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Sympathy for the Devil

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To the editor:

Is there truly such a shortage of stories heralding the crusades of unsung social heroes that a Reader cover story [March 1] was devoted to the misdirected efforts of attorney Mark Weinberg to further degrade the quality of life in Chicago by decriminalizing panhandling?

I've lived in Chicago all my life, and as it stands today, it's nearly impossible to walk 100 yards in any populated area of this city without being aggressively hassled, hustled, and shamed to "help the homeless" or "spare some change." Although I've seen my share of the silent "cup shakers" that seem to be Weinberg's favorite cause, they're in the minority. And it's not only the sidewalks of the city. Areas surrounding Whole Foods, ATM machines, Starbucks all bear continuous testimony to the persistence of career beggars highly skilled in the arts of obstruction and subtle intimidation.

What about my inherent right to walk down the street without being verbally assaulted and sarcastically told "Thanks for the smile" if I don't cough up my hard-earned money for the unemployed?

Tori Marlan's contrived attempt to draw a resonating cultural contradiction between the street hustlers and the product-sampling teams was an exercise in naive subjective journalism. Did it dawn on Tori that the samplers were gainfully employed and giving pedestrians a free product that they use, as opposed to people begging for a handout hassling pedestrians for their hard-earned money? Another insight Tori might have pointed out: the Salvation Army bell ringers are licensed and raising funds to serve the social needs of the people who choose to recover and not beg for a living.

Maybe the greatest irony is the sad misdirection of Weinberg's myopic attempts at social change lies in the reality the social services professionals unanimously agree that begging thwarts reentry into productive society. The vast majority of these people Weinberg wants to "help" are substance and alcohol abusers that perpetuate their lifestyle and lack of self-esteem through begging.

If Tori Marlan is to continue a career path pursuing objective journalism, she might well consider providing a voice to other sources that would certainly take issue with Mr. Weinberg's flawed philosophy on the harmlessness of panhandling. Perhaps starting with our fellow citizens that have had it up to the eyeballs with this nuisance.

I have a suggestion for Mr. Weinberg as well. Find a social cause that will indeed help the condition of the plaintiff he's attempting to represent--provided he's successful. Given the ill-conceived and poorly prepared attempts at legal representation cited in the story, he might consider going back to that corporate firm for some peer review before he points that legal thing in our direction.

Tom Doody

Chicago

Tori Marlan replies:

Weinberg doesn't claim that panhandlers have the right to harass people. The law Weinberg's fighting makes no distinction between silently shaking a cup and violently assaulting a passerby. As I mentioned in the story, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations has pointed out that police don't need a separate ordinance to arrest panhandlers for aggressive behavior. There are already ample provisions in the municipal and state codes against it. After my story went to press, Mayor Daley suggested that the City Council repeal the ordinance against panhandling, so it's probably a done deal. It remains to be seen whether the council will pass Alderman Burke's proposed ordinance against "aggressive panhandling" or just rely on the existing laws.

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