselves as gangsters, hookers and dealers, we should do everything possible to encourage them to lower their profile.

Much of the grief associated with crime in our neighbourhood is not the stuff that goes on behind closed doors, but the public fears and hassles caused by cocky drug dealers, loitering prostitutes, strutting gangsters, and noisy drunks. It’s less their private habits and much more their public nuisance that disrupts our lives in the neighbourhood.

Criminal law does little to help us because it takes so long for police to gather enough information to lay charges, and so little time for some naive judge to send the wolves back to the flock.

Some US cities got civil injunctions which prevented self-profiling gangsters from carrying any potential weapons (including baseball bats), or any grafitti tool (including markers). Swearing, spitting, and blocking sidewalks became civil offenses with civil fines of $1,000 or six months in jail.

Guess what happened? Gangsters complained to the media. Crime went down, normal people once again felt they had rights to public streets and sidewalks. People felt safer.

We probably couldn’t go quite that far in kinder, gentler – and more naïve – Winnipeg.

But we could learn from the approach. Winnipeg is a small city. Our community cops know the troblemakers in our troubled neighbourhoods. They know the frustrating process associated with criminal law. They know the public nuisance accelerates much quicker than the undercover criminal investigation.

Cops issuing $100 tickets for loud mufflers, jaywalking, spitting, vulgar language, and countless other piddly civil offenses won’t wipe out crime in Winnipeg. But it starts to pass a message which isn’t deflected by defense attorneys or suburban judges.

The public nuisance of public activities of self-profiling gangsters are begging for our attention. Let’s give them the kind of attention they deserve.
Copyright 2002
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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