Lost in the arbitration between Greensboro City Councilmembers and City Attorney Tom Carruthers at last week’s meeting was the fundamental question at hand: How can we get rid of all these downtown panhandlers without violating their Constitutional rights?
Let’s not forget that the whole thing began when Carruthers informed council that the current ordinance, which required city panhandlers to obtain permits for the purpose, with conditions that included a valid driver’s license and a clean criminal record.
Carruthers told council: “You cannot have a standalone panhandling ordinance.” He added, “That would be subject to strict scrutiny. It would likely be one that would not survive legal challenge.”
And while we’re at it, let’s remind everybody that panhandling is not a crime — it is, in fact, protected speech, falling under what the US Supreme Court considers “charitable solicitations.”
So council engaged in a game of repeal and replace, returning from closed session with a new ordinance that lumps panhandling with “peddling,” “commercial soliciting,” “itinerant merchanting,” “street performing” and “mobile food vending,” all of which are now subject to regulation, according to the ordinance, which passed 6-3.
Make no mistake: This ordinance was crafted specifically to disenfranchise panhandlers but uses carefully worded language and legal definitions to achieve the means without itself violating the law.
It’s the same tactic state Republicans used to draw gerrymanders along racial lines — eventually thrown out in court — or that President Trump employed in his attempted Muslim ban. And it’s ironic that the ordinance was supported by some of the same councilmembers who railed against the Republicans in the General Assembly for their actions.
So now panhandling — along with tap dancing, sisters with socks and selling falafel from a truck — are regulated by the city of Greensboro. Problem solved? Of course not.
And was there even a problem to begin with?
Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott told council at that meeting his department had received 721 citizen-initiated calls about solicitation. Just 22 of them resulted in arrest.
Panhandling has been around as long as there has been currency. And it is not a crime — it is, in fact, a constant presence in every American city that cannot be legislated away no matter what Greensboro City Council says.