I still remember when I first heard that my uncle was homeless. Well, he was “homeless” in the sense of what the hundreds of thousands of those we consider “homeless” actually are: he could scrap together some cash to put his family up in a Motel 6 here or there or stay with some friends from time to time, but he did not have any sort of residence that didn’t change day-to-day. Between the various debts he owed to both utilities companies and the federal government, he was simply in far too much debt to really earn money, since almost everything he could scrape together through any anonymous day labor he could find went toward finding some sort of housing and food, with very little left over to start saving some money toward a more permanent home. I remember seeing his son, then a toddler, hair long and in front of his eyes due to not being able to get a proper haircut, and his clothes wrinkled and dirty from his parents not having any means to get them clean. The last I had heard, they were splitting time between spending days in public parks and nights at whatever shelter or friends’ place they could find, trying to stay out of the hot Arizona summer and chilly desert winter.
My uncle is not a good man. He cheated on his spouse of more than ten years and did irreparable damage to his family in the ensuing divorce. He caused so much grief and heartache to my grandparents that they had to tell their community security detail to not let him inside the property. He is a liar and a lousy father to his now-adult children from his first marriage, and not a particularly good one to the family he has now. I do not respect him, nor do I care if I ever see him again. And despite all that, I do believe that he has the fundamental right to preserve his and his family’s sad lives however he can without further harassment from the state.
Unfortunately this opinion is not shared by the city of Daytona Beach, Florida, which has recently moved forward with an ordinance that has effectively criminalized panhandling to the tune of $100-200 fines when in restricted areas or otherwise done “aggressively.” Worse still, and why I even noticed in the first place, was that one of the straws that broke the camel’s back on this decision appears to have been the CEO 2018 event that took place there, and the complaints from both the attendees and its founder, Alex Jebailey. Despite loads of PR from both the city and Jebailey himself, there is little reason to believe this ordinance is anything more than a bone to local businesses and police so they can effectively work together to drive the homeless and the panhandlers away with no actual plan to curb the systemic issues that caused such desperation or address the issue most attendants complained of: overt and rampant racism in the area. Further, the city’s plan to build a homeless shelter in the area appears to be a smokescreen so the police can further arrest homeless while complying with local laws that prohibit over-enforcing the law on life-preserving actions, in addition to being cynically run by local businessmen and their donations.
That’s a lot to unpack, so let’s start all the way at the beginning, with CEO 2018. Community Efforts Orlando was an event started by Alex Jebailey in 2010 at a small fairgrounds in Orlando, Florida. Since then it has become one of the biggest fighting game tournaments in the world, on par with prestigious events like the Evolution tournament in Las Vegas. One of the attractions of CEO is the professional wrestling approach to its presentation; not only are the trophies for the tournaments a customized championship belt, but stream matches take place in a large wrestling ring that is rented out by Jebailey and his crew from local wrestling promoters. Even real wrestling superstars like the WWE’s Xavier Woods and Kenny Omega showed up to CEO 2016 to get in on the action:
By the time it came to plan the 2018 event, CEO Gaming inc. decided that it had effectively outgrown Orlando and set its sights on bigger and better things. The plan was made to move the event to Daytona Beach, with Jebailey signing a multi-year contract to rent out the massive Ocean Center to hold the event. On paper, it makes perfect sense: Daytona Beach is a tourist hotspot with a big boardwalk for shopping and of course the beach, the weather during the summer is excellent, and the convention center is big enough to evolve the tournament even further. 2018 even got the involvement of New Japan Pro Wrestling, who planned to put on a show the Friday of the tournament featuring its then-champion Kenny Omega, returning to CEO, and some of its bigger stars like Tetsuya Naito and Hiromu Takahashi.
By all accounts, the spectacle of CEO 2018 was absolutely incredible. From the massive arena that played host to all the tournament finals to the level of production on the stream to even how well the tournament was run, CEO 2018 appeared to be a slam dunk. While Jebailey is typically the mascot of CEO (his Jebaited emote has entered the general lexicon of the internet), he has always acknowledged that CEO Gaming has a host of talented professionals who help make everything run smooth, and they didn’t show any signs of slipping up even as the event became bigger than ever. Organizing a tournament is incredibly difficult financially and professionally, and a million things can go wrong, so for CEO to run as well as it has consistently is a testament to the strength of the team and its commitment to running a good event. Jebailey and his crew deserve all the props in the world for that, no question.
