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It’s Time for Jaywalking Laws to Take a Hike

by Kevin W. Bliss

The crime of jaywalking becomes more and more uncommon as communities across the nation push to have the charge decriminalized or abolished.

Jaywalking is a term started around 1910-1920 as a means of denigrating those without vehicles walking the streets. At the time the term “jay” denoted a rube or a country hick, and the automobile industry wanted to use it to paint a picture of those who chose to walk instead of ride in a vehicle as ignorant hillbillies who did not know any better.

By 1925, Los Angeles passed the first anti-jaywalking ordinance, and not long thereafter, cities in every state followed. Civil rights activists maintain it was discriminatory practices that prompted their beginning and propelled their continuance. These laws targeted the vehicle-less, low-income citizens who could not afford the costs associated with buying a vehicle. And, the practice had an even more adverse effect on communities of color. The jaywalking charge allowed police to search and harass Blacks, ultimately charging them with more severe offenses.

Critics question whether these laws were created to protect pedestrians from potentially dangerous automobile accidents when, in fact, statistics showed these laws have not helped to do any such thing. More to the point, many believe jaywalking laws are tools utilized by law enforcement to supplement deficient department budgets or detain those whom police deem suspicious characters.

In addition, many jaywalking stops have resulted in unnecessary violence or police brutality. Chinedu Valentine Okobi, a 36-year-old Black man from San Mateo County, California, was killed in 2018 when he was repeatedly tased by police after being detained for jaywalking. The county settled in a wrongful death claim out of court with Okobi’s family for $4.5 million.

Critics are pushing to end this discriminatory practice, and now, several states are moving to abolish the antiquated laws. California’s Governor signed a law September of 2022 putting an end to ticketing jaywalkers. The Denver City Council voted February of 2023 to decriminalize the practice. And in January of 2023, Washington state introduced a bill to repeal jaywalking laws.

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