Repealing the Prohibition of Fun

Boys Playing Stickball, Havana, Cuba, 1999 / Photo Courtesy Creative Commons

There’s a law on the books that bans play on all City streets. The City Council should repeal it.

Play is an act of joy. It is essential to human development, happiness, and quality of life. It is a right guaranteed to children and adults alike. In Baltimore, where many of our children need a refuge from everyday trauma, play is a precious and valuable resource.

And yet too often we approach play with a punitive attitude. We are quick to categorize playful behavior as delinquency. Sometimes, we outright criminalize it.

Right now in Baltimore City, laws are on the books that ban ball playing, kite flying, and other types of good clean fun on City streets, alleys, and lanes. This week, the Transportation Committee will hold a hearing on my legislation to repeal these provisions.

These bans serve no safety or other beneficial purpose, and even if they did, are so ripe for unjust, racially disparate enforcement that any positives could not possibly outweigh the negatives.

At stake here is a question of who has the right to fully enjoy public space. Streets, alleys, and lanes across Baltimore City serve a community function that otherwise would not exist, as a yard, a playground, or a social commons. Remember that more than 50% of our lane miles are neighborhood streets with little traffic.
Repealing a ban on play in our streets won’t lead to anarchy. There are plenty of other rules that require users of the roads to exercise care and avoid obstructing traffic. There’s no need to single out play, and the awkward specificity belies that these policies were not created with a safety purpose in mind.

We shouldn’t ask our police to enforce these bans, and if they shouldn’t be enforced, they shouldn’t exist. These “broken windows” policies, which broadly criminalize behavior with little impact on any public safety outcomes that matter, are precisely the policies most susceptible to being applied in racially disparate ways.
At this week’s hearing, and later on the Council floor, I’m going to ask my colleagues to support the spirit and letter of the consent decree and common sense by eliminating these laws. I believe most of our officers already would prefer to join children playing ball than be asked by the rest of us to write a citation for it.
These are really difficult times for our City, and while play may seem too lighthearted a topic to matter at the moment, now is when it’s more important than ever to embrace a vision of our City as joyful, playful place. For the mental and physical well-being of us all, we must embrace a vision of our communities where our streets are used for play and enjoyment. In that version of our City, there is no such ban.

Ryan Dorsey is the Baltimore City Councilperson for the 3rd District and Chair of the Transportation Committee.

Council Bill 18-0285 will be heard Wednesday, January 29 at 3 p.m. in the City Council Chambers.

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