At the U.S.-Mexico border we use the words, “Humanitarian aid is never a crime,” to resist and transform discourse that criminalizes saving the lives of persons that are migrating through the desert wilderness. With the conviction that humanitarian aid is never a crime, we put out water and food in the desert, and provide medical assistance to anyone in need. Today I want to suggest similar words:
Peeing in public is never a crime.
I will make three brief points: 1) Our cities lack appropriate access to toilets; 2) if you are caught peeing in public and are undocumented, you may end up deported; 3) decriminalizing public urination makes our cities more humane.
Our cities lack appropriate access to toilets
Public toilets are few and far between in most communities. Take New York City as an example: The city has about 1,700 public parks among the five boroughs, but only about 600 of the parks have restroom facilities. The odds are that at any given point when moving about the city you will not have easy access to a public toilet, and the possibility of access likely correlates with one’s class, race, and gender.
You or I may have the funds to step into Starbucks and spend $4 dollars as an excuse to use the toilet. But if you are an immigrant who makes a living by working outdoors on a daily basis, for example by selling fruit or other food in a stand, you cannot afford to pay to pee a few times a day. While a well-dressed Anglo-American may be able to step into a store and use the toilet with fewer questions asked, it is likely that a person of color who appears lower class will have more difficulty accessing the toilet. And, if you appear homeless, it is almost a guarantee that the sign that reads, “restrooms are for customers only” will be enforced. Not having appropriate access to a toilet means that you or I will have to hold our urine at risk to our health, or, we will have to urinate in public and bear the punishing gaze of a society’s judgment. It will be faster for me as a man to pee in public, thus lowering my risks of being caught. Women will risk different and greater risks. In New York City, the police issue between 20,000-30,000 citations for public urination each year. Since it is considered a misdemeanor, these tickets are typically sent to a criminal court, and for an undocumented person, it can lead to deportation.
Deported for public urination
Laura Noren, in the co-authored book, Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, writes: “Public urination is an offense subject to a maximum fine of $1,000 and a potential charge of public exposure or lewd behavior if undertaken by humans, but there is nothing to worry about when the urinator is a dog.” Leaving the dog aside for the moment, here is what can happen to a human: A person who is ticketed by a police officer is given a summons to appear in court. If the person misses the court date, let’s say because she or he cannot afford to miss work or because they are afraid of going to court since Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) now prowls for undocumented bodies there, then the court may issue an arrest warrant. If the person does go to court, she or he will likely plead guilty, pay the fine, and have this on their record.
For an undocumented person, an arrest warrant or any kind of record can become a detrimental factor in the future possibility of legalizing their status. Also, a warrant means that the government will label them as criminals and their chances of ICE officers targeting them increases. Tragically, the necessary public elimination of bodily fluids can become the pretext for the unnecessary elimination of immigrants from the body politic.
I understand that peeing in public may violate the sensibilities of some. However, is not our mutual humanity doubly assaulted when a person who has nowhere to use the toilet, and has to do so in a public place, is criminalized for it? This is a forced criminalization, violently produced by the current structures of society, which disproportionately affects the poor and lower classes. For most people, peeing in public is not a choice, but a necessity. To the systemic criminalization of marginalized bodies, I say: Peeing in public is never a crime.
Decriminalizing public urination
In the past few months, some cities have begun to decriminalize “quality of life” crimes such as public urination in order to protect undocumented persons from the Trump administration. For example, six months ago the city of Denver lowered the maximum penalty for quality of life crimes to less than 365 days in jail so that these do not register on ICE databases. For public urination, the penalty was lowered to a maximum of 60 days. In a political environment where ICE is looking for any excuse to deport undocumented bodies, public peeing should not be one more reason that leads to their expulsion from the body politic of this country.
In New York City, the Criminal Justice Reform Act went into effect this summer. Among other things, the reforms send public urination summons to civil court instead of criminal court. If a person does not appear in civil court, a warrant is not issued, and fines can be paid online. Most importantly, public urination in New York City no longer leads to a criminal record.
However, public urination is still a crime in all U.S. states. Furthermore, in about a dozen states, to be charged with public urination also leads to registration as a sex offender because of indecent exposure. Building coalitions to make a small change in our local urination laws can make a significant difference in minimizing risks for our undocumented sisters and brothers, especially for those that live in dense urban environments where toilets are scarce.
In summary: We live in a society that considers peeing in public shameful and animalistic, and thus, humans who transgress the boundary are sanctioned in order to reinforce this imaginary but powerful category. Yet, the very structures of our cities prevent the poor, the homeless, street vendors, and persons who must make a living in public spaces—many of them immigrants—from having ready access to toilets. Essentially, we build our notions of being human and “civilized” in a way that purposefully animalizes and dehumanizes those already inhabiting a marginal status.
I believe that part of our vocation as communities of faith is to locate ourselves wherever life and dignity are threatened, and to re-inscribe humanity into the body politic by resisting the institutionalized violence that in its final analysis is a form of killing. Decriminalizing public urination is a step, however small, in both affirming the common humanity that we share, and in constructing more humanizing cities.
How to move forward?
One possible way is to build coalitions that advocate for toilet access. A practical idea out of Germany is what is called “Nice Toilet,” an initiative where the government pays businesses to open their toilets to anyone that needs them.
Also, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a law was passed in 1993 that requires that businesses (bars, coffee shops, restaurants, etc.) allow anyone to use the restroom, regardless of whether the person has made a purchase.
Lastly, how can we theologically think about urination, defecation, toilets, and toilet access? A convergence of theological anthropology that thinks through the particularities of embodiment, a sacramental theology that can think through toilets as a site of holy encounter, and a political theology that can contextualize these discussions within a broader communal matrix appears necessary.