The Cookeville City Council is in a battle over a proposed public safety ordinance that would ban panhandling in certain areas within city limits. Panhandling is defined as to stop people on the street and ask for food or money according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
The last city council meeting, held on Sept. 17th, was to be the final reading and vote on the ordinance. The vote was postponed until October after council members wanted to study the matter further, and after various residents, business owners and local clergy spoke at the public meeting.
Andrew Smith, senior instructor of English & Religious Studies at Tech, has been very vocal in his protest of the proposed ordinance. He wrote a poem about it and spoke at the Sept. 17th meeting. Smith calls himself a “poet for panhandlers” and excerpts from his poem are included in this article.
“Whereas you outline $10 fine for the first offense, a $25 fine for the second offense and a $50 fine for the third and subsequent offenses as if you can actually, as Government, extort money from the poor, the actual people who panhandle in the first place because they lack money,” Smith wrote.
The public safety ordinance prohibits the panhandling on public right-of-ways. Places where the public could be considered a “captive audience,” such as drive-through food service windows, ATM’s, public transportation stops and gas stations would also prohibit panhandling.
“Whereas you as Public Servants, specifically name places of public gathering & commerce, and prohibit panhandling there places such as The Shoppes at Eagle Point, The Cookeville Mall, Jackson Plaza, Walmart Shopping Center, whereas such places are
inherently shared, communal, a kind of common space for all of us, you thus most definitely restrict everyone’s rights with such a nasty & narrow addendum,” Smith said.
Cities in states all across the country are repealing all or parts of their panhandling laws after numerous court cases have found the laws to be unconstitutional. Many states such as Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, Colorado, Ohio, Arizona,Texas, California, Tennessee and Louisiana have cities in which courts have ruled that the prohibition of panhandling is a violation of the First Amendment.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties groups have argued that it was unconstitutional for municipalities to prohibit people from begging for
money in public spaces. In Cookeville, it may come down to the final wording on the actual ordinance. Clear, complete definitions and phrases such as ‘aggressive panhandling’ and ‘public safety’ may be the difference between the ordinance passing and it not being repealed in the court system in the future.
Smith criticized the Cookeville city council for the implications of their wording in the proposed ordinance.
“Whereas you as public servants, with your own word, simply say that the poor are nothing more than an unsafe disturbance, unacceptable disruption, dangerous distraction, that is bad news,” he wrote.
“Whereas with this ordinance, you subject the poor to the harsh judgmental language of this ordinance and thus co-sign the mean-spirited comments made by angry anti-panhandler Cookevillains on social media,” Smith added.
Smith called the ordinance “illogical, immoral, anti-Christ, mean-spirited and just plain wrong,” and called upon the Cookeville city council to “vote no on the ordinance and all the bad consequences and blowback that it would encourage.”
The Cookeville City Council’s consideration of the public safety ordinance is set for Thursday , Oct. 15, at 5:30. The proposed ordinance number, 022-08-15, can be found on the City of Cookeville’s website.
Whereas Jesus announces
his Mission Statement in Luke 4:18
we know that the entire purpose of the Gospel
could be summarized therein as
Good News to the Poor
Freedom to the Captives
Sight to the Blind
Freedom for the Oppressed
Whereas you as Public Servants
with your own words
imply that the poor are nothing more than an
That is Bad News
Whereas Jesus told us to take nothing for our journey
Depending on the Hospitality of Others
Whereas Jesus told us when
“somebody asks you for money, give it to them.”
Whereas Jesus insisted that He will meet us again
in the hungry, thirsty, sick, stranger, & prisoner & said
How we treat them is how we treat Christ himself
Whereas something entirely
unnecessary, unenforceable, & unChristian,
your Ordinance against the Poor
describes the ancient spiritual tradition of begging
as holding folks
as abusive or
as intimidation or
as something that infringes on the clothed, fed, housed, & privileged
Whereas it is precisely such proximity to the poor
That can teach us about diversity & inequality
& move our weary hearts towards acts of
compassion & generosity
Whereas you as Public Servants
specifically name places of public gathering & commerce
& prohibit panhandling there
places such as
The Shoppes at Eagle Point
The Cookeville Mall
Walmart Shopping Center
whereas such places are inherently shared, communal,
a kind of common space for all of us
you thus most definitely restrict everyone’s rights
with such a nasty & narrow addendum
Whereas you outline
$10 fine for the first offense
a $25 fine for the second offense
& a $50 fine for the third and subsequent offenses as
if you can actually as Government extort money
from the poor
the actual people who panhandle
in the first place
because they lack money
Whereas nowhere in this ordinance do you even
pay lip services to the roots causes of poverty
whether public injustice or personal suffering
or event attempt to outline
the abuses, disruptions, disturbances, or
dangers that the poor & unhoused community
experience everywhere on a daily basis
for simply being poor especially during
a global pandemic & economic downturn
Whereas with this ordinance
you subject the poor to the harsh
judgmental language of this ordinance &
thus co-sign the mean-spirited comments made by
angry anti-panhandler Cookevillains on social media
Whereas you are not prepared for the
unintended consequences, collateral blowback, or
community resistance to this unjust ordinance
This Poet hereby Ordains
your Ordinance as
This Poet hereby calls on
all Cookevillains of Good Heart
Regardless of whether they follow the
barefoot Palestinian Preaching Panhandling Jew
To just say No to this Ordinance & all the bad
consequences & blowback that it would encourage
poet for panhandlers
Poverty Is Not A Crime
Cookeville City Council
3 September 2020