Town officials spoke first. Then just like a scene from the movie, up to the mike, came one lone citizen. Central casting could not have been better at selecting just the right person to speak. He looked like every man you see every day, everywhere. Dark hair, about 5' 7", a blue T-shirt, denim jeans with a small hole on one knee.
How did this happen. Unrest and dissention in a beautiful small New England town...and at the height of tourist season. Actually, it is the tourist season that has led to this. The economy is bad. Stores and motels are not making the level of profit they want. When the bottom line suffers there is usually a search for someone to blame. History shows that often those who are most vulnerable take the blame when anything goes wrong. Panhandlers are an easy target group.
Last night's meeting of the Bennington Select Board was more like a scene from Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery', than like a Norman Rockwell painting. 'The Lottery' was written in North Bennington, just a stone's throw away from Bennington. It is the story of how small town culture often results in prejudice against anyone who is different.
Rockwell was a famous Vermont artist. His painting of the man standing at a town meeting and exhibiting freedom of speech is a classic. It celebrates the First Amendment.
Town meetings are held in the public fire house. The fire house has an interesting history. It is the location where voting takes place. Pre-election debates and forums are sometimes held there. Often, candidates who are not members of the democratic or republican party are not allowed to participate. During one forum, Dennis Steele, candidate for governor, stood outside. His First Amendment rights did not give him access that night - even though the fire house is a public building supported by public tax funds.
On the agenda for last night's meeting was a discussion about the proposed Anti-panhandler Law. The planned vote has been delayed until November 11, but a discussion took place. All town officials spoke in favor of the law. Their allegiance to the business community always trumps the needs of ordinary citizens. The economy is not good. Many local business owners are struggling. Most citizens understand the importance of local businesses and are sympathetic. There are empty store fronts on Main Street. This is not just a Vermont problem. Main Street USA will never be the way it was during the Leave it to Beaver days.
Town officials spoke first. Then just like a scene from the movie, up to the mike, came one lone citizen. Central casting could not have been better at selecting just the right person to speak. It was a bit reminiscent of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Ron Conroy, citizen, husband, father, veteran spoke with clarity and elegance. He spoke on behalf of the disenfranchised... the poor, those in need of help. Bennington now had its own Mr. Smith.
A few other officials spoke. Then Conroy went back to the mike and made a very brief statement. He asked how a meeting that started with a Pledge to the Flag could then goes on to disrespect the U.S. Constitution by considering a law that would deny First Amendment rights to anyone. Conroy was soft spoken and respectful, but that did not prevent one Board member from becoming visibly agitated. The official stated with indignation that he is a veteran. His anger at the citizen was very clear - and will have a chilling effect on citizen participation in the future. Conroy remained cool and calm as he stood perfectly still in front of the angry official. With grace and courtesy, Conroy emphatically answered that he too is a veteran.
There are unanswered questions about the proposed law.
- If someone on Main Street asks: "Can you please help me? I need directions to the covered bridge." Would that be a violation?
- If someone on Main Street asks: "Can you please help me? I need a dollar." Would that be a violation? If so, would that be profiling? Would that be victimizing someone because of socio/economic class?
- Would holding a sign that said: "Need ride to Albany" be a violation? What about holding a sign that said: "Will work for food"?
- If this law is adopted, would it put taxpayers at risk? What would be the likely result if the law was challenged in Court on Constitutional grounds?
The bottom line is this. It appears that the law is under consideration because of a desire to make the poor invisible to tourists. One town officer was quoted in the news as saying that panhandlers create an 'image' problem.
Instead of hiding the poor, how about helping them. The common belief is that there are 'services' for all who are in need. That is a myth. Many in the U.S. go without the essentials of life. Homelessness is an issue - so much so, that recently some were considering putting up a tent city. Today it was announced that a 59 unit Econo Lodge in Shelburne, VT is being converted to house the homeless. Instead of hiding them, they are being helped in Shelburne. Would that be a solution in other locations?
The prejudice against the 'lower class' is very clear. Some are poor through no fault of their own. One of the leading causes of bankruptcy is the cost of medical care. A 2007 Harvard study showed that 60% of bankruptcies are due to medical expenses. 75% filing for bankruptcy had health care insurance. Sometimes bad things do happen to good people.
An unintended consequence of this action by the town board is the unleashing of higher levels of prejudice against anyone who is different, poor, or in need. When town officials show a level of distrust toward strangers, this attitude trickles down the pecking order to ordinary citizens. The Select Board has stirred a hornets' nest of hatred. The 'hate genie' has been released from the bottle. The fact that this is an unintended consequence is irrelevant to those who will be further victimized.
'First they came for the panhandlers'... What do we do now?
A suggestion to the town leaders: Next time a panhandler asks for help, invite him out to lunch. Maybe you will have a new understanding of the causes of poverty and also make a new friend.
The best part of this story is that Conroy was not selected or appointed by anyone. Very few local people know him. He has no political influence and no political friends. There was no personal gain for him. He knew up front that he would likely pay a price if he spoke in opposition to those in power. One lone man pushing against the tide simply because he was following his conscience. It doesn't get much better than that.
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