However, CEO 2018, for all the pomp and circumstance, did have a major recurring problem. During and immediately after the event, it wasn’t uncommon to see tweets like this go out:
Suffice it to say, many attendants were made brutally aware of where they were. Daytona Beach is located in central Florida, an area not known for its progressivism. The spectre of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan, who both had very overt white supremacist ideals, haunts quite a bit of the state. Daytona, specifically, has been home to public Klan demonstrations as recently as 1996, and the neighboring city of Deland (also under Volusia County jurisdiction) is known to have 3 Klan klaverns, or outposts. Confederate merchandise depicting the stars and bars and other tchotchke pieces of antiquated, racist drivel decorate the bodegas and shops of the area, and it’s probably not shocking to hear that 54% of Volusia County voted in the current president, whose campaign touted racist and white supremacist rhetoric.
For the FGC, whose core strength has always been the diversity of its makeup, this was a disheartening reality amidst what appeared to be a great tournament. No area is perfect, but Daytona Beach seemed especially bad, with players describing more overt acts of targeted racist harassment than almost any tournament I can remember. Some went so far as to claim that with CEO going to be remaining at the Ocean Center for at least a couple more years to come, they weren’t sure if they felt safe being in the area, which is something you rarely hear for an FGC event. Clearly, something had to change.
Jebailey, ever the dedicated community member, was on it. A week or so after the tournament, despite having surgery for a torn Achilles tendon, he tweeted that he was going to make things right by “doing everything in [his] power with [his] voice to help.”
While the ra-ra-ra attitude was nice, the following few months saw the narrative take a pretty drastic shift. The next week, Jebailey offered up the results of his conversations with the Daytona police and their chief, Craig Capri.
So, with these tweets, it became clear that the new initiative for protecting the tourney-goers at CEO 2019 from racist harassment was to enact panhandling ordinances and increase police presence in the area during the tournament. While some attendees had complained of being stalked by some local panhandlers, the key issue for many seemed to be the issue of prejudice and hatred from locals in the area. The conclusion to be drawn was that the city decided that if it could effectively limit and cut off panhandling at the knees, the problems would get better.
This is where I think the nasty part of the discourse begins. Daytona Beach, being a big tourist hotspot, has a vested interested in making sure the city looks good and is attractive to visitors. In the minds of the local business owners, “attractive” means “addicts, panhandlers and homeless look bad.” This is ignoring that large swaths of land used for new businesses and homes in Daytona Beach has been through abuse of eminent domain laws, which has helped gentrify the neighborhoods and force people out of their homes into an unaffordable market. And even then, the way that many business owners and government officials justify these harsh laws for panhandling is because it’s “dishonest” or otherwise “fake.”
Right there: “non homeless.” This idea that there is “legitimate homelessness” and “people faking for a handout” is the type of rhetoric often used to push more aggressive laws, as some sort of righteous retribution for these freeloaders raking it in. Obviously, the truth is that people who panhandle are poor, and they wouldn’t be doing if if they could. That’s not to say that there has never been a panhandler who may not be on the up and up, but every time the talking points about “fake homeless” come up, it’s used to dehumanize addicts or those with mental illnesses, who use the money they get not on housing or food but vices that they need to get through the day. At that point, it appeared Jebailey bought into that thinking, hook, line, and sinker.
There was also the issue of the racism, which aside from one tweet had largely gone away on the public front:
Much like the panhandler ordinance, this seemed like a change for the convenience of visibility, and not to effect some actual change. This is certainly no easy task – especially in a deeply southern state like Florida, where white hegemony has been the rule of law for so long. But there is definitely one way to regress on solving the problem, and that is partnering with the police, particularly any police under the jurisdiction of Volusia County, which has a pretty bad history with regards to race relations.
William Fisher, a writer for Daytona Beach publications in the 50’s, described how, early in his career, he was privy to the racism rampant in the police of Volusia County via his experience reporting in the city of Deland, the previously aforementioned KKK town 30 minutes away. Every Saturday, the sheriff’s deputies would all get together and head down to “nigratown,” their pejorative for the poor black neighborhood in the area. Using brutal tactics, the deputies would arrest black men, women, and children and throw them into the jails on trumped up charges, demanding they pay a fee for bail or otherwise rot. Fisher describes how the culture of the time saw police make their wage from a percentage of the fines paid by inmates, so the business was as lucrative as it was cruel. Fake confessions were often cajoled via brutality or, in the worst instances, sexually abusing a wife to get a husband to confess. State-appointed lawyers, not particularly eager to defend poor blacks, would show up hungover or otherwise fall asleep during proceedings, dooming their clients to a poor trial.
