Early each morning I walk the streets of downtown Silver Spring. Like other pedestrians in town, I don’t pay a great deal of attention to the traffic lights if I see that I can cross safely. Traffic is not very heavy at that time of day, and I do know the general patterns after observing them for several years.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fool. I don’t step into the middle of traffic. I keep a special eye out for bicyclists using our cycling lanes. If there are children present, I wait for the appropriate traffic light as I don’t want to assume that their parents would want me to model my beliefs for their children. I generally don’t wear ear buds.
Unlike most of my fellow citizens (including some police officers), I actually know the general law for pedestrian crossings in Maryland. But I step out wanting to make my own little protest against the criminalization of walking.
Yes, sometimes it is a crime to cross the street, should you not follow the prescribed rules. You may not know this, but there is a long-forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of “jaywalking.” It is an early example of the privatization of public space, and that’s what frustrates me.
A hundred years ago, if you were a pedestrian, crossing the street was simple: You walked across it.
Today, if there’s traffic in the area and you want to follow the law, you need to find a crosswalk. And if there’s a traffic light, you need to wait for it to change to green.
Fail to do so, and you’re committing a crime: jaywalking. In some cities — Los Angeles, for instance — police ticket tens of thousands of pedestrians annually for jaywalking, with fines of up to $250.
To most people, this seems part of the basic nature of roads. But it’s actually the result of an aggressive, forgotten 1920s campaign led by auto groups and manufacturers that redefined who owned the city streets.
So, there is that whole criminalization of walking thing. But to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie shortly after the seven-minute mark in Alice’s Restaurant, I didn’t come here primarily to tell you about the criminalization of walking. No, I came here after thinking about privilege.
You see, I also cross mid-street or against the light because even if I am stopped, I doubt I am going to be hassled by the police. That’s where the privilege part comes in. I’m white. I’m not a threat.
A recent article in Westword, a place for independent journalism in Denver, included information on who gets citations when a local government criminalizes jaywalking. It resonates with my experience here in Silver Spring.
Advocates for pedestrians and bicycles are working to change Denver’s laws, with much of the impetus for decriminalization coming from a concern over social justice. Between 2017 and 2020, 40 percent of the citations for jaywalking were given to Black individuals, despite the fact that only 10 percent of Denver’s population is Black.
And 25 percent of the jaywalking citations were issued to individuals experiencing homelessness, which is a massive overrepresentation of homeless individuals in Denver’s population.
When I cross, I’ve noticed that many people of color wait for the light to change. I suspect that the experience in Denver is one in which they have firsthand knowledge. Why do anything to call attention to yourself?
So many who share the privilege of being born white and male in America are pretty clueless when it comes to the advantages of that privilege. They are the ones “born on third base who think they hit a triple.” In today’s world, those highly privileged individuals are the ones leading the grievance-fest that is tearing our country apart. They have received unacknowledged perks since the day they were born and have come to believe that they earned it.
I know that at a minimum I was born on second base, but I sure didn’t get there because I hit a double off the left field wall. Nope, I was born there because my parents were Christian, white, straight Americans who delivered a healthy baby boy into the world in the 1950s. If they’d had a bit more money, I would have found myself on third, but at least I was in scoring position!
And throughout my life, I’ve been the beneficiary of rules — sometimes written down but often unspoken — that gave me a certain confidence as I navigated life. A confidence that was often undeserved and unearned, especially when compared to those who woke up at birth and were staring at an 0-2 count with Max Scherzer on the mound. (*)
Jacob Smith, a community organizer and the Denver-based senior director for National Organizations for Youth Safety, spoke to the challenge for people of color in dealing with the city’s laws. He told Westword that “For me, as someone who is Black, queer and disabled, (decriminalization) would just allow a breath of fresh air for me to be able to walk as someone who doesn’t drive and know that because my built environment isn’t protecting me, that I won’t be criminalized.”
This is but one very small example of the privilege I see in my life. I can cross where I see fit and know that I’m not going to end up being stopped because some cop wants to “check my parole status,” as one reader noted on another site where the issue was discussed. Should I stop exercising this privilege? Perhaps. Better yet, let’s treat everyone the same and stop using minor traffic and pedestrian interactions to hassle people of color.
The next time something comes easily to you, stop and think about how others who are different have to approach the same situation. Is your action “normal” because you are white, but would raise issues if you were a different gender or a person of color?
Food for thought as you go on your morning walk.
More to come…
*If you are confused by all the baseball references, there are three bases on the field, with third being the closest to home. When a batter gets to second, he (or she) is said to be in “scoring position” because they can usually get home, and score a run, on a single (where the batter gets to first base). Baseball gives each batter four balls and three strikes, so if you are facing an 0-2 count, you are down to your last strike without much hope for getting four balls and drawing a walk, or free pass, to first base. Max Scherzer is the great pitcher who is sure to be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Max helped lead my Washington Nationals to the 2019 World Series championship. We miss having him out there on our mound.
And in case you missed the Alice’s Restaurant reference, the song is a deadpan protest against the Vietnam War draft, which Arlo only gets to seven minutes after beginning a comically exaggerated but largely true story from Guthrie’s own life: he is arrested and convicted of dumping trash illegally, which later endangers his suitability for the military draft. The video below begins shortly before the seven-minute mark: