Fighting crime, one silly ordinance at a time

Tomorrow morning, the Minneapolis City Council will decide whether to criminalize those citizens who like to roam the alleys. Under the proposed ordinance--conceived as a crime fighting measure--alley-walkers would be subjected to a ticket or, in some cases, arrest if spotted by police in alley not adjacent to the block where they live.

Naturally, there are some exceptions. "Invitees"--defined as someone who is visiting a resident or on their way to a garage sale--would not be deemed in violation of the rule, nor would police, emergency personnel or garbage haulers.

Still, it's no surprise that the proposal remains controversial. A divided Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee forwarded the proposal to the full council without recommendation; it's anyone's guess what the council will do. In a long thoughtful post on his blog, Cam Gordon, the second ward councilman, articulated a number of reasons for opposing the measure. Wrote Gordon:

This kind of prohibition is unprecedented in the United States. I am concerned that it will move us in the wrong direction. It may well move us away from the proactive, preventative and accountable approach to public safety that we know works and towards a system that criminalizes harmless behavior and opens the door to more discriminatory and selective enforcement revolving-door placebo practices that are so frustrating to so many people. It may well bring us closer to a privatized, suburbanized city and not towards the safe, pedestrian-friendly community of close-knit caring city most of us want Minneapolis to be.

But Gordon, the only Green Party member on the City Council, neglected to mention one environmentally-based reason to stand against the ordinance: it would effectively criminalize some of Minneapolis' most fervent recyclers. The reference here is to not to the officially sanctioned recycling crews--naturally, they too are exempted from the proposed ordinance--but to the Norman Rigers of the city.

A retired postal worker, science fiction writer and full-time eccentric (he claims, among other things, to be half-lizard), Riger is one of the city's most prolific junkmen. He routinely prowls the alleys of Uptown in search of anything he thinks he might be able to sell for more than a nickel. He strips copper and gold from electronic equipment, extract the magnets from microwaves, and collects discarded books by the box by the for sale on the internet. It's both his vocation and avocation.

"If Minneapolis passes this, it will be the laughing stock of the world," Riger declares, with typical gusto. He doubts that will happen--"they're probably not that stupid." If it does, he doubts police will have much interest in enforcing the rule. He bases the latter opinion on his trash digging experiences, some in municipalities where the practice is legally forbidden. "I've encountered many cops while working at dumpsters at various locations," Riger notes, "and I've never had any trouble with them."

But in the event the ordinance is enacted, Riger has a plan. "I will milk it for all its worth," he says. "I will advertise alley parties. I will hand out free alley passes. And I will probably even write a poem about it and have it published in the neighborhood newspaper."

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