Northampton demands a seat

Wayne Standley reports from Northampton, Mass., on a protest to challenge the demonization of the homeless by small-business owners and city officials.

Picketing in the rain against the removal of downtown benches in Northampton, Mass.Picketing in the rain against the removal of downtown benches in Northampton, Mass.

DESPITE TEMPERATURES in the mid-40s and continuous rain, some 50 people rallied May 25, in the center of Northampton, Mass., to protest the removal the public benches along Main Street.

The rally was hastily organized late on May 22 through Facebook with a single announcement that "Enough is enough! It's time to SIT DOWN!" People were asked to "Bring a chair and another for someone less fortunate."

The benches were ordered removed by Mayor David Narkewicz after meeting privately with the Chamber of Commerce and some members of the Downtown Northampton Business Improvement District (BID). According to the mayor, this is an effort to come up with "a workable solution to the recurring problem" of loitering and panhandling.

The six benches removed, out of a total of 16 throughout downtown Northampton, were all located in the busiest business area. The benches were not unbolted from the sidewalk and taken away by the city workers from the Department of Public Works, but by employees under the direction of the BID on May 15.

Formed in 2006, the Northampton BID is part of a nationwide non-profit system of business and commercial property owners whose purpose is the creation of "a good business climate" by partnering with local government. Such groups have become popular in almost 2,000 small- and medium-sized cities, and in certain neighborhoods of larger cities like New York and Philadelphia.

Among their strategies to "improve the general quality of life" is the gentrification of old neighborhoods, increased policing (including the implementation of "zero tolerance" campaigns) and the displacement of lower-income populations.

BIDs are part of an effort towards privatization and control over public spaces by the business elite in the name of profit. A stated goal of the Northampton BID is the curbing of "panhandling" as part of its public safety program. This has included a grant to the city police department to "increase their downtown coverage" and an "education effort" to have citizens "make a call" to the police to report "aggressive panhandling."

And now, it has meant the removal of public benches.

For the mayor, "getting rid of the benches was a quick solution to aggressive panhandling." Despite the fact that "panhandling" is a protected right under both state law and the federal Constitution.

As one anti-BID activist in New York City explained, "[T]he real estate and business interests that run the BID do not swear to uphold the Constitution; they have no interest in defending civil liberties; they are unelected and unaccountable...They run our public property as if it were their private property."

The downtown Northampton economy is based on relatively small, specialty retail stores, many of whom cater to tourists. As the recession has cut into workers' wages, money for such discretionary purchases has dried up as many struggle just to pay for rent, food and other necessities.

Feeling the pinch in their profits, the larger financial interests that control the Northampton BID and the Chamber of Commerce, are attempting to blame the poor for this situation.

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DURING THE rally, a long-time Northampton antiwar and social justice activist who this author has known for years refused to take a flyer. His reason? We were supposedly unfairly targeting "the small business owners who also have to make a living."

We have to be absolutely clear: Any policy that shifts the blame and targets some of the most vulnerable people in our society is criminal.

The lack of benches has already impacted the poor, the elderly and the disabled. But according to Mayor Narkewicz, the benches were not there for them anyway. "The intended purpose of the benches is to add to the streetscape," he told the local newspaper.

Undaunted by the lousy, less than spring-like weather, the Northampton protest attracted an enthusiastic and larger-than-expected crowd. Chants of "Whose benches? Our benches! Whose streets? Our streets!" echoed, as a call and response, back and forth between the two groups of protesters on both sides of Main Street.

Individuals, on their own, stepped up to produce a flyer to hand out to passersby and a number of large placards quoting the message on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor."

The campaign and rally are already having an effect; to their credit, some stores have broken with the BID and come out publicly in support of restoring the benches.

And the end of the day, everyone agreed that we need to continue this as a regular Saturday activity until the benches are restored--and that we need to take up the larger issue of the undemocratic control by the Northampton BID and Chamber of Commerce of city government and our public spaces.

Next steps include building an even larger rally for June 1, and bringing our message to the City Council meeting on June 6.