Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Means, motive, and opportunity

The whole time I've been a vandweller, I've been often outraged by laws that make it a crime to be poor. Laws against living in vehicles. Laws against vagrancy. Laws against dropping your garbage in a public garbage can (I'm not kidding; there's a $500 fine and 6 month jail sentence for it in San Francsico). Laws against... being poor! It deeply offends my liberal sense of fairness to treat poor people like criminals, just for being poor. The old French saying goes well: "The law in its majestic equality forbids both rich and poor from sleeping under bridges".

Cops have been known to profile vandwellers, and single us out at least for suspicion, if not for abuse, just because we're living in vans, even though many if not most of us are totally peaceful and law-abiding. Homeowners can be just as suspicous and fearful as cops, and it took me a while to figure it all out.

Lately I'm starting to understand it though.

Tara the HoboStripper wrote a great essay some years ago (which I can't find right now) about the tremendous hassles she used to get from border guards in Canada and the USA, going back and forth from Alaska to the lower 48. The guards didn't want her in their country-- or hers (she's American). They searched her, they gave her a terrible time, they made her miserable. She eventually found the solution, though: simply tell the cops you're there for work. She was baffled at why the cops would give her a pass if she just told them she was a wage slave. She had a couple theories, ranging from sympathy (many cops are union workers and have solidarity), and beyond.

But I think it's a lot simpler. Think like a cop for a moment. To find your suspect for a crime, you are looking for someone with means, motive, and opportunity.

Poor vandwellers who are not wage slaves-- have motive. If you have a job, you have income, you do not have the motive for committing burglaries and such. But someone poor and unemployed-- or lacking a steady predictable paycheck-- needs MONEY. Where they gonna get it? Begging or stealing... two things that neither cops nor homenowners want anyone doing anywhere near their jurisdiction.

Being in a van gives you means and opportunity too. You can slink away, you have a place to hide stolen crap. So, if you're a cop, or a homeowner, or a border guard in Vancouver or wherever, what do you make of someone who lives in their van and does not have a job? Why are they entering your country, or your town, or your neighborhood? To steal from you, and then leave, never to be caught? I guess if you take it from their perspective, vandwellers can look pretty scary.

Tonight I got hassled by suburban cops for-- you will love this-- wearing a black jacket (it's cold out), and a backpack, then climbing into my box van, where they couldn't see me. At least that's what they told me. Backpacks are sinister things in suburbia? A black jacket makes you a criminal? Climbing into your vehicle is a suspicious thing to do? I guess so. Unfortunately, I didn't see the cops following me and watching, which is my mistake, I suppose. A car alarm had gone off a few blocks away. And some guy was walking around with a black jacket and a backpack. That's some really thin threads to hang a case on. So the cops came and banged on my truck, searched me, and then searched my truck-- looking for stolen stuff. I have receipts for practically every little bolt, screw, peice of wood, houseshold item, foodstuff, and part that is in my truck. So, nothing there for them.

They were polite about it, and I was nice to them, not only out of self-preservation and general respect, but also because, if there is anyone actually breaking into vehicles around where I was parked, I want them to catch the bastards. Since all my worldly possessions are in my truck, the only thing I fear more than cops, is car thieves and burglars. So, go get 'em; I hope the cops win that battle.

But the first thing the cop asked as he started crawling around my van with a flashlight, was: "What do you do for a living?". I told him. Then I wondered why he'd ask. And then, suddenly, I thought of HoboStripper's story, and I was enlightened. Means, motive, and opportunity-- according to the cop, I had all three.

I realize there is no way out of this. I'm also not as outraged anymore, either. This kind of crap is just a hazard of vandwelling; something to be understood, accepted, and managed.

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