Race creeps into proposed Atlanta panhandling ban

Associated Press
Published June 26, 2005

ATLANTA - A proposed ordinance to bar panhandlers from accosting people in Atlanta's tourist section has run headlong into the politics of race in this city of the New South that likes to portray itself as having moved beyond black and white.

Hoping to boost convention business and tidy up downtown, the City Council is considering a measure to prevent visitors from being hit up for money by homeless people around Olympic Centennial park, the CNN Center and nearby top-flight restaurants.

But most of the panhandlers are black. And last week, the council sent the proposal back to committee after activists likened the ban to the "Negro removal" policy that they say white downtown business elites pursued in the 1950s.

"This is a mean-spirited continuation of what they call the "sanitation' of Peachtree Street," said Joe Beasley, a 68-year-old Atlanta native who heads the regional office of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "The white folks, their position was that black people were bad for commerce, and if you were black, you just didn't go on Peachtree Street unless you were cleaning up or something."

But the panhandling ban's sponsor is himself black. He said the ban has nothing to do with race and everything to do with business.

"Our No. 1 industry in Atlanta is tourism and conventions. If we don't do something, we run the risk of our downtown becoming a ghost town after dark," said council member H. Lamar Willis.

The moral questions about how to reduce homelessness and begging have come up in all big cities. But in Atlanta, even the ban's supporters say the city's segregationist past makes the struggle harder.

"We're in Atlanta, so in any discussion where a group will be disproportionately affected, there will always be an outright racial component or an underlying racial tone," Willis said.

Atlanta came through the civil rights era with relatively little strife. Maynard Jackson Jr. was elected the city's first black mayor in 1973, and the city has not had a white mayor since.

Downtown business owners back the ordinance, complaining that some streets and parks are so overrun with beggars that customers won't visit.

Under the ordinance, beggars could still sit on sidewalks with signs asking for money, but they could not approach people for money downtown. In other parts of the city, panhandling would still be allowed, except within 15 feet of ATMs, bus and train stations and public toilets.

A first offense carries just a warning, a second a possible month of community service, and subsequent violations up to a $1,000 fine and 30 days in jail.