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Panhandlers sue city claiming they were kicked off Magnificent Mile

A group of eight panhandlers filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status Wednesday against the city, alleging Chicago Police regularly boot them from a ritzy stretch of Michigan Avenue downtown -- a “whitewashing” that violates their First Amendment rights, they claim.

All eight live in Chicago and beg for money regularly on an affluent portion of Michigan Avenue between Oak and Erie streets, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court. They claim panhandling is protected speech under the First Amendment, but that police systematically intimidate and threaten to arrest them, falsely claming that panhandling on the Magnificent Mile is illegal.

“The City’s objective here is not difficult to fathom: it seeks to whitewash parts of Michigan Avenue of people who beg in order to ‘beautify’ the Magnificent Mile by segmenting the City’s public sidewalks into those available to the rich and those available to the poor,” the suit claims, accusing the city of “embracing short-term, bullying tactics in the name of commerce.”

One plaintiff, Kim Pindak, was kicked off Michigan Avenue on April 21 while begging on the corner of Delaware Street, the suit said. A female police officer told him panhandling was made illegal on the Magnificent Mile -- a false claim, according to the suit -- because “it is a tourist spot” and “there have been too many thefts.”

The female officer is named as a defendant in the suit, along with two other male police officers.

McArthur Hubbard, another plaintiff, claims one of the male officers told him on several occasions while he begged near Pearson and Michigan that “you can’t do that here. I will take you to jail, and I will take your money, and you can tell that to the judge.”

Another officer threatened to arrest Hubbard in a run-in May 12, telling him, “We’re going to be out here all summer, so the next time I see you are out here—the next time and every time—I am locking you up,” the suit said.

City laws prohibit aggressive panhandling tactics, like unwanted touching, blocking or following people or using abusive or profane language. But passively asking for donations, like the plaintiffs claim they were doing, is legal.

Jim LoBianco, former deputy commissioner for homeless services under Mayor Richard Daley, says he isn’t aware of a panhandling prohibition that specifically targets the Magnificent Mile.

He says he feels strongly that panhandling is protected under the First Amendment, but says he would prefer to see Chicagoans concerned about the poor work to eliminate the root causes that drive them to begging in the first place.

“Simply allowing individuals to continue panhandling is not an altruistic motive,” said LoBianco, the current executive director for Streetwise Magazine, which gives people in crisis a stable income and access to crucial services through selling magazines. “It’s not that I want to make it harder for people to panhandle, it’s that I want to make it unnecessary for people to panhandle.”

Police rarely arrest non-aggressive panhandlers along Michigan Avenue because they know the activity is “perfectly legal” and that arresting them would open the city to liability, the suit claims.

Chicago Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew said the city respects First Amendment rights, but the city attorney had not yet seen the suit and he could not comment specifically on it.

Other plaintiffs in the suit are named as John Hall, Lorenzo King, Robet Randol, Ronald Portis, Roger Young, William Johnson and Bonita Franks.

The four-count suit claims First Amendment violations against the officers and the city. It seeks an injunction barring city employees from prohibiting panhandling along Michigan Avenue, and seeks monetary damages against the named police officers.

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