The city's segregationist past makes issues of homelessness difficult to discuss.
ATLANTA (AP) -- A proposed ordinance to bar panhandlers from accosting people in Atlanta's tourist section has run headlong into the politics of race in this city of the New South that likes to portray itself as having moved beyond black and white.
Hoping to boost convention business and tidy up downtown, city council is considering a measure to prevent visitors from being hit up for money by homeless people around Olympic Centennial park, CNN Center and some of the South's finest restaurants.
But most of the panhandlers are black. Last week, council sent the proposal back to committee after activists likened the ban to the "Negro removal" policy that they say white downtown business elites pursued in the 1950s.
"This is a mean-spirited continuation of what they call the 'sanitation' of Peachtree Street," said Joe Beasley, a 68-year-old Atlanta native who heads the regional office of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "The white folks, their position was that black people were bad for commerce, and if you were black, you just didn't go on Peachtree Street unless you were cleaning up or something."
But in the self-proclaimed "City Too Busy to Hate," the panhandling ban's sponsor -- who is himself black -- said it has nothing to do with race and everything to do with business.
"Our No. 1 industry in Atlanta is tourism and conventions. If we don't do something, we run the risk of our downtown becoming a ghost town after dark," said Councilman H. Lamar Willis.
He noted that Georgia Aquarium will open downtown in November, a new World of Coke museum is planned nearby, and Atlanta also is bidding for the NASCAR Hall of Fame museum.
A tough subject
The moral questions about how to reduce homelessness and begging have come up in all big cities, from New York to San Francisco. But in Atlanta, even the ban's biggest supporters say the city's segregationist past makes the struggle harder.
"We're in Atlanta, so in any discussion where a group will be disproportionately affected, there will always be an outright racial component or an underlying racial tone," Willis said.
Atlanta came through the civil rights era with relatively little strife. Maynard Jackson Jr. was elected the first black mayor of Atlanta in 1973, and the city has not elected a white mayor since. The police chief is black as well.
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.
Downtown business owners back the ordinance, complaining that some streets and parks are so overrun with beggars that customers won't visit.
A panhandler's view
Kenneth Strozier, a 46-year-old panhandler sitting in the park across from Nader's restaurant, said, "I understand people don't want to be bothered, but what are we going to do? We got no affordable housing, for one thing. This new law or whatever isn't going to change it."
Under the ordinance, beggars could still sit on sidewalks with signs asking for money, but they could not approach people for money downtown. In other parts of the city, panhandling would still be allowed, except within 15 feet of ATMs, bus and train stations and public toilets.
The ordinance also makes it a crime for panhandlers to make a "false or misleading" solicitation, such as faking a medical condition or pretending to be from out of town.
A first offense carries just a warning, a second offense a possible month of community service, and subsequent violations up to a $1,000 fine and 30 days in jail.
Marty Collier, a white activist who opposes the ban, said, "Maybe the problem is that seeing panhandling arouses people's guilt. We're just hoping they'll go somewhere else. We need to deal with the underlying problem and not penalize the poor."