Has the specter of racism reared its ugly head in Atlanta? According to advocates for the homeless, the city’s proposal to place restrictions on panhandling is, well, white racism, and even terrorism:

Clergy and advocates for the homeless railed against the proposal, calling it harsh, unconstitutional and uncharitable. Several cited the Bible, saying that begging is an ancient practice and that giving alms is a blessing.
Murphy Davis, a Presbyterian minister who with her husband, Ed Loring, runs the Open Door Community, a homeless shelter on Ponce de Leon Avenue, said the city should provide less expensive housing instead of passing “one more law to hurt and harass the poor.”
Loring, who is white, was more blunt, labeling the proposal a “Negro removal” policy because many panhandlers are black. He likened the ordinance to efforts a half-century ago to raze homes in impoverished areas with mostly black residents.
Although panhandling and begging are considered constitutionally protected speech, the proposed ordinance was written in a way that can be defended in court, the city Law Department says. That is in part because it is restricted to specific locations, unlike a citywide ban in New York that was thrown out by the courts.
Last week, city lawyer Stacey Abrams described the ordinance, which the Law Department has been drafting since June 2003, as a “kinder, gentler” version of the city’s existing panhandling law.
But Joe Beasley, one of the critics at Monday’s meeting, saw nothing kind or gentle about it.
“This is a mean, cold, calculated move,” said Beasley, the Southern regional director for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH coalition. He raised the specter of terrorism, saying that if the city mistreats its poor, “at some point, they’ll strap a belt around their waist and blow you up. We’ve got to become a more loving city.”

More terrorism in Atlanta? By homeless suicide bombers?
Must be a pretty tough law to inspire such selfless acts of martyrdom and courage.
Intrigued by this, I decided to research the matter further. While the text of the law says nothing about race, MSNBC links to the text of the proposed ordinance:

(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to solicit funds or any item of monetary value within the parameters of downtown Atlanta [the latter is defined as being bordered by certain streets].
(b) It shall be unlawful for any person to request a donation of money from another person while being within fifteen (15) feet of an automated teller machine, Metropolitan Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) station, bus depots, sports coliseums or Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport.

It appears to be utterly silent on matters of race, and as it turns out, the author of the law, one H. Lamar Willis, is himself black. So are the mayor, chief of police, and the black city council members who all support it. Nonetheless, the law is being called racist — and by white people:

The Rev. Murphy Davis, a white woman who runs Open Door Community to assist the homeless, dismissed the argument that the panhandling ban cannot be racist because it is backed by black council members and the black mayor, Shirley Franklin, in a city of 425,000 that is more than 60 percent black.
“The white business interests still run this city,” Davis said.

I’m not quite sure what the logic is here. Apparently, the argument is that because a majority of panhandlers are black, that the ordinance is racist. (Or that it is racist because white “business interests” support it.)
But Atlanta is a majority black city! Which means that by simple math, any law passed there will necessarily tend to have more of an effect on black citizens than on white citizens. Laws against shoplifting, vandalism, or even running stop signs could, if enforced equally, be expected to have what is called a “disparate impact” on black people. The argument made against panhandling laws could thus be made against any law.
While none of the activists seem to have raised it, is there may be a legitimate first amendment issue here? Is there a right to ask someone for money? Or does asking for money cross the line from speech to conduct? According to the First Amendment Center, the Seventh Circuit has upheld laws similar to Atlanta’s:

The panel also determined that the ordinance, because it did not completely ban all panhandling, should be analyzed as a time, place and manner restriction on speech.
According to the panel, the ordinance was constitutional because it was narrowly tailored to serve a significant government purpose and because it left open alternative avenues of communication.
The panel wrote that a beggar “may hold up signs requesting money or engage in street performances, such as playing music, with an implicit appeal for money.” The appeals court panel also noted that the ordinance still allowed daytime panhandling as long as it was not “aggressive.”

According to the same web site, the United States Supreme Court turned down a challenge to a similar anti-panhandling law in Florida which prohibited

‘soliciting, begging or panhandling’ on a five-mile strip of Fort Lauderdale’s city beach.

Legally, it would appear that Atlanta is on fairly safe ground.
Is there a religious issue here? Back to the white ministers who

…cited the Bible, saying that begging is an ancient practice and that giving alms is a blessing.

While giving alms is charity, that is supposed to be related to taking care of actual human needs. I haven’t spent much time in Atlanta, but I well remember Berkeley’s experience with a form of “homeless money” which citizens could buy and hand out as alms. This was an informal sort of scrip which local businesses would honor for food. The homeless, however, treated this scrip as a joke. They wanted money for booze, not food!

Needless to say, this program was detested by Berkeley’s homeless and street people, even those who did not spend whatever cash they came into on booze or drugs. The coupons often were sold on the street or simply tossed as soon as the presenter was out of sight.

The streets became littered with the free food coupons, and the program died. (I wonder what happened to Gavin Newsom’s similar idea…..)
While I use the term myself because it’s so readily understood, I’ve often thought that “homeless” is the wrong label to place on people whose lack of housing is a result of larger problems in their lives. I’ve taken in homeless people, and while I’m no expert on the subject, I’ve known some who just wanted to be left the hell alone to live in a tent. Others suffer from mental illness or drug problems which prevent them from working normal jobs and thus paying for a home. To call them “homeless” makes about as much sense as to call them “inappropriately groomed.” The name “homeless” falsely implies that a home will fix the problem. Neither free homes, nor a brand new Giorgio Armani suit, nor direct distributions of cash, will cure alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness.
But activists thrive on false labels.
And poverty is violence!