Whose Streets Are They?

June 10, 2011

Years back, when Los Angeles still had an NFL franchise, while visiting friends there I was taken to a Raiders game. The venue, L.A. Coliseum, wasn’t located in the chi-chiest area of town. Many spectators would travel through it for one reason and one reason only: to watch the Raiders.

Having parked our car, we made our way on foot to the stadium for the last little bit. On route, we were stopped up short by the sight of a group of youthful, shiny faced Raider fans stopping to pose for pictures with what we assumed to be an indigent man who was lying passed out next to the sidewalk. They seemed surprised by our outraged calls for them to move along, which they did without much more attitude than giving us the finger as they skipped off toward the game. Yes, my memory has them skipping off.

This incident came to mind when I read about the motorist this week who got into a dust up with a squeegee kid at Queen and Spadina. Not analogous for sure as I assume Mr. Townsend was simply making his way from point A to point B when the unfortunate altercation occurred. The wrong place at the wrong time and all that. Yet, the clash of cultures seemed related to me.

Now I wouldn’t for a minute presume to know the exact circumstances of the incident but I do find it odd that Mr. Townsend chose to get out of his car to confront his alleged assailant. What provoked that reaction? There’s been no talk of damage to the car that I’ve read. Words were exchanged, it seems. But is that enough to justify getting out of the car? And doesn’t getting out of the car simply escalate the situation?I’m trying to paint the most favourable picture I can for Mr. Townsend from the information I’ve been given. You pull up to a stop at the intersection. You’re approached by someone demanding to clean your windshield for money. You wave them off, once, twice, three times. You’re ignored and they start cleaning your windshield. You again ask them to stop at which point of time you’re assaulted with a hail of invective. “#$#@&&%, you $%##&%#%&!!”

At which point of time, Mr. Townsend steps out of the car.

Again, begging the question, why?

The area of the city is a familiar one to me. I often encounter panhandlers on the streets around there. From time to time, I’ve even been in a car in the neighbourhood and have had exchanges with the squeegee types. Most have been easy. The occasional one more aggressive. None threatening in any way.

That’s not meant to ignore the possibility that the person Mr. Townsend confronted was, in fact, a perceived threat. But by getting out of his car, he made a tense situation worse. Nor am I trying to say Mr. Townsend got what he deserved. I just simply don’t understand making that kind of stand at that moment. There seemed to be other alternatives as the police pointed out afterwards. “We recommend if you have an issue with a squeegee kid that you stay in your vehicle and call the police,” Constable Tony Vella urged.

Which brings to my earlier Los Angeles moment. The situation feels a little like a manifestation of the suburban-urban divide we’ve heard so much about over the last year or so. Mr. Townsend hails from Newmarket, just north of Toronto. Up there, they’re free to drive without fear of being hassled by unwanted advances on their cars. Unfamiliar with the give-and-take of driving on some downtown streets (emphasis on the ‘some’ as all but a few city intersections remain squeegee free despite our Deputy Mayor’s making a major case of the issue), he stepped unwittingly into a hornet’s nest of problems. For those of us more familiar with these downtown streets, we have reluctantly learned how to negotiate these encounters, keeping flare ups to a minimum.

I also have to wonder if Deputy Mayor Holyday’s recent amplification of the thorny issue and his old school approach to penalizing rather than accommodating our homeless and panhandlers might not have emboldened Mr. Townsend in the situation. By overstating the irksome aspect of having people living on our streets, “… bother[ing] our tourists and our residents and… occupy[ing] the sidewalk like it was their personal property…”, Mr. Townsend felt he was totally in the right to deal with the squeegee kid in a more forceful fashion. I said, stay away from my car.

Maybe he was. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti certainly expressed a sympathetic opinion to Mr. Townsend’s ordeal, jumping with both feet onto one side of the division. “(Drivers) have more rights than the squeegee kid…” Mammoliti said. What rights are they, I wonder. The right not to have your car touched or windshield washed without your permission? The right to aggressively confront someone who does?

It seems to me that this is simply a case of shooting the messenger. Homelessness, panhandling, street corner vending if you will, are nothing more the symptoms of a larger societal problem and failure. Trying to eradicate them simply by vilification and criminalization amounts to an admission that you’re unprepared to take on the much bigger, more difficult search for solutions. Or that you simply are unconcerned with the plight of our most vulnerable.Sadly, that seems to be the path of our modern conservative movement.

dutifully submitted by Urban Sophisticat