Annals of Criminalization: Distracted Walking and Cult of Compliance

The things we criminalize reveal a lot about risk and value much more than actual dangers. Here’s a fascinating piece from The Baffler on “distracted walking.” The issue isn’t safety but enforcement of car culture.

“Distracted pedestrian” laws aren’t really about the evidence, though. They are about maintaining the privileges of car culture as that culture is about to confront an enormous shift in the balance of civic and technological power—one that threatens to permanently upend the relationship between drivers and pedestrians.

There’s a history to the invention of jaywalking that Jordan Fraade builds into the piece, well documented with links to the growth of car culture. In my beat, jaywalking often functions as amcrimes that marginalized folks are more likely to be charged with, including disabled people of color. I’ve seen numerous cases of folks in mental health crisis arrested with force, or even killed, due to unsafe walking. It’s a tool for the criminalization of homelessness and other forms of poverty. And it’s now got a “cell phone” panic component.

The author writes:

The phantom menace of the “distracted pedestrian” is just an updated version of the same tactic. In bringing it to pass, local and state lawmakers are once again getting an assist from one of the world’s most storied car companies. The 2017 Ford Fusion included a new feature called Pre-Collision Assist, which uses a combination of radar and cameras to scan the roadway and identify objects blocking it. Fair enough—except that Ford is advertising Pre-Collision Assist as a way to defend the driveragainst “petextrians.” The company website states, “By identifying the problem that petextrians pose to drivers and creating a new technology to combat and prevent this issue, we have reaffirmed our commitment to making the roads safer for everyone.” A company engineer helpfully added, “We were startled to see how oblivious people could be of a 4,000-pound car coming toward them.” In a battle between one person wearing clothing and shoe-leather and another wearing a speeding, combustible two-ton metal machine, Ford wants us to believe that the former is the real threat.

When we criminalize an activity, the people who actually get criminalized are the most vulnerable. Anti-texting-while-driving laws (probably an actual threat to safety) then become the new excuse for pulling over folks for driving while black and brown. “I saw you on your phone,” the officer says, when choosing who among the 50 drivers on their phones to pull over. Distracted walking will work the same way.

Criminalization of quotidian activities is a tool of the  cult of compliance.

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