When I was a teenager, strangers would sometimes stop in front of our house to take pictures of our front yard. We lived on a run-down street with no sidewalks or paved driveways in what was then a low-income neighborhood in a low-income town 45 minutes outside Orlando.
But people didn’t stop because of the poverty. They stopped for my mom’s butterfly garden.
One day the man who owned the rental house next door informed my mother that he thought she should tear it down and have a normal yard like everybody else on the block. Six months later, a code-enforcement officer paid us a visit. The man who owned the house next door had filed a complaint.
After touring the yard with my mom, the code-enforcement officer informed her that we would need to tear most of it down. My mom pleaded and explained that the wild flowers sustained butterflies and bees and that there was order in the apparent wildness. She had, after all, designed and planted the entire thing.
The city gave her a week to clear the yard. After that, she would be fined several hundred dollars a day until our yard looked as militantly minimalist as the lawn next door. Broke as hell and busy raising two boys on her own, my mom ran a push mower through the most beautiful garden in town. Afterward, she wept.
I was reminded of that event last week, when the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health had told an independent hardware store it could no longer offer free popcorn to customers unless it installed kitchen equipment and submitted to regular inspections, as required by the 1984 California Uniform Retail Food Facility Law. Meanley and Son Hardware had given free popcorn to customers for the last 25 years without incident.
But both intrusions share a common theme with more pressing incidents: They wouldn’t have happened if someone — or perhaps multiple someones—hadn’t decided to employ the state to settle a grievance best addressed by looking the other way: “Meanley and Son’s fate was sealed with an anonymous tip phoned into the authorities.”
The person who complained about the popcorn has a lot in common with the neighbor who sicced the code enforcers on my mom.
And they both have a lot in common with the New York lawyer recently caught on camera threatening to report a group of Spanish-speaking restaurant employees and customers to ICE; with whoever called police to report “a ‘suspicious man’ walking on the bike path with a baby” here in DC a few weeks back (the baby was his son); with the busybodies who regularly report parents for leaving their kids in the car while grabbing some groceries or upon spotting children playing without adult supervision; with the Buffalo union official who proudly rats out undocumented immigrants at job sites; with the bigots who treat the mere presence of black people in predominantly white spaces as a threat to their safety.
Three projects might help roll back the problem.
The first is to help people who find some of these stories outrageous and others inconsequential to see all of them as related. It’s a short logical step from “That’s illegal!” to “That might be illegal!” and from “That is unsafe!” to “That makes me feel uncomfortable!”
You can help friends and family and partners think differently about when it’s appropriate to invoke state power by sharing stories of times when calling in the authorities caused far more harm than the alternative. A lot of people don’t seem to think very hard before calling the cops — it’s free, it’s fast and there are no consequences for overreacting. You don’t even have to give your name! It’s worth the time and trouble to ask people questions that might have an impact on how they think about these things.
The second project is a political program: to drastically scale back the police powers of every arm of the state. Not just the police police, but the health police and the tax police and the zoning police. All those agencies work in concert. The person who refuses to pare back her garden gets a fine. If she doesn’t pay the fine, she loses her driver’s license. If she drives regardless, because her job or family needs her to, she gets arrested. The police state is a hydra, so let’s treat it like one.
Lastly, we need to look for ways to block the pending age when algorithms take such steps for us. I may be alone in thinking Facebook’s suicide-intervention algorithm is a terrible idea, but it’s only a matter of time before it sends cops to someone’s house and the person dies at police hands rather than his own.
It is more important than ever to recognize the incredibly high stakes of inviting the state into other people’s lives.
Mike Riggs is a reporter at Reason.com, where this article first appeared.
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