One of the most basic responsibilities of local government is the supervision of traffic. We depend upon municipal officials to engineer our streets and highways, erect and maintain traffic signals, and to promulgate rules that foster safety on the streets…
One of the most basic responsibilities of local government is the supervision of traffic. We depend upon municipal officials to engineer our streets and highways, erect and maintain traffic signals, and to promulgate rules that foster safety on the streets.
We also expect those rules to be applied to everyone. That is, if I am caught jaywalking or speeding or blocking the intersection, I expect the same treatment that would be applied to you if you were caught doing these things. As several organizations recently stated in a letter to the Mayor, the Director of Public Safety and the Chief: "City officials may properly, and constitutionally, enact regulations necessary for public safety. You may certainly issue rules that are reasonably required to prevent traffic congestion, accidents and other traffic hazards. But those rules must be legitimately related to the regulation of traffic flow, cannot be content-based, and cannot restrict citizen behavior beyond what is required for public safety. Even more important, the rules must be uniform; that is, the same rules must apply to everyone, and persons violating the rules must be ticketed equally and impartially."
The correspondence was signed by three officeholders; by members of Concerned Clergy, a group of Christian ministers; and by representatives of the NAACP, the Urban League and the ICLU. The impetus for the letter was a widespread perception that an ordinance ostensibly aimed at all street vendors has been used primarily to limit the activities of the Nation of Islam.
As part of its ministry, young men with the Nation sell copies of its newspaper along busy intersections. Nation members have been repeatedly ticketed, while groups of young people (primarily white) who are similarly using the streets to collect for worthy causes — muscular dystrophy or a school trip — have seemingly done so with impunity.
The Nation of Islam is highly controversial. Many people, white and black, disagree with some or all of its theology and consider Minister Farrakhan, its leader, a polarizing figure. Disagreement with the Nation’s theology or ideology, however, is irrelevant to the right of its adherents to use city streets subject only to the rules that govern other citizens.
In a meeting held to discuss the perception of discriminatory application of the rules, the Director of Public Safety stated flatly that "None of my officers has taken action based on race." Perhaps that sweeping statement is true, perhaps not. But the perception is otherwise, and it behooves the City administration to address that perception. If we expect all our citizens to respect and obey the law, the law must be seen as respecting the rights of all citizens, white or black, Christian or Jewish or Muslim, popular or not.