That history of violence, unfortunately, hasn’t just remained history. Ben Johnson, who was sheriff of Volusia County until 2016 and is currently on the Volusia County Council, shot and killed an unarmed black man fleeing police custody in the 70’s and was acquitted of wrongdoing by a grand jury. Under his reign, random stop and search of Hispanic looking drivers was common as a means of searching for undocumented immigrants amongst the 12% of Volusia’s Latinx population. In 2015, Deputy Todd Raible shot and killed unarmed Derek Cruice in the doorway of his own home while serving a drug warrant, which turned out to be for a large amount of marijuana. It’s probably not a shock to hear that Raible did not face grand jury charges, either. A Sarasota-based paper took a year’s worth of data and found that, on average, Volusia County sentenced black defendants to more time behind bars than white defendants for the exact same drug charges.
There is so much corruption in the police forces of Valusia that a website dedicated to whistleblowing for not only the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, but also the surrounding local police exists, with receipts for every claim. It’s a bit of an edgelord site, but you can find nearly 12 Daytona Beach officers on their Brady List who have committed grave misconduct, typically against minority offenders. One such gem came from another very nearby city to Daytona, Edgewater, where two officers were dismissed for exchanging text messages where they discussed how one could “pick off” black children with a .243 Winchester Rifle, to which the other responded “Ur right. Can’t forget about the niglits.” In April of 2018, shortly before CEO, a Daytona Beach Shores, which is like a more communal police department specifically for the Daytona area, was fired for sharing this snapchat with his buddies in the department:
Suffice it to say, combatting racism begins with questioning the state’s role in aiding and abetting said racism, which doesn’t appear to have happened here. This is one of those things where, ultimately, one has to acknowledge that for the sake of his business there was no chance Jebailey and Co. would do something so brazen, nor is it necessarily their ideological hill to die on, but it’s still very annoying to see the Chief of Daytona Police doing the “Jebaited” while his officers are no doubt contributing to existing racial tensions.
With such a renewed focus on the panhandling epidemic, it’s no surprise that an ordinance was drafted and approved by Daytona Beach City Council for 2019 onward. The ordinance, which officially went into effect on February 6, will now criminalize “aggressive” panhandling, panhandling after dark, and panhandling within certain parameters. Essentially, panhandling anywhere on the Daytona boardwalk, any outdoor restaurants or shopping centers, bus stop, or anywhere where people are lined up is prohibited. As far as what denotes “aggressive” panhandling, the website provides a clear definition:
To approach or speak to a person in order to demand, request, or beg for money or a donation of valuable property in a way that would cause a reasonable person to believe they are being threatened with imminent bodily injury or that a crime is going to be committed upon themselves, someone in their company, or property in their possession.
Well, mostly clear, anyways. Obviously there’s a lot of wiggle room there, and the fine for any of this is quite steep at $200. A $200 fine when you don’t really have anything is brutal, and the access to justice for a homeless person is incredibly bad. If you can’t pay the fine they’ll put out a warrant for you, at which point you’re arrested and can’t pay bail, so you wait for the trial, where you cop a quick plea. Without an address you can’t be put on probation, which means then you’re racking up court fees with no real help in getting your life back together, which then loops back into more arrests, which loses you access to benefits like voting, will probably disqualify you for future jobs, and make it hard to ever get a loan or housing again. It’s a sick cycle that keeps feeding itself, and the Daytona Beach cops know this and don’t care.
Because arresting and charging these folks to get them out of the way was probably the plan all along.
In Florida, there is an agreement called Pottinger’s Law which is on the books in Miami but upheld in other parts of the state too, like Volusia County. The law, initially introduced in the early 90’s but officially ratified in 1998, was brought on after the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union found that the police in Miami were far too aggressive in their policing of the homeless. It essentially made arresting any homeless person for life-sustaining misdemeanor acts like sleeping and eating in public, being in a public park at night, public bathing, etc. a credible option only after certain conditions were met:
- There is an available shelter bed within the City or one mile of the City limits,
- The officer advises the homeless person of the availability of that shelter bed, and
- The homeless individual declines to accept the offer of the shelter bed.
Conveniently, plans to erect a homeless shelter in the Daytona Beach area have been in the cards for some time. In doing the research to find recommendations on how to lower the homeless rate, the esteemed Dr. Robert Marbut found that what needed to change was the “culture of enablement.” That should be a big enough clue into the true nature of the shelter’s existence, but luckily they have a website for that, too.
