Pete Donohue’s latest column in the Daily News, about how it’s dandy that more subway panhandlers have been arrested, reads like a statement plagiarized from Mayor Bloomberg's PR department. In short: Poor people bad! Stop subway crime! Punish panhandlers; they don’t even have stock options!
"Don’t ask for the dime if you can’t do the time," rhymes the eternally clever Donohue at the beginning of his takedown of Bloomberg’s most vulnerable opponent of all, the city’s poor. According to the column, more than 930 panhandlers and peddlers were arrested in the subway between January and this month, a 76percent increase over the same period three years ago.
At a press conference, Bloomberg reacted to these figures with surprise, though as the de facto three-term emperor of New York City, this is his police force enacting such ploys as Operation Moving Target, a Manhattan initiative involving undercover officers who try to nab panhandlers and peddlers on trains. Donohue quotes the NYPD’s justification for the arrests which, beyond typical cop jargon, boils down to what they and other people in a position of power often call a “quality-of-life issue.”
A "quality-of-life" issue, despite the benignities it might imply, usually isn’t related to actually improving the lives of all of society’s members. In the case of a billionaire mayor and his police force, it means stamping the impoverished out of view so New York's gentrification can continue apace—like the rest of the country—while city government lies to itself and us about the obscene disparity between those who are wealthy and those who can barely afford skyrocketing rents, health insurance, or can’t find employment.
Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed and This Land is Their Land, two years ago documented the criminalization of the poor in one of the best opinion pieces the Times has featured in a long time. She demonstrated how the American underclass are criminalized when they try to procure the bare necessities for survival, like asking for money when they have none, or trying to sleep in a public place when a bed is unattainable. While wealthy individuals can defraud millions of people through predatory lending and pernicious investments and face no penalty, the little kid selling candy on the N train may be penalized because he has been deemed a “quality-of-life issue” by someone who never had to sell candy on the subway.
Why should it be a crime to play music, sell something, or ask for sometimes much-needed money in a subway station, or anywhere? Who is really being hurt by any of this? It’s not as if the precious gentry of the Financial District will suddenly flee Wall Street because change cups are trembling near their Kindles. Business, for them, is too good these days.