When the law is wrong it turns the police into thugs

By Clay Clairborn

Last December our city council representative Bill Rosendahl has brought into Venice a special squad of 21 LAPD officers for the expressed purpose of vigorously enforcing LA MC 85.02, which forbids “living” or sleeping in a vehicle parked on the street. He has been doing this at a time when America is enduring its worst economic crisis since the ‘30s. He has been doing this in a year in which as many as 2 million families nationwide will lose their homes in foreclosure. He has been doing this at a time when an increasing number of the less fortunate among us find that their safest option is to sleep in their vehicles.

But there is a problem with 85.02. There is no humanity or justice in what it mandates. Sometimes the law is wrong and the people are right. Sometimes a law has no moral right to exist. When that happens, the people opposing the law become the righteous ones and the law enforcement agencies become thugs.
Chief of Staff Mike Bonin wrote in the December 2010 Venice Neighborhood Council Newsletter: “At the councilmember’s request, Police Chief Charlie Beck assigned 21 additional officers to the area. LAPD formed a Venice Homelessness Task Force, … City prosecutors are training cops to build evidence against people violating laws that prohibit living in vehicles.”

You are not allowed to sleep in your car here. You are, however, allowed to sleep on the sidewalk between the hours of 9pm and 6am. I have occasionally slept in my car, although never in Venice. In Venice, my car is parked in its spot and I sleep in my bed under my roof. I never thought it a good idea to get out of my car and sleep on the pavement as the LAPD demands. I always knew that I would be safer, more comfortable and better protected from the extremes of weather if I slept in my locked car than if I slept on the sidewalk. Just don’t try that in Venice.

In Venice, with this Venice Homelessness Task Force in the lead, the LAPD has been very busy and successful in finding people caught napping in their vehicles and arresting them for violation of 85.02. While these “criminals” are in jail their RV, van, truck or car is ticketed and towed; often to a city lot in Sylmar, 38 miles away. Any pets are taken to a pound somewhere else.While they are getting bailed out of jail and finding their pets, the towing and storage charges start growing beyond their ability to ever catch up. This is how some members of our community that are already experiencing “hard luck” get “trouble” added on to the pile thanks to the LAPD and 85.02. This is how some lose their last major possession. So impoverished, they need to look for a shopping cart for their few remaining possessions and are forced to start sleeping on the street.

And that is what the Councilman intends. He is using the law to run poor people out of Venice and 85.02 is one of his tools. That is why he is putting additional LAPD resources into the vigorous enforcement of 85.02. He has the support of wealthy and influential developers who see poor people in Venice as a factor in lowering property values.  I’ve heard enough stories about threats and beatings, and seen the bruises, to know that the LAPD is resorting to the tactics of thugs in their effort to run poor and homeless people out of Venice.

This is not the first time a reconcilable contradiction has existed between law and justice. For the first 80 plus years of this nation’s history slavery was the law of the land. In that case the contradiction between law and justice was so sharp that a bloody and protracted civil war had to be fought to set matters right. But before that law had been overthrown, slaves that ‘ran away’ and those that helped them were branded “criminals” and everyone in the United States law enforcement was expected to add capturing “runaway slaves” to their long “to-do list.”

I’m sure the Venice gentrifying folk type, back in the day, rallied behind the demand for vigorous enforcement of the slave codes with the simple demand “It’s the law! Enforce the law!” To do otherwise would have lowered “property” values. But I think that “law” had no moral foundation, and as a result the police that caught runaway slaves turned into thugs. We know from the historical records that they acted like thugs, and that the runaway slaves and those who supported them were the righteous ones.

Similarly, I think those that fight and have fought to see that women have safe abortions on demand, even when it was illegal, have been the righteous ones, and those that attempted and still attempt to jail people for exercising that right are thugs.

Another example of the contraction between the law and justice can be found closer to home and nearer to the present in PC 286, California’s law against anal penis contact (”however slight!”) which was not overthrown until 1976. Maybe before 1976 there were city officials that called for special squads of LAPD to bust into Venice bedrooms and enforce PC 286 because “it’s the law.”

I know some people thought like that back then, but I think they were wrong. The law had no moral foundation. I think the people that said the law had no business telling consenting adults how to have sex or who with were the righteous ones and the enforcers of that law were the thugs.

Under the concrete conditions of today, in which: 1.) Many people are being made homeless as a result of circumstances over which they have no control and 2.) Neither they nor the city can provide them with a safer or healthier place to sleep than their vehicle, a law which demands that these people sleep “legally” unprotected on the sidewalk lest they be jailed and have their vehicles towed is without moral foundation. There are no proclamations of judges or councilmen that can give it one. Under these circumstances those that enforce the unjust law become thugs and those that fight it are the righteous ones. It is as simple as that. Overthrow 85.02!