Commentary: Operation Rio Grande is driven by fearmongering

Must we eliminate city roads to ensure the safety of those who cross them?

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grand homeless area in Salt Lake City Monday August 14, 2017.

Throughout the 1990s, street drugs were bought and sold in a triangular area of downtown Salt Lake City between the sidewalks of a dive bar, coffee shop and nightclub: the Shamrock Lounge on 200 South (razed), Bandaloops (now PF Chang’s), and the Zephyr Club on West Temple and Broadway (dilapidated after 14 years of vacancy). 

Back then, you couldn’t hit a shadow between the three landmarks without being solicited by a mouthful of colored balloons filled with cocaine or heroin. Westward, the streets were empty and the shelters full. Overflow camped at Pioneer Park. Violent crimes were committed by violent people. 

I lived in a studio apartment on Wayne Court, immediately east of the Greek Orthodox Church, and watched as successful drug deals took place on foot, often times in front of the Neo-Byzantine architecture of Holy Trinity Cathedral. Buyers from the Avenues, University District, Sugarhouse and further-reaching suburbs were routinely busted for circling the neighborhood. 

Gradually, a combination of law enforcement, gentrification and the kind of community self-governance that insists upon the marginalization of drugs pushed the trade further west. Which brings us to where we are now. 

On Aug. 31, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes communicated their intention to “temporarily” block vehicular traffic on Rio Grande Street between the Road Home and Catholic Services Center in anticipation of a complete public closure. Concrete barriers appeared the next day. A “safe space” for the homeless. 

Why this rush to finalize indemnification for Salt Lake City on a two-year lease to the state of Utah? Because, says Hughes, “We owe it to public safety to have an area that truly is safe.”

Are we to believe that our solution to drugs and crime hinges on the “integral” closure of this single segment of road? 

Undoubtedly, a cordon, identification requirements and drug sniffing dogs (all are in play) will deter narcotics on the segment of street in question. But we already have walls, German Shepherds, rule of law. Must we eliminate city roads to ensure the safety of those who cross them? 

Hughes describes the creation of an environment where, “You’re not going to relapse back into drug addiction because you’re going to be asked 300 times if you want drugs.” 

Without trying to be academic, this statement represents a fundamental misunderstanding. Addiction is not a condition that one relapses into. Rather, as a setback to the recovery process, relapse is an aspect of addiction. 

My opposition to this road closure is based upon a resistance to walls as answers to problems. To date, our politicians have driven Operation Rio Grande with a rhetoric of incessant fearmongering and the conflation of homelessness and drugs, complex and independent but intersecting issues. 

My father reminds me that, in 1971, our “war on cancer” began when President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act. Interestingly, the phrase “war on drugs” entered public parlance the same year. More than 45 years later, we address cancer with a language of prevention, treatment and management, but continue a bellicose war on drugs that criminalizes addiction and marginalizes the homeless, both in the name of public safety.  

Hughes complains that we can’t tell the difference between “drug lords” and people without homes. A wall will do nothing more than help us distinguish those it sequesters from others who will continue to sell drugs on the public side of it. 

Calvin Jolley, father of two daughters, lives and writes in downtown Salt Lake City.