Chicago aldermen on Monday rallied behind a punitive plan to seize the wheels of motorists who dump their trash, despite concern it would give police “another tool to demonize, imprison and punish black men.”
Jeff Baker of the Committee for a Better Chicago, argued that it makes no sense to wield the legal sledgehammer of vehicle seizure when the $150 littering fine already on the books is not being enforced.
Baker told the City Council’s Finance Committee the story of having his own vehicle impounded for allegedly playing his car radio too loud—even though he claimed to have been listening to talk radio at a moderate volume.
He called the bogus charge, which he subsequently beat, little more than a ruse for a vehicle search that came up empty by a police task force charged with seizings guns and drugs.
Turning to the anti-littering ordinance championed by Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), Baker said, “This gives police officers another tool to demonize, imprison and punish black men….I don’t believe you have to take the automobiles of people in a community that is already hurting—that is already starving for resources.”
As a criminal defense attorney, Brookins said he understands “the plight of many African-American men, who find themselves being stopped for driving while black.”
But, he argued that proof the $150 anti-littering fine is not working is at virtually every stop sign and traffic light and beneath every viaduct in his south Side ward. Every one of those places is a virtual garbage dump, he said.
“I don’t want to fine one person. I don’t want to take one car. I want people to stop” littering, Brookins said.
“People constantly and continuously discard trash and, unfortunately, it’s primarily in my neighborhood, which discourages development…With jobs being the most important thing for African-American men, it is a double-whammy for people not to invest in our community because they think it looks like one giant garbage can.”
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) added, “It’s not a black thing or a white thing. It’s a disrespectful, ignorant thing” to litter.
Vehicle impoundment—and the hefty towing and storage fees that come with it—has become a catch-all penalty for an array of offenses ranging from prostitution to loud music playing and curfew violations.
Brookins wants to impound the vehicles of motorists who chuck their trash out the window. He also wants to dramatically increase the fines—from a current range of $50-to-$150 to $1,500-a-pop.
Despite supportive comments Monday from at least six colleagues, Brookins agreed to hold the ordinance in committee.
“They want to run it by the police to see if it would be too onerous for them to have to tow every car. We’ll see what they have to say,” Brookins said after the Finance Committee hearing.
“The language may change from being mandatory to saying they have a right to tow your car for every violation. I’m also willing to let the fine be a little more [gradual]. I still feel pretty confident it will pass pretty much in tact.”
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) was the only alderman to voice reservations about the crackdown. It’s not the end he disagrees with. It’s the means.
“I live near Whitney Young and, from that bus stop to the school entrance, every high school kid seems to think they can drop their bag of chips,” Fioretti said.
“But, we have to be careful about what the extent of the penalties are and whether or not they would be effective.”