This Friday at around 3 pm, a police officer seized a case of Rolling Rock beer from a homeless person on Second Street and South Washington Street and emptied each of its cans into the street. The homeless people in and around the tents lined on the sidewalk watched this punishment with faces that expressed astonishment, anger, and powerlessness. The officer emptying the cans was guarded by two other bike cops, who kept an eye on the restless natives, some whom viewed this brazen act of cruelty from the opening of their tents. Can after can. By appearance, this incident, which I observed for a good three minutes, had little to do with the enforcement of the city's anachronistic public drinking laws. It instead looked like a moral instruction.
The cop wanted the homeless people to watch and learn the ways of the productive side of society. His body and manner had this to say: Look at how we do things. We get jobs, we spend our days working, we then go home and relax and have a Bud, or we go to an establishment that's authorized by the city's government to sell beverages that contain the "psychoactive substance" alcohol. This is the reward for working. What you people on the streets are doing is getting the reward for nothing. After emptying a can, the cop would crush it, as if he were crushing the hopeless spirit of a homeless person.
I was informed by Officer Patrick Michaud of Seattle Police Department's Public Affairs office that it's not uncommon or unusual for a cop to do this sort of thing if someone is caught drinking in public. Indeed, they have to do it if the cans or bottles are not considered evidence in a crime. Officer Michaud also explained that, for the most part, the law leaves some room for the cop to decide how he or she will deal with a situation of this kind. They can give a warning, write a ticket, take the beer away and pour its contents into a storm drain. There is, it seems, a little fuzziness in this area of our drinking laws. And as more and more people are drinking in public because more and more people do not live in homes, because our city continues to do less and less about the homeless and housing crisis, this outmoded drinking law and its fuzziness becomes the source of more and more irrational outcomes. Officer Michaud recognized this reality and recommended that, if you have a tent, you should drink inside of it. Meaning, it is usually unconcealed drinking that causes problems.
But why should we play these bad games? Why not just decriminalize public drinking and worry about more important things? This business of banning public boozing reeks of a morality that captured large parts of Christianity. As any historian knows, the temperance movements, which came into fashion in the 19th century (and, by way of bans on public drinking, are still with us to this day), were not about Jesus or God and all of that other stuff from those dusty Roman days. They were about diffusing the power of the emerging working classes by imposing an idea of middle class respectability (restraint, self-improvement, abstinence) on them. Don't drink; arrive on work on time; be a productive member of society; read the Bible. An idle mind is the devil's workshop. "If you are not hard at work, you are hard at sin." And all the rest of it. The old story of this morality was performed once again this Friday at around 3 pm near the intersection of Second Avenue and South Washington Street.