Carrboro Anti-Loitering Ordinance Repealed in Unanimous Decision

Carrboro’s controversial four-year-old anti-loitering ordinance, which prohibited people from lingering at the intersection of Jones Ferry and Davie roads past 11:00 am, was rescinded in a unanimous decision Tuesday evening at a meeting of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen before a full chamber of community members. With a number of social justice leaders from organizations including the Chapel Hill & Carrboro Human Rights Center at Abbey Court, the UNC School of Law, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP in attendance, citizens expressed concerns literally on both sides of the fence, with a few expressing fears of harassment and public obscenity.

Passed in 2007, the ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to stand in public at the intersection and has been cited by civil rights activists as “bad policy” and “racial profiling” since its passage four years ago. Mark Dorosin, the director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights and a former Carrboro alderman, said the ordinance fails to effectively address the bad behaviors neighbors cite as reasons for the ordinance, including drinking, public urination, and harassment of women.

"It only makes it illegal to stand there,” Dorosin said. He encouraged the board to enact policy that would more directly challenge acts of harassment if this is the primary concern.

Others, like Carrboro resident Steve Dear, said the policy has been “selectively enforced." Dear, a white man, told the board that he had spent an hour during his lunch each day at the site for an extended period of time but had not been asked to leave by Carrboro police officers. He said, in one instance, a white female resident and supporter of the ban broke the ordinance to walk to the intersection and tell Dear how much she enjoyed it, saying "what are we going to do about them?" Dear said the policy has pervasive racial undertones and is affecting the way the town relates to the Latino community.

However, Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton said it is unfair to characterize the Carrboro police in this way. He said the ordinance was not selectively enforced because Dear's and others' choice to violate the law was deemed highly protected political protest.

"It had nothing to do with the race, gender, or anything else of the people protesting the ordinance," Chilton said.

Addressing the tangible impact of the policy, Alderman Sammy Slade said the ordinance had reduced the degree of loitering in the area but had failed to diminish the rates of other crimes occurring at or near the intersection.

Some, including Alderwoman-elect Michelle Johnson, said they were concerned with the ethnic overtones the ordinance had taken. Johnson, who made repeal of the anti-loitering ordinance a part of her 2011 platform, said she understands both the concerns of civil rights activists and worried neighbors.

"I want everyone in our community to feel safe. I know some people's lives have been impacted positively by the ordinance. They feel safer," Johnson said. "But I also know the lives of day-laborers have been negatively impacted."

Johnson went on to express her concerns with the board hiring a permanent police officer to oversee the site. "We should be mindful of policing a group that is all brown and low-income," Johnson said.

But not everyone in attendance was pleased with the direction of the conversation. One resident who lives near the intersection said chronic alcoholics would end up in his yard drunk if unable to find work prior to the ordinance. "All kinds of things happened," he said, expressing concern that rescinding the ordinance would result in increased harassment and public urination. Ultimately, he warned the board that if day-laborers started to break the law, he would not hesitate to call the police.

Many on the board encouraged residents to self-report acts of lawlessness. "Victory is in the streets," Alderwoman Randee Haven-O’Donnell said. She said rescinding the law would not be a civil rights victory unless residents are able to alert police of acts of harassment and obscenity.

Eventually, several day-laborers addressed the board with the aid of a translator. Reflecting the hardships of working in the informal job market in a time of economic recession, most simply said they want to gain access to steady employment. One worker said he only relies on day-laboring when his formal employment falls through or comes to an end. What is more alarming is that many of these workers' families rely on their uncertain income from day-laboring to survive.

Attorney Chris Brook, a board member for the Human Rights Center, said the ordinance is bad for business and restricts day-laborers' right to work even though egregious violations have yet to occur at the site. "This is not a worker-friendly ordinance," Brook said. "It punishes everyone for the conduct of a few bad actors. This is not something we do in Carrboro."

Finally, after hearing from residents, Alderwoman Jacquie Gist proposed the ordinance be rescinded, that the town look into fighting acts of harassment through prosecuting harassment towards women as hate speech, and that the town provide a community support person in association with El Centro Hispano and the Human Rights Center to address concerns. At around 9:40 pm, the ordinance came to a vote and was rescinded unanimously to cheers and applause from the chamber.

Alderwoman Joal Hall Broun concluded discussion asking that everyone in attendance return to the board in a year to answer the question of whether rescinding the ordinance has improved life for all involved. Seemingly a major achievement in the minds of civil rights advocates, the rescinded ordinance still leaves the question of how our community responds to widespread immigration, harassment, and poverty largely unanswered.

 

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