Why not transform anti-loitering campaign to anti-littering

The recent ruckus over the mishandling of the “anti-loitering” drive that has forced President Duterte to backpedal and declare that “loitering” is not a crime presents an alternative opportunity for the government to shift tack by going aggressive instead on anti-littering by employing jobless people.

The policy mix-up. A policy mix-up or confusion is bound to happen when an authority, this time no less than the President, speaks with ambiguity. When eager-beaver subordinates perceive an ambiguous pronouncement as policy, expect the Duterte faux pas on loitering to happen.

The President’s penchant for ambiguity, at times adopting Orwellian 1984’s Big Brother “Double Speak” may be deliberate or simply tactless. One reason is that Duterte is inherently mischievous and keeps people guessing, while getting them entertained, oftentimes uncomfortably, owing to his uncouth and unorthodox snide remarks.

Moreover, he admits that two to three of every five statements he makes are either distorted or false, which makes him somewhat smart, at a risk, if he does it consciously to test people and their behavior based on the varying stimuli he injects.

But, on the contrary, this nature of being impulsive and spontaneous makes him also somewhat stupid, as he shoots from the hip without thinking and aiming well, thus resulting in many unintended consequences. Realizing his blunders, resulting from what critics call his chronic ailments of “foot and mouth” disease and “oral diarrhea,” Duterte has
backpedaled often, justifying his statements with excuses, claiming some of his statements are deliberate distortions.

This spontaneous volatility similar to a powder keg that explodes has put his spokesmen helter-skelter as they proverbially tried dousing water on fire, lest they turn into PR conflagrations. Unfortunately, their tasks in situations where Duterte paints himself into a corner is like putting toothpaste back in the tube.

In military parlance, a general cannot be too general, ironically, but has to be specific, with his orders. In contrast, soldiers follow orders to the letter without question, and will even overdo things, thinking it will please their generals. This was what happened to the anti-loitering campaign that resulted in the death of a bystander in jail after getting arrested.

“Loitering is not a crime.” Knowing the law as a lawyer, Duterte declared that loitering itself is not a crime. However, numerous local ordinances ban loitering (i.e., “anti-vagrancy law”).  Perhaps, these laws need to be reviewed and repealed for going against constitutional provisions.

Anti-loitering laws were adopted after the US civil war ended in 1865. Although Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery, racial prejudice continued for another century, and loitering laws were effectively used to make selective arrests without making distinctions between hanging around and loitering, which mean the same.

In 1965 civil-rights activist  Fred Shuttlesworth was jailed for  six months  for talking to friends  on a sidewalk, while Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested trying to attend a friend’s court hearing. Apparently, people with color then were unfairly punished even if they did not commit a crime. Anyway, anti-loitering was finally scrapped after it was deemed unconstitutional.

Why the poor loiter. The poor loiter mainly because many of them are jobless and underemployed, and to keep themselves busy looking for any opportunity to make money.

Another reason is the fact that the urban poor’s only breathing space in their crowded, blighted neighborhoods are the streets.

In contrast, the rich and middle class have subdivision spaces for their social clubs and have the resources to kill time at the malls.

Literacy drive vs. littering?  Learning from an ancient Chinese symbol and proverb describing solutions found in the midst of problems themselves, it is worth exploring a paradigm shift of transforming anti-loitering into an anti-littering drive, while at the same time generating jobs.

We already have numerous anti-littering laws, from Marcos presidential decrees, to Metro Manila Development Authority circulars, to local government ordinances, but they all seem to be ignored and implemented in the breach.

What is necessary is a combination of measures, including a carrot-and-stick approach, apart from mobilizing an army of street sweepers, which may just be a sweeping measure, as this has long been implemented by many administrations.

What is also needed is a massive information and a “literacy drive” on the ABCs of hygiene and cleanliness, which include requiring every citizen to bring along with them little bags to place their litter for disposal later at home. Instructive toilet posters can teach people on proper waste disposal, hygienic habits like doing Pontius Pilate acts (washing hands) to avoid the spread of diseases.

When penalties are not fine enough. We’ve had laws and penalties, but penalties are not fine enough, as violators only match fines with counterincentives that cripple implementation. In fact, the culture of corruption is so pervasive that it has resulted in the corruption of our culture.

Why not mobilize instead the jobless as Environmental Police to catch litterbugs by providing incentives, say 50 percent of penalties? This way, the operation becomes  “self-financed.” I believe, when the incentive to do good is higher than the incentive to be corrupt, then corruption stops. In short, incentives (carrots) may be better measures than penalties (stick) to implement laws that also help generate jobs, encourage public participation, boost tourism and improve public health.


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