It takes a lot to bring Savannah together on a civic issue. The city is famously apathetic - you may recall that at least one writer became a millionaire by telling the rest of the world just how charmingly apathetic we are.
However, one recent civic issue has galvanized local support like few others: The city's apparently insane reaction to the recent death of a foreign visitor in a marked crosswalk.
The specific insanity: $200 tickets - primarily issued not to downtown drivers, who are notoriously negligent of traffic laws and speed limits, but to pedestrians.
I understand that one visiting Girl Scout leader recently got two such tickets, in rapid succession. Hopefully she at least earned a merit badge for enduring the welcome she got from the Hostess City, eh?
At his blog Grow Your Business (growthexpert.blogspot.com), Russell J. White describes a recent weekend in Savannah after the "jaywalking" crackdown:
"I witnessed close to two dozen police officers, ticket book in hand, standing on various street corners.... Essentially, anyone crossing the street against the illuminated orange hand would receive a violation ticket. On one street corner, in a span of less than ten minutes I watched four people get ticketed."
White goes on to sum up the issue as well as anyone else I've heard:
"When your solution doesn't solve the problem you are trying to fix, and additionally creates more problems, the damage done has been compounded. In the age of information the damage becomes part of the permanent electronic record and travelers researching cities to visit will eventually stumble upon reports of these draconian actions.... The ‘solution' has been blogged on, twittered about, and talked about by every visitor I spoke with in the streets. I heard more than one person comment in varying forms, ‘Last time I come to this place.'"
Indeed. Other anecdotal reports have it that quite a few tourists, socked with ginormous jaywalking tickets, are expressing extreme dissatisfaction back at their hotels. This has a compounding effect, in that they will then price that $200 jaywalking ticket (or tickets) into the rest of their visit, i.e., less money spent at shops, restaurants, and museums.
As White says, bad PR is viral. These "jaywalkers" are no doubt letting friends and family back in Ohio and New Jersey and Michigan know that if the whole mossy, laidback Southern experience is what they want, maybe Charleston or Beaufort or Wilmington is a better bet, because Savannah pretty much sucks.
At the local blog Sustainable Savannah (sustainablesavannah.com), John Bennett comments on White's blog posting, pointing out that jaywalking is in the eye of the beholder, and isn't necessarily illegal per se:
"And what is jaywalking, exactly? The word does not appear in the Georgia Code. And in fact, what's typically called jaywalking - crossing the street between intersections - is perfectly legal under state law in many areas of Savannah."
Michael Gaster, with whom I serve on the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, has begun a Facebook group, "Savannahians Against Ticketing for Jaywalking." As of this writing, Gaster counts 615 members who joined - within the past five days.
The group is attempting to gather 10,000 signatures to present to City Hall on July 3. If they keep up the current clip, they should have no problem getting that many names.
Gaster says he was motivated to start the group by what he saw one day while driving down Broughton Street.
"I saw this total waste of energy, with cops standing on every other corner waiting for people to walk across the street," he says. "I was like, what is this?"
While the new city policy nearly defies rational explanation, Gaster muses, half-jokingly, that city leaders must think it's all a game.
"They have all the pieces to play with, so they're playing at being rulers," he says. "They think they can take as much money from people as they want, because it's their game."
I support Gaster's group and their effort, but unlike some observers I don't necessarily see the city as taking on a politically correct "nanny state" role or attempting to legislate safety or common sense.
I see the city as doing what Savannah has always done: Blame the victim.
Bully the complainer into submission, and no difficult steps will have to be taken.
No complaint=no problem.
In this warped civic equation, the Swedish delegate who was killed in the crosswalk, Nils Svensson, is essentially to blame for the whole mess. If only he hadn't been hit, there wouldn't be this outcry to address traffic issues.
The solution: an overwhelming display of power, i.e., ridiculously exorbitant tickets handed out like candy, thus obviating the need to take more serious, reflective action.
The second act of the familiar drama comes with the inevitable pullback, when we'll be grateful for whatever slightly-less-insane solution the city then proposes as new policy.
"That happens in government all the time," says Gaster. "That way they can still increase the size and scope of government. That's how they force-feed it to people."
In any case, it seems clear that the main intent of the jaywalking tickets isn't pedestrian safety, nor is it padding the city's coffers, as one popular conspiracy theory goes.
No, the intent is to show you who's boss. And the boss isn't you, it isn't the tourists, and it definitely isn't local small business owners.
It's as if the city said, "Hah, you think a foreign businessman getting run over is bad PR? We'll show you bad PR."
This kind of kneejerk bullying to avoid taking real action is part and parcel of how Savannah works. It has been for as long as I can remember.
I cannot tell you how many times over the years I've talked to crime victims who say the first thing local police told them was "you shouldn't have been out this late in this part of town in the first place."
I cannot tell you how many times I've heard frustrated homeowners describe being hassled by city inspectors while the crack dealers they've complained about for months operate in full view on the corner.
I cannot tell you how many times I've seen a citizen speak to City Council about public safety issues, only to be interrupted and aggressively lectured about their impertinence.
The reason for our civic apathy is simple: When people are bullied often enough and for long enough, they tend to get pretty apathetic.
Or... they leave town and don't come back.
How sad that those are the only choices.
Apathy is charming when you read about it in a New York Times bestseller. Not so charming when you live with it day-to-day.
There is a glimmer of hope, though, courtesy of a social networking site.
"People have been awakened," says Gaster.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.