The mayor of Budapest since last autumn, István Tarlós campaigned for the position with the motto of “solving the homeless problem in a year”. The mayor did not tarry after coming into office: working together with minister of Interior Sándor Pintér - an ex-policeman-cum billionaire security firm owner - he oversaw the creation of legal framework that allows municipalities to better restrict the usage of common areas. This law has led to changes in local regulations that bar homeless from being in pedestrian underpasses, tie the right to play music in public areas to permits (no permits were issued), and make it illegal for people to use garbage cans in “non standard” ways.
Pictured: István Tarlós (center), with Victor Orbán (Hungary’s PM) on the left (Photograph: AFP - Kisbenedek Attila)
The mayor of the eighth district of Budapest, Máté Kocsis has been the most eager local politician to implement these policies, indeed, his inventiveness in finding new things to fine about homelessness is breathtaking. He has introduced regulation that has not only made it an offence punishable by up to 250 dollars if one is conducting “lifestyle-like” behavior in public, but the municipality may now also fine the same amount if one stores items in public areas that may be accessories to the selfsame “lifestyle-like” behavior. Items such as blankets for instance. This means that people can be fined for unsettlingly vague things like “sitting on a rock” and “having a blanket”.
Pictured: Máté Kocsis (Photograph: MTI - Koszticsák Szilárd)
Community service or Prison
Make no mistake, Mr. Kocsis knows that homeless people do not have the money for these fines. The fines can also be worked off in community service or they can be transformed into a prison sentence of 90 days. The mayors stated purpose with this action is to evict the homeless from his district, as he feels his district takes a bigger share of the countries homeless than is fair. A telling piece of information is that while the district spent 700.000 forints last year (around 3200 dollars) providing support for the homeless, it has now planned to spend one hundred times that amount next year, 70 million forints (320.000 dollars), for the purpose of keeping an office open and staffed all day that can deal with fining and processing homeless people. The office also has a toll-free number that locals can call to provide information on transgressions in progress.
Enter the activists
A handful of activists have been fighting the gradual change in laws step by step. They are called “A Város Mindenkié”, or “The City is Everybody’s”. The group has activists from both sides of the fence, some are currently homeless, some have been homeless in the past, and some are social workers or just people interested in civil rights.
Pictured: Protesters from the group “The City is Everybody’s” in front of the office for fines.
One of their activists, Attila Steve Kopiás decided that the current regulations went beyond simple protests, and staged a one man civil disobedience act. Dressed in what most people assume homeless people wear, he laid on a bench in a public park, covered in a blanket, with a sign in front of him asking for money (yet another offence). A phone call to the police and 15 minutes later, 8 officials (4 of them policemen) arrive to assess his crimes and take him to the municipality office to get fined. He refuses to accompany said officers, informing them that he does not think he did any wrong. They end up cuffing his hands behind his back and dragging him to the car (the official procedure if someone is nonviolently resisting arrest).
Pictured: The activist being dragged away
Little did the police know that the whole procedure had been filmed and after being edited to conceal the identities of the officers involved, it was posted to YouTube, and linked to a blog post that included an interview with the activist and a scathing critique of how resources are allocated in the eighth district, one of budapests more dangerous districts. The blog post and the video have made the circles on facebook and the hungarian internet, with a professor citing the video in a lecture on social psychology the very next day.
Video: The counter at the bottom shows the time since the phone call.
On Thursday, the same activist returned to the square, this time dressed in a suit and tie. His aim was to find out if the system punishes the same activity selectively, whether a well dressed person is allowed to sleep on a bench, while a homeless person may be prosecuted just for sitting on it. The police declined to come get him, although this may have to do with the fact that this time the press was there openly. Other newspapers have tried to have their writers fined for sleeping in public, but the police seem to have lost their will to fine people now that any one of them may be an activist or a journalist. A policeman was quoted as ironically saying “I hope the camera is already on. You will be filming us, right?” when reporters from the newspaper HVG called anonymously.
Pictured: Atilla Kopiás, “Steve” in front of the parliament (photograph via shamshara on Indafoto )
The Battle, The War
The battle may be won, but the war is just starting, warn civil rights activists. This Monday, the Parliament of Hungary passed a resolution that makes a repeated offence in “lifestyle-like” behavior in public punishable by a 750 dollar fine or an immediate prison sentence. A protest was organised in front of the Parliament, with over 500 participants. When asked for comment, the activist said “This is the first time since the socialist system that you can be punished for who you are as opposed to what you do. I find that unacceptable and urge everybody to fight against it”.
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