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Starting Monday, January 11th, 2021, the Omaha Police Department has announced they will begin performing “tow sweeps.” Unlicensed/unregistered vehicles and “dead storage” vehicles (meaning vehicles parked on city streets that have not moved in 48+ hours) will be towed immediately. Cars found to be not in working condition parked even on private property could be subject to receiving a “Notice of Nuisance” and the owner will be given 10 days to take care of it.
Omaha, a city heavily reliant on cars, a city where bike lanes are few to none, a city where public transit is the most inaccessible for the communities who need it the most, a city that is heavily segmented due to redlining, will now punish poor people who have been forced to own cars they cannot afford.
It is nearly impossible to survive in Omaha without a car. Omaha’s public transit is severely lacking, and leaving our communities behind. James Howard Kuntsler wrote in his book The Geography of Nowhere, “In almost all communities designed since 1950, it is a practical impossibility to go about the ordinary business of living without a car.[...] This produces two separate classes of citizens: those who can fully use their everyday environment, and those who cannot.” This is especially true in Omaha, where people are dependent on cars to get nearly anywhere in the city. These sweeps do nothing but punish those who are dependent on cars to make a living, give their children an education, escape the food deserts of their low-income neighborhoods, and truly make the most of their lives. Robyn De Leon wrote, “Transit dependent people need cars to maintain a job to make the money to maintain their cars.” This vicious cycle leaves vulnerable people buying cars that they can no longer afford to care for, register, or license. And to add the cherry on top of this classist sundae, OPD will now further punish the poor by forcing you to spend your last nickels and dimes getting your precious car out of an impound lot.
These “tow sweeps” are nothing short of class warfare.
Let me lay out a few scenarios for you.
Scenario 1: You live in a residential area that is nowhere near the urban center you work in. Due to the low wages offered to you as a service worker, you are forced to have two jobs. Technically, you could take the bus to work, but because your two jobs keep you so busy, you are time poor, and have very little time between shifts, very little free time, and you cannot afford to be late. So, you must buy a car. However, due to the pandemic, your hours have been cut at both of your jobs, and therefore, so have your wages. Your car breaks down. You can’t afford to fix it. It sits on the street in front of your house, OPD tows it away, and asks you to scrape the bottom of your bank account to get it back.
Scenario 2: Not long ago, your job offered you a promotion. You’ve been driving the same beat up 1999 Toyota Corolla for the last hundred years, and you decided it’s finally time to get a more reliable vehicle. You use your savings, and the money from your new promotion, to get a newer vehicle. Then, due to COVID-19, your company falls upon hard times, and you can no longer afford the licensing fees on that brand new car. It sits on the street in front of your house. OPD tows it away, and you lose any savings you have left to get it out of impound.
Scenario 3: You are an upper middle-class person living in a predominately white suburb. You take on a side project to keep you occupied while working from home: an old beat up car for you to fix. It’s not in “working order,” but because you are affluent enough to afford a house that has a garage, and because the police never regularly patrol your neighborhood anyway, OPD does not tow the car, you keep your savings intact.
These “tow sweeps” are yet another example of how the law is applied differently to those with class and race privilege. The people who could afford the impound fees without facing bankruptcy, are also the people living in majority-white neighborhoods that are less policed, and therefore won’t be affected by these sweeps. The people who could afford these fees have access to private garages, and don’t need to park their cars on public city streets. The only people affected by this are the same people who can’t truly afford cars in the first place, who wouldn’t need to worry about this problem if our city provided them with the basic human right that is transit.
This isn’t the only instance of the police criminalizing and punishing folks just for being poor. The modern history of the criminalization of poverty, especially that of Black and brown people, began in response to the major tax cuts under President Reagan that left city governments hurting for tax revenue. And the easiest way to make up that revenue? Fees/fines associated with traffic laws and other low-level “crimes,” and cash bail. Things like “speed traps” are designed to rack up income for underfunded cities, at the detriment to their people. This epidemic of revenue shortages have led to the increase in state violence against our own citizens. Criminalizing those who cannot afford homes for sleeping in public is violence. Criminalizing folks who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets is violence. Punishing those who cannot afford to repair their cars is violence.
In a recent essay, Peter B. Edelman wrote of these increased fees and fines, “One by one, those who could pay did pay and grumbled, but they did not know the issue was rife. Those who could not pay knew they were in a bad situation, but they did not know millions were in similar situations.” The criminalization of the poor was so quiet and insidious we barely recognized it was happening under our noses. In the same essay, he writes, “Local and state governments still face a revenue shortage in many parts of the nation. Proponents of fines and fees, bail, and other aspects of the status quo criminal justice system cling to the need for money and use fear-mongering tactics to scare people into thinking that eliminating these processes will raise crime rates. We have the data to prove the latter claim false, if we can reach those people, but the funding issues remain a challenge.” Another world is possible. Another Omaha is possible. But if we continue to criminalize minor offenses, to bleed our own citizens dry in favor of fiscal stability, where does that leave us as a city?
Fines and fees as punishment for crime always sends the same message: this is only illegal if you’re poor. For those who break laws that result in fees or fines, this is a simple inconvenience. For those who cannot, this is the difference between being able to feed your children, or letting them go hungry, the difference between putting gas in that car you need to get to work to pay off your debts, or not being able to get to work at all. In 2017, a report created by the Harvard Criminal Justice Policy Program and the Human Rights Watch stated, “States were reluctant to raise taxes, leading many to charge individuals in the criminal justice system various fees to fund the criminal justice system and surcharges to fund the state’s costs more broadly. Many also increased fines, or penalties. Taken together, “fees and fines” can accumulate quickly, resulting in huge debt burdens for individuals. [...] What’s more, many courts do not meaningfully consider an individual’s ability to pay when imposing or collecting fines, fees, and surcharges, and some do not consider it at all. Judges are either unable or unwilling to waive certain fees and fines, or to tailor payment to the individual’s ability to pay.” The systems of policing and prisons, the system of so-called “justice,” are not rooted in justice or fairness at all, and rather are tools of capitalism and systemic racism to keep vulnerable people poor, and paying into these systems for as long as possible.
These “tow sweeps” in Omaha are one small cog in the machine of this nation’s justice system. Police departments, rather than truly focusing on the safety and well-being of their citizens, are more interested in generating revenue for the city, and maintaining the status quo of capitalism and white supremacy. What are these tow sweeps doing to keep the city safe? Do you feel safer? And to prey upon vulnerable members of this city, during a global pandemic, and a time when national unemployment rates are at an all time high, is especially despicable.
We must demand that Omaha do better. We deserve better cities. We deserve a city that puts the well-being of its people above money. We deserve a city that tends to its people’s basic needs, instead of punishing us for “existing-while-poor.” We deserve a better Omaha.
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kuntsler