Battle of the Panels

by Judith Klintbol & Stine Dieckmann

On the last day of September, the Western Regional Advocacy Project—a network of West Coast homeless people’s organizations, including the Coalition on Homelessness—organized an action against Business Improved Districts (also known as BIDs), which are geographically defined business areas that tax all buildings in the zone, including government entities and non-profits, but then only allow property owners, most of them large corporations, to decide what to do with the money. One of the primary uses of that tax money has been to push poor people out of centers of commerce and tourism by hiring both security guards and off-duty police officers to criminalize and harass people they deem a nuisance or undesirable in the area.

The action was held to express how BIDs use the “Broken Windows” policing theory, which suggests that by focusing on small, non-violent quality-of-life crimes like jay-walking, drinking, or sleeping in public spaces, an area can reduce serious crime. In actuality, Broken Windows has been one of the primary tools used to punish the existence of poverty and “undesirable” people in urban spaces, including homeless, Black, and street-based communities throughout the US.

BID guards are private security forces who are paid for by the self-taxation of private businesses and government entities. They are meant to serve and report, but instead they routinely harass, abuse, and occasionally physically attack and criminalize street-based and homeless people in the areas they patrol. They are typically operating in impoverished areas, where education, housing and jobs are the dire needs, but the money is instead spent on serving only business interests, not community interests. In this way, BIDs actively support the gentrification of neighborhoods where poor, working class, and people of color have historically lived.

The main problem is that common people have no voice or vote as to how the BID money gets spent, even though some of it is public money.

On September 30, we arranged for an action to be held at the Marriott where the International Downtown Association was hosting a conference session on Broken Windows theory, featuring one of the cofounders of the theory, George Kelling. We were a group of different organizations including WRAP members the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Right 2 Survive from Portland, Denver Homeless Out Loud, and of course us from Coalition on Homelessness. We got divided into three different groups, and went in one group at a time to avoid attention. The first team got busted pretty quickly, but the other teams got so close that they could chant and disrupt the conference. They had to stop the conference for a while to get us out of the building. The guards were right away very aggressive and kept holding us back. After some time, we all met outside the hotel. Tiny from POOR Magazine was already outside speaking on how the BIDs and the Broken Windows theory criminalize and make wrong decisions about poor people. They also had children share their knowledge on what they knew about the BIDs and how the Broken Windows policing affects them and their loved ones. People from our action joined Tiny and the POOR Magazine contingent outside the Marriott to chant and speak the truth about BIDs and the Broken Windows theory.

Bilal from the Coalition on Homelessness gave a speech about how BIDs are criminalizing homeless people:

“We are here to denounce Broken Windows policing as an ineffective and inhumane strategy. We are poor, homeless, Black, queer, and organized. We will not sit quietly by while racist, classist, and abusive systems continue to terrorize and harm us. People are not broken windows. We are not broken windows.

“Housing, jobs, healthcare, education, food: These are things that make communities safe. These are things we need in our cities, in response to the growing homeless crisis.

“You are here today for the International Downtown Association Conference. The International Downtown Association starts Business Improvement Districts, which are undemocratic institutions, where only property owners have a vote and where impoverished communities trapped inside their tyrannical zone have no voice in how taxes collected by this entity are spent. The BIDs prioritize policing, security, and protecting big business money and profits. They do not prioritize the true needs of those in the communities they dominate.

“BIDs have adopted Broken Windows as their strategy.

“Mr. Kelling will tell you his theory is being wrongly applied. We are here to tell you his theory was flawed in its inception.

“Mr. Kelling will tell you you can rely on security guards and police to keep your businesses safe. We are here to tell you that those guards and police will only hurt us and make exiting homelessness impossible with their fines and abuse.

“Mr. Kelling will tell you his policing theory is compassionate. We are here to tell you that law enforcement and security guards are the opposite of a compassionate response to homelessness.

“Too many people in the United States are suffering from severe poverty, and growing income disparity. There are millions in need of subsidized housing in the United States. Millions of children go hungry every day. Our schools are severely underfunded. Our health care system requires hours-long waits. People are turned away seeking shelter every night. Meanwhile, Broken Windows and BIDS proliferate—turning our urban areas into caste systems, and business areas into pipelines to jail for poor residents under the false guise of safety.”

The next day, October 1, we organized a panel about the BIDs at St. Anthony’s, where we discussed the issues regarding the use of Broken Windows policing and how they affect poor people in society. Some of the main points that came up were how the BIDs demonize poor people through Broken Windows theory, how too many resources are used on the police, when we instead could use the money for housing and finding actual solutions to helping reduce poverty and end homelessness. The panel consisted of people from our various community organizations as well as a lawyer, an academic, and community organizer. They all gave their opinions on how BIDs actually work, and how we can come together as one and help change things in our communities. The audience also got a chance to speak out on what they have experienced with BIDs and Broken Windows theory, and how we can solve some of the issues they are facing in their communities.

A lasting quote from the panel stands out: “The streets belong to us, and we should decide how to use them.”