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Spare Your Change 

Power plays in downtown Spokane are not sustainable solutions for the poor

click to enlarge CALEB WALSH
  • Caleb Walsh

To the casual summer road-tripper passing through Spokane, our city seems downright ordinary. The coffee stands, gas stations, city buses, churches, graffiti and panhandlers are all part of an average Inland Northwest life. Golly, there is even enough visible "diversity" to seem big-time compared to North Idaho. But scratch the surface of this normalcy, and you will find something far more sinister at work. Some might even call it a war, and the target is on the backs of the poor.

click to enlarge Dolezal.jpg

So stealthy is the sustained effort to clean up the streets of "undesirables" that even some poor people find themselves duped by this month's cause to "Give Real Change." Cloaked in charitable language and good intentions, this movement was launched by the Downtown Spokane Partnership last week as a campaign to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers. The effort is supposed to starve people off the streets and force them into homeless shelters or agencies that are ready and able to serve their every need. Rhetoric aside, who does an anti-panhandling crusade really benefit?

This monthlong emphasis is part of a larger movement that is powering through our city like a morning street sweeper. So what happens when the people are all swept up and we have our Pleasantville utopia? What happens to the people who aren't whizzing around nabbing their morning Starbucks and snapping that occasional red-light selfie? They get left behind. In fact, as you read this, life is getting a lot more difficult for people in Spokane who, by any definition, don't have it easy.

Per the usual system of levying solutions on oppressed groups from a perspective of privilege, all three of the recent strikes against the poor have been paraded about as positive change. Strike 1 was the sit/lie ordinance criminalizing sitting or lying down on public sidewalks for 18 out of 24 hours each day. Strike 2 was public officials delaying the renovation of the downtown bus hub as part of their plan for moving it — and the passengers — out of the downtown area. Strike 3 was this camouflaged "Give Real Change" campaign.

In the month of August, we will be reminded by a variety of propaganda materials that we have the option, right and even civic duty to not give to panhandlers. If you agree with this premise, then please don't roll up your window and forget to at least give to a local charity of choice.

However, to find real, sustainable solutions for economic advancement in our area, perhaps we should ask the experts on struggle themselves. Empowerment and upward mobility come by way of personal agency, education and choice, and we as humans operate on the basic need to have the opportunity for self-determination. If we don't want to include the public opinion of the poor, we should admit that our charity is possibly more self-serving than helpful. As my dad always said: "You can't eat someone's good intentions." ♦

Rachel Dolezal, formerly of the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d'Alene, is an award-winning artist and activist who teaches courses in art, Africana history and culture at area universities.

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