A friend and I used to walk down the 16th Street Mall over the lunch hour when we worked downtown.
He was a generous soul, so when we’d encounter a homeless guy with his hand out or flying a sign, he’d often pull a dollar out of his pocket and hand it to the guy.
I told him that he’d be better off writing a check each year to one of the shelters in town than giving money directly, so it doesn’t just pay for drugs or booze. I guess it made him feel better anyway.
Lots of people in Denver have similar feelings, judging from the number of people who hand out money at stoplights to people with cardboard signs saying, “God bless” or “Everything helps.”
But there’s more at stake than feeling good about yourself in the campaign over Initiative 300 on Denver's city ballot.
Because 300 is going to make Denver’s homeless problem a lot worse, with more encampments on sidewalks and in the city’s parks and along the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. People sleeping in cars, as long as they are legally parked, would be OK under 300, too, including the street out in front of your house.
People aren’t going to like Denver if this thing passes. The convention business, which already has issues with homelessness downtown, will go elsewhere. And, it’s likely to attract even more homeless people to Denver.
Not even all the homeless advocacy organizations agree that this is a good idea.
But there’s an even bigger consequence: Fundamental issues of democracy also are in peril because of the way some proponents are campaigning for Initiative 300. It’s threatening a whole host of rights, such as the right to privacy and the right NOT to have a public opinion about something if that’s your desire.
Initiative 300 would repeal Denver’s ban on urban camping and replace it with a legal “right to rest” in public rights-of-way like sidewalks and public parks and legally parked vehicles.
The most confrontational supporter of 300 is Occupy Denver, the bunch that camped out in Civic Center along Broadway in 2011 during the recession until the city finally rousted them from their tent city.
As my colleague John C. Ensslin wrote in Colorado Politics last week, there’s room for debate over how to deal with homelessness in Denver, how much money to spend on it and who should get the most help.
But enabling the ability to live on the street helps no one — not the homeless and certainly not the rest of the Denver.
Here’s why this issue is much bigger than Initiative 300, however.
Occupy Denver is shaking down businesses on the 16th Street Mall, demanding that they publicly denounce the camping ban in writing and support Initiative 300 or face boycotts and public demonstrations in front of their establishments.
A few businesses have given in, unfortunately, but they really had no choice.
One restaurant, The Corner Bakery, endured months of homeless people camping out on the mall at the restaurant’s entrance. The Occupy organization demanded that the restaurant sign off on a rambling denunciation of the city’s and the restaurant’s own alleged treatment of homeless people in Denver, a sort of public confession for causing poverty in the city.
They got a one-sentence statement opposing the city’s camping ban that was as sincere as any confession obtained under duress. But the protesters left anyway.
Now Occupy is looking for its next target. Eric Brandt, an Occupy Denver activist, delivered demand letters to at least a dozen restaurants on the mall last week.
In a video Brandt posted on YouTube, he explained why Occupy is targeting restaurants.
“Yes, I’m selecting businesses where I think our presence in front of the business would be particularly disturbing to them. Restaurants have a slim profit margin, operating on a pretty thin line, generally. Boycotting a restaurant has a fantastic effect on their profit margin for the entire year. We don’t have to be out there any time at all.”
So, in other words, Occupy Denver is extorting the restaurants to take a political position they may not believe in — and in fact, likely don’t — or face public demonstrations and harassment of customers.
That’s what makes this pro-300 campaign so despicable.
In a statement, the Colorado Restaurant Association noted that the businesses being targeted provide jobs to lots of homeless people trying to end their cycle of poverty, and that almost always donate food to shelters and churches that feed the homeless.
“We recognize the very important right to protest and welcome public discourse but expecting to sway public opinion through harassment of local businesses is outrageous," the association says.
Tami Door, who heads the Downtown Denver Partnership, said 300 is just the latest issue advanced by Occupy Denver and other groups that employ intimidation tactics to get their point across.
“This is not about 300. This is about threatening behavior, forcing people to take positions under duress to protect their livelihoods, the livelihood of their employees and it squelches their freedom of speech,” Door said.
“We must define what we believe is acceptable in our democracy," she said. "Right now, a segment of our community that has crossed that line.”
Will the people who feel good about handing out money to the homeless still feel that way when the downtown area is overrun with makeshift encampments and mountains of trash, which is sure to be the result of 300 passing?
More importantly, will it lead to these tactics being adopted in other political questions? Could businesses be blackmailed into supporting individual political candidates?
There’s more than a loss of humanity and dignity in this case; there’s the loss of our democratic principles.
Contact Neil Westergaard at email@example.com.