By Anchorage Rep. Zack Fields
Confronting and solving manifestations of the opioid epidemic is the single greatest challenge cities face today. It is an existential challenge, and success is necessary to achieve all the other progressive objectives for which cities are an incubator. Solving the problems unleashed by the opioid epidemic is challenging because it forces those of us who are liberal to confront our own ideological biases, and to recognize both the promise and limitations of compassion. While there are a range of compassionate responses to the opioid epidemic that are necessary, they are insufficient on their own, and will fail completely without an aggressive and relentless campaign against crime.
As one small step toward this goal, in response to wildfire risk and proliferating open air drug markets and chop shops in our green belts, I asked the Mayor and Assembly to embark on an emergency 72 hour clearing of all encampments in the Chester Creek green belt. Open air drug markets and chop shops are an imminent public safety threat, and are a toxic and corrosive influence that erodes our civil society and undermines faith in the ability of our government to perform its most basic responsibilities.
The opioid epidemic has numerous, complicated, and interrelated symptoms: Property crime, homelessness, open air drug markets, spiraling public expenses, broken families, intergenerational trauma. While there is no question that white collar criminals like the Sackler family unleashed the epidemic, today smaller scale criminals continue to prey on vulnerable people. We have to be as firm in dealing with those criminals as we are compassionate in dealing with the epidemic’s victims, recognizing the complexity in which criminal and victim may know one another, occupy the same shelter, or have a dealer and client relationship.
Children born to addicted mothers, moms struggling with addiction, trying to keep their children sheltered while attempting to manage their own addictions: It is obvious these people need the most robust support possible—housing first, behavioral and substance misuse treatment, and related social services.
However, applying a services-only approach to criminals—the drug dealers, property criminals, and sex traffickers who exploit addiction—will perpetuate and exacerbate the epidemic while leaving victims unprotected. Anyone who works in a store in Anchorage has confronted these criminals, anyone who visits our green belt parks has seen open air drug markets and chop shops run by criminals who are exploiting our collective unwillingness to enforce the law and protect public safety. Every single city in America is confronting this same problem, and it is beyond obvious that failing to enforce the law, or treating criminals as victims, will only cause lawlessness to spiral out of control and render our cities unlivable.
It is worth remembering why cities matter. Cities are incubators of democracy, going all the way back to Athens. In recent historical context, cities were sanctuaries and pioneers of desegregation, after they were sanctuaries from slavery. Cities are where we have demonstrated and must continue to demonstrate that our common humanity matters most, and that race, religious background, nationality, and sexual orientation can be both an important part of individuals’ identity but can also be respected as differences in a pluralistic democratic society. Cities are also the place where we can and must confront climate change and wide range of other environmental threats—only cities are efficient enough to allow seven-plus billion people to live on earth sustainably.
In America today, crime and vagrancy is an existential threat to cities, and thus an existential threat to every other progressive ideal for which cities are catalysts. We cannot achieve goals of desegregation without cities, and crime that drives people and investments to the suburbs is a threat to equity. We cannot reduce per capita emissions of carbon to sustainable levels without cities, and thus crime and vagrancy are a threat to ultra-time sensitive environmental goals. We cannot affordably house people without the density cities afford, and thus crime and vagrancy threatens to make our affordable housing goals unachievable.
Fundamentally, cities show that democracy can work, that we can solve problems together-whatever our race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. If we abandon public safety, if we let crime and vagrancy run rampant, we are abandoning the promise of democracy itself, and letting the nihilists and neo-fascists prevail.
It is not compassionate to turn a blind eye to crime. It is not progressive to allow criminals and vagrants to occupy our parks and downtowns, exploit victims without consequence. We have to be as harsh on crime as we are compassionate in supporting victims of crime. Only by doing both can our city prosper, and only by doing both can we meet the myriad other progressive ideals for which cities are both incubator and catalyst.
Zack Fields represents downtown Anchorage in the Alaska House of Representatives and co-chairs the Labor and Commerce Committee.