I heaved a sigh because I have seen this before. In 2015, the community turned its focus on Five Star Carting and their abuses, both of labor and their bad business practices.
As people brainstormed what we could do to hold this company accountable yet again, I had an image pop into my mind of trying to flush a broken toilet. You press the lever, it makes a clunking sound, and absolutely nothing happens.
To me, this is what our toolkit to try to fix things in the neighborhood reminds me of. We are missing critical laws and agencies and oversight committees and meaningful accountability tactics. We keep trying the same thing over and over again and it gets us nowhere.
A longtime mentor of mine, Marty Needelman, uses a common phrase that nearly everyone in the housing justice community knows and repeats: "The law is whatever you can get away with."
Living in this community and witnessing the repeat transgressions happening over and over, usually due to poor decisions and abuses on the part of businesses and developers, I know this to be true.
After a while, as an advocate I grow tired of people telling me to call 311 or the police. I know from experience that most of the time these things don't work. I also don't find the results to be very effective.
Interactions often go nowhere at all or end at an offensive or useless place, like when a driver drove onto the sidewalk to harass my friend and I a few years ago.
We were asked profiling questions of the driver by police and asked to roam around in the cop car for hours at night to try to find someone who we all knew was long gone.
The driver did this to us because he knew he could. He knew no one would stop him, and he knew it was very unlikely that anything would happen.
The problem is that there is almost zero enforcement of any of our laws in a way that has meaning for the perpetrators. It also seems that our toughest forms of enforcement are inhumane and usually not designed to impact the root causes of the problem.
Once I parked my car next to a truck. When I came back, there was a ticket on my car and on the truck. The driver said to me, "oh yeah, you're not allowed to park here." I replied, “but you’re parked here!" And he said, "my company gives me a budget to pay for all my tickets. I park where ever I need to."
This is the very crux of the problem. We have laws without enforcement. Then we have enforcement that only punishes regular people and leaves the wealthy totally exempt.
If you know the right catchphrase, can hire the right lawyer, or have a company coffer filled to pay off the financial penalties you accrue, the law no longer matters to you.
We need a new model. We are experiencing a record number of traffic and pedestrian fatalities, and housing complaints and problems are reported every day. But no one shows up to hold anyone accountable. This system isn't working.
Or maybe the real problem is that this system is working exactly how it's supposed to. We as a community need to have a conversation about this. It should not be regular people alone who are held accountable for their actions, especially when they are the ones who have transgressed the least.
There are things that we should and could be doing, but it will take government intervention and real funding of initiatives to oversee what we decide on. Until then, it's all just window dressing.