The shelter is going to be run by First Step Shelter Inc., a a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation that is faith-based. A closer examination at the corporation’s board of directors would reveal the CEO of a major real estate firm that owns both multi-tenant industrial sites, commercial real estate, and office space, the founder and owner of a direct marketing company, the former Chief of Police for Daytona Beach, and a faith-based ex-pastor who now sits on the Port Orange City Council, also in Volusia County. All of these men have political and business reasons why they would want a tighter leash on the homeless around the city, and how its done doesn’t really matter.
Digging further into FSS’s website just reveals more of the obvious. Underneath the “Mission” tab on the website is this very telling quote:
Law enforcement currently cannot arrest for many minor charges because of the federal Pottinger law which mandates that unless they can first offer a homeless person an immediate shelter bed[sic].
Further, under the “Services” tab:
Once there is a shelter that is Pottinger compliant, ordinances and statutes regarding trespassing or other life sustaining activities can be lawfully enforced…When a come-as-you-are shelter is operational, officers can give homeless people the option of either going to jail for violation of criminal ordinances or statutes, or going to the shelter.
The thing about shelters is that they are a stopgap only mean to curb the bleeding of homelessness, not a one-size-fits-all solution. FSS’s shelter is only meant for single men and women, and in a city the size of Daytona, it’s probably going to fill up quick. Once the shelter is full, homeless folks are going to have no choice but to go back out into the street or press on to another city that has less strict panhandling laws or more shelter. Staying out on the streets of Daytona at night is liable to get you arrested. Worse still, faith-based shelters have a bad habit of being quite judgemental or outright bigoted toward LGBT folk, who make up a huge percentage of the overall homeless population. Imagine not feeling comfortable going into a facility that will judge you for who you are, but having no choice because otherwise you face an arrest that will almost surely spiral into something worse over time.
In a way, the FSS shelter is the ultimate PR move: not only does the city address some of its constituents’ and visitors’ complaints with a strict panhandling law, but it also gets to put up a humanitarian front with a shelter that will appear to be a guardian angel for these poor folks. The closer you look, however, the more you can see the cynicism behind the whole plan: move many of them into a shelter, and arrest the ones who can’t or won’t go there. Either way, they are off the streets and out of mind, and there are more than enough restrictions so that during the daytime, diligent officers can easily find a good reason to bust them. Since the law went into effect, panhandlers are being arrested because there isn’t a shelter yet to direct them to. There have been 32 arrested since the 6th. The fix is in.
I am not connecting red string on push pins; this is how the system works, at the moment. In a time of unparallelled financial gain and in the possibly the wealthiest nation on the planet, our biggest cities’ streets are literally filled with the less fortunate. The old stereotype that everyone on the street is suffering from a debilitating mental illness or an addiction is simply not true: there are people who got sick at the wrong time and medical bill debt forced them out of their apartment when they couldn’t pay either bill on time, folks who lost their home due to eminent domain laws being enforced from a private entity eager on demolishing an old neighborhood to put up a new business, migrant families trying to escape war and death in their home country, and so many others.
Unfortunately, the hardest fight is getting the masses to understand that there are many factors at work keeping people on the streets, factors that those affected often can’t control. And it is haunting and unsettling to see people in cobbled together outfits, unshowered and unkempt out in the middle of the sidewalk begging for any spare change. But that doesn’t mean that we should support the state’s efforts to shove these broken people as far away as possible without trying to inject meaningful and concentrated change to the broken systems that allow this kind of thing to prevail.
I understand that Jebailey and Co. are running a business, and that as a non-resident who runs an event only three days out of the year, their power to really get things changed in Daytona Beach is only so great. Still, I find it hard to deny how upsetting it is that as a means of running PR, Jebailey is posting articles like this, which are just an exercise in cruelty. Even the headline, “New Daytona law scares off panhandlers,” reads like they’re talking about a nuisance like deer or pigeons being run off and not human beings poor and desperate enough to beg for money on the streets. We read about Chief Capri (the fellow seen Jebaiting above) going around on personal patrol, threatening the panhandlers with incarceration if they don’t comply to the rules. One such gentlemen that Capri bullies says that he’s from Indianapolis, and that he is in Daytona to try and get out of the blistering midwest cold, which is actually killing people. Lastly, Capri feels he and his officers are more than ready for even a large influx of panhandlers because “it’ll take 10 minutes to do the paperwork.” I suppose we should be glad it’s not a waste of their time.
