One of the most pernicious aspects of modern capitalist society, and one which we are increasingly seeing today, is the criminalization of poor people. It’s always been this way, to some extent, since the industrial revolution. In the dialectical battle of the capitalists against the workers, unions were developed as a method for the workers to maximize their potential for profit. They were treated as social pariahs, called communists, and, in many cases, physically attacked by police and hired thugs – to the extent that today, the union movement in the west is a fragile shadow of what it was one hundred years ago. On the other hand, attempts by capitalists to maximize their own potential for profit, by reducing wages, increasing working hours, and neglecting safety regulations, have almost always been supported by governments, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, through the passing of pro-corporate laws.
In a recent column in The Guardian, the journalist George Monbiot discussed yet another legal means of repression that authorities could soon be using against the poor – IPNAs, or Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance or Annoyance. These injunctions can be served against anyone for any actions that a judge believes may cause ‘nuisance’ to someone else. Repeating the action after the injunction has been granted can lead to a two year jail sentence, even though the actions themselves may not ordinarily be considered crimes. As Monbiot points out, these injunctions will not be used against ‘respectable’ people making noise or blocking the pavements outside wine bars and opera houses. They will be used against soccer fans, protestors, young people who are considered noisy or threatening, and homeless people looking for a place to sleep. In other words, they will be used to turn people who are already poor into criminals as well.
Homeless people, those with the absolute least in our societies, are particularly susceptible to criminalization. At the end of last year, the city of Los Angeles began considering a new law to ban the feeding of homeless people in public areas – essentially banning soup kitchens, and taking away one of the few comforts that these poverty-stricken people have. Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Orlando, among other cities in the US, already have similar laws on their books. They are part of an attempt to legislate homeless people away by making it criminal for them to sleep outdoors, to beg for money, or even to gain access to food..
What does all of this achieve? Much like the union-bashing of the early 20th century, this criminalization of the poor is not intended to improve the lives of anyone at the bottom of our social pyramid, but rather those of the people at the top. It perpetuates the existence of a wealthy, protected class, and a persecuted, perpetually poor group at the other end of the spectrum. It is an attempt to avert class solidarity among the vast majority of people who are being made poorer by wage cuts, unemployment, and reductions in social security by designating a certain percentage of those people as ‘criminals’ who should be looked down on rather than helped.
Instead of further damaging the prospects of the poorest in society, it’s time to criminalize the truly harmful activities – the speculation on Wall Street, the selling of sub-prime mortgages that led to the financial crash, and the constant digging, drilling, and fracking for coal, oil, and gas. These things would improve society for all of us, rather than just for the small minority that existing laws benefit.
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