What is loitering exactly? According to Dictionary.com, loitering is, “to linger aimlessly or as if aimless in or about a place.” Wikipedia informs us that, “under certain circumstance, (loitering) is illegal in various jurisdictions,” citing the City of Chicago’s Gang Congregation Ordinance, Chicago Municipal Code §8-4-015 (1992) that defined loitering as " to remain in any one place with no apparent purpose", which was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court of the Unites States as “unacceptably vague,” in the case of City of Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41 (1999).
While we can all agree that street gangs are a problem, you can’t arrest someone if they haven’t actually broken the law, and as far as I know criminal code is robust enough without the addition of an anti-loitering ordinance. Loitering falls into the same category as stop and search in that it criminalizes citizens for simply being in public; it is a gateway law, something a police officer uses as a pretext to harass otherwise law-abiding citizens.
As citizens we have a right to spend free time in public. Indeed, it is one of the things that makes life enjoyable. Just ask a European. Unlike Americans, Europeans (and people from almost any other country in the world), know how to enjoy being in public, and we envy them for it. In fact, one of the main reasons Americans travel to Europe is to linger in the quaint streets, idyllic plazas, verdant parks, and sidewalk cafes of its respective countries. Unlike in the United States, where citizens are expected to produce and consume and then repeat, Europeans understand that life is about more than economic activity, it is also about stopping to smell the roses.
Loitering is a superfluous term for a variety of states of being in public, many of which aren’t static, and most of which aren’t aimless or without purpose. This is the reason why loitering is so hard to define, and shouldn’t exist as a word. People spend time in public for many reasons: to enjoy a view, people watch, or wait; to be lost in thought, dreams or meditation; to talk, walk, and play; or because they have nothing to do, or just want to be in the moment. Indeed, what would Socrates and the other great Greek philosophers have done if they couldn’t have engaged in lively democratic debate in the agora of Athens? The right to free association in public is part of what makes democracy great. Furthermore, most of the world’s great spiritual leaders, including Jesus, where so-called loiterers in that they wandered, spent time in public preaching their ideas, and meditated, an activity with no “apparent” purpose.
While loitering is an idiotic term, and anti-loitering an unnecessary law, there is a clear ideology behind it that is authoritarian and sinister. Indeed, dictatorships of both antiquity and modern times would find an anti-loitering law a welcome tool in disbanding protestors and crushing political dissent. Loitering falls into that Orwellian reality of doublespeak, thought-crime, and the audacity of our government to create fenced enclosures where protesting is permitted, such as we saw during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yes, you have a right to protest but only in this small pen, out of the way and out of view, where we can pepper spray you in the face if necessary. Yes, you can strike, but only if management says you can. In this way, the United States looks a lot like Putin’s Russia.
Loitering is a useless and unnecessary word, unless you want to criminalize people’s freedom to associate, communicate, and be visible in public. The reason a term like loitering was invented was to reinforce a worldview where profit matters more than people or the environment. Apparently, it is acceptable to destroy the environment and exploit people, but unacceptable for citizens to spend free time in public. Because if the economic elite says so, it is a crime not to produce or consume. For the owners and bosses, citizens spending free time in public, in the park, in the square, or on the street, are consumers not roaming the shopping malls, and employees not huddled in their cubicles working overtime and converting their vacation hours into cash payment. Nevertheless, everyday, people insist on spending time in public: hanging out, relaxing, and doing nothing in particular.
Like the great philosophers and religious leaders of antiquity, the famous flâneur (stroller) of 19th century France was just such an individual who enjoyed spending his time in public, the experience of which contributed to a rich intellectual and artistic life. Like Jesus and Socrates, he was a revolutionary who questioned and challenged the existing worldview of those in control of economic and political power. This flâneur tradition of exploring the psychogeography of a city continued into modern times in France in the dérive (drift), or "unplanned journey through a(n) (urban) landscape," popularize by Guy Dabord, a member of Situationist International, an organization of social revolutionaries founded in the late 1950s.
Many of us who have spent time in Europe have taken our own enjoyable dérives through the splendid landscape and architecture of its great cities. It is no accident that such journeys are not possible in the United States where public space is often limited to privately owned plazas like New York’s Zuccotti Park, of Occupy fame; where benches (which are few and far between) are designed to be uncomfortable to discourage extended sitting (bus stop benches in particular); where cars come before people; and commercial and residential uses are separated through zoning code at the expense of mixed-use that would encourage of all things, loitering: or spending unstructured, spontaneous, creative time in public for its own sake, like the flâneur.
In spite of the American bias against hanging out in public, it is also what most kids used to do after school, everyday, frequently as a result of lack of things to do, particularly in suburbs; and in the city, where everything requires money. The teenage skateboarder reclaiming the asphalt from the car has much in common with the flâneur exploring the possibilities of the city. It is unfortunate then that kids these days prefer to sit indoors and play video games, like good consumers, losing touch with their environment in the process.
If you look up loitering in other languages, in addition to flâneur in French, you often get "vagrant," which brings us to the true intent of anti-loitering ordinances: to keep the homeless off the streets. What No Loitering signs should read is: “No Being Homeless in Public”. The history of the abstract concept of loitering goes back to the Great Depression where it assumed more explicit form in anti-vagrancy laws that were intended to keep people who were out of work and homeless, and traveling to look for work, out of cities and towns. It was a NIMBY law, but in this case against people. It seemed once you were a vagrant, you were condemned to be a vagrant forever, prevented from stopped anywhere to rest and establish a stable life. Steinbeck documented this reality in his aptly titled novel The Grapes of Wrath, based on what he saw in and of the informal settlements of dust bowl migrants in California. Indeed, California attempted to close its borders to keep such economic migrants out. In the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007, it seems little has changed. According to Ken Broder’s article on the use of anti-vagrancy laws to criminalize homelessness in California:
“Researchers gathered information from 58 California cities and found more than 500 anti-homeless laws between them. All of them have daytime laws that criminalize the four basic kinds of activities that can be applied to the homeless: “(1) standing, sitting, and resting in public places; (2) sleeping, camping,
and lodging in public places, including in vehicles; (3) begging and panhandling; and (4) food sharing.”
We have all heard and can sing along to Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, seemingly in praise of the freedom, beauty and equality of the United States. But how many of us know the rest of the song that mentions the darker side of America, a place of No Trespassing signs and hungry homeless people who have nowhere to go?
The invented problem of loitering aside, the real problem in America is structural unemployment, work that doesn’t pay a living wage, and unaffordable urban housing, which leaves many living on the streets and being criminalized for it. Ultimately, we have to ask: If the United States can’t provide opportunity for its citizens; doesn’t help them when they become unemployed and homeless due to economic hardship; and then criminalizes them for existing in public, then what is our government and society good for and who is it really serving?