Between the article and this tweet, it’s clear that Jebailey is, at the very least, comfortable with selling the narrative that without all the nasty panhandlers, things will be better next year. And I think that’s really unfortunate because this will be (it already has been) celebrated as a “tough decision” the city made after “months of consideration,” but really, it’s the easiest thing in the world to tell the people with no power or agency in the situation that the way they live their life is now subject to incarceration and state fines. All it takes is a Google search to see that the statistics don’t lie: criminalizing homelessness does not make it better. Visually, yes, a lot of them will go, but their lives will be significantly more difficult, and I’m not sure that’s something to celebrate.
I can imagine the frustrations of CEO Gaming. Here they are, trying to put on an event for a community that they love in an arena that will lend them the creative freedom to do what they want to do production-wise. And now, due to things completely outside of their control, they are receiving pointedly negative feedback on issues that they alone probably can’t fix, and even the solution that the city passed after their input is getting a lot of pushback. I’ve already seen the phrase “what can we do?” thrown around a lot, and it’s a fair question because the answer is really quite vague. In just a year, what were they supposed to do in order to combat an epidemic of racism and homelessness, which are social issues that have plagued the world for centuries?
Personally, the only thing I could say is that they would have to do grassroots-level work with the non tourney-goers in the Daytona area who are also affected by these things. Speak to the local leaders in the black communities, the Latinx communities, maybe even the local ACLU chapter and see how they deal with the overt racism. Talk to some of the local real estate owners and see if they would be willing to work with the local government to start offering up access to affordable housing so the homeless had something to work toward or at least go after dark. Inform the CEO attendees how to best contact local law enforcement if any panhandlers are breaking laws that are already on the books: stalking, threats of physical violence, assault, etc.
Those may sound like weak and ineffective actions, but against these social problems, our individual actions are weak. Without sweeping change enacted by local government, there’s not much anyone can do to combat these societal ills that will really please everyone. But knowing that CEO is locked in for a few years in Daytona Beach, the best solution may have been to bite the bullet and understand that no matter what, the location was going to scare off some people from attending, and there’s not a whole lot you can do beyond the ludicrous idea of advising people not to go outside. There’s a very good chance that his ordinance would have passed regardless of CEO’s presence, but their voices were ultimately a factor in the passing of it, and I think there good and bad things to go along with that.
The good part is that, for the future, a FGC event was so beneficial in bringing in out-of-state visitors and revenue to a city that city officials were actually working with the organizers to put on the best event possible. For a pretty niche community, that’s a staggering achievement, and I can see a lot of good coming out of that. The bad part is, that same FGC event now gets roped into the group of tourism-based businesses that have done much to exacerbate the homeless issue in these areas. In my mind, the FGC is largely made up of a diverse group of people who are marginalized and know what it’s like to have the people in charge not care about you as a human being, so being complicit in passing legislation that does do just that, no matter how small that role may be, doesn’t sit very well with me, and I’m sure there are many who feel the same way.
It may seem like I’m laying the responsibility for all of this on Jebailey and CEO, and I’m really not. I think the city of Daytona is far more interested in reviving its tourism industry regardless of the human cost, and I think the whole of Volusia County has been plagued so bad for years with corrupt cops and racial problems that it may take another fifty years to purge that out of their system. But even so, I don’t think it’s easy to ignore Alex’s role in contributing to local business meetings and generally running interference for the state’s agenda when it came to their plans to push homeless people out of the area by criminalizing their actions. No one wants to believe they contributed to a bad thing by an earnest attempt to help the community that they’ve spent so much of their life into (and I fully believe Jebailey and his crew have the best possible intentions), but real world problems like this are complicated and doing research to see the kind of tactics the government engages in to make life harder for PoC and the homeless is critically necessary. I just don’t think that critical consideration was there, and I think everyone involved wanted the easiest solution that could be done for expediency.
There’s a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that I think a lot about when it comes to issues like this. It’s from a speech he gave in Washington D.C. a couple of months before he was assassinated. I think I’ll end the article with it, but I do want to stress that if you are a member of the FGC and unhappy with this new ordinance being passed, let the Floridian chapter of the ACLU know; the ACLU and the Federal Government have been striking down a lot of anti-panhandling laws in different cities due to free speech restrictions brought on by the 2015 Reed v. Gilbert ruling that establishes what rights people have to public speech. There’s a chance that they might bring forth action if made aware. Anyways, here’s MLK:
On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.