Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Wabasha Street Caves Conference On Abusive Non-Consent Towing

(From, a historic photo of Castle Royal Night Club in 1933, now known as Wabasha Street Caves, which was quite the speakeasy and hangout for Prohibition-Era gangsters, back in the day. A fun location for the first activist conference on abusive non-consent towing)

Summary: OK, so it wasn't really a conference but me talking to my smart public administration grad school classmates at the annual Humphrey Institute Banquet.

I came up with a brainstorm about preventing abusive towing practices from private parking lots, such as by alerting drivers their car will soon be towed the same way the cities should issue such alerts.


"Towing Talk" Over A Few Drinks

My grad school had a nice formal banquet with Dean Atwood buying everybody free wine, so you couldn't beat that, especially when I had a teetotaler at my table and managed to get not only my own wine ration, but also liberated a merlot.

There were hours of socializing, and I told a lot of tomorrow's administrative movers-and-shakers about what I was trying to accomplish by raising issues about abusive non-consent towing practices.

"Think of it," I said. "At one time, people didn't really have consciousness about an issue like police brutality. That was just how things were, and everybody accepted it. But people started to wake up, and now everybody is aware there is, at the very least, such a thing as police brutality, and many things are being done to reduce it and stop it."

"So," my classmates would say, "You're saying abusive towing--"

"Non-consent towing," I clarified. "Huge distinction."

"OK, you're saying abusive non-consent towing is like the new police brutality? That people have been enduring it for a long time, but you want folks to wake up and start fighting about this issue?"


Hands to chins. Thoughtful nods.

"Huh," they'd say. "Maybe you're on to something."

Towing All Tangled Up With Human Relationships

I couldn't talk about abusive non-consent towing all the time, though. The President of the Public Affairs Students Association, Graham Arntzen, has a smoking hot girlfriend, (Maylyan) and he left her in my custody while he went around shaking numerous hands. The "other Graham," whose last name I keep forgetting, is also a major player in student government. He kept walking away from his date, too, and the poor little dear (Malin, it's Swedish) hardly knew anybody in the whole cave. So I was constantly keeping them company.

I am nothing if not dutiful and responsible.

And we were, I emphasize, in a cave. Yes, they kept leaving their the cave. And it was only the other day me and Arntzen had a conversation, the theme of which was, "If it wasn't for the civilizing influence of women, men would still live in caves."

Therefore, what is going to stop abusive non-consent towing? Probably mommies with little children being mistreated and harmed, not angry men pounding their enraged fists into Plexiglass but then, the next day, getting over it.

Indeed, the best non-consent towing insight of the whole night came in a conversation with a young woman in the parking lot, (where the smokers congregated) a discussion which started out talking about the mysterious nature of romantic relationships, as enlightened by Dr. Date, the anonymous campus dating advice columnist. (Here's a fine example of a Dr. Date column, which came up in the course of the discussion, in regard to the "sacred ritualistic aspect" of a woman giving her phone number to a guy)

This particular young lady (short, blond, pretty, age 23, works at Caribou coffee on Washington Ave. SE, dressed in a black cocktail dress and long string of fake pearls to go with a kind of 1930s gangster theme some folks indulged in at Wabasha Caves, reads "Dr. Date" before reading anything else in Minnesota Daily, but heck if I know her name) had a customer whose car was towed by mistake.

His car shouldn't have been towed--the guy had come in to consume a latte or whatever--and yet he was indeed towed. So this sympathetic girl told him, "Look, you shouldn't have been towed. I'll be your witness. Here's my phone number. If anybody has any questions about it, have them call me and I'll say it was a mistake."

So the guy gets his car back. And then what does he do? He keeps calling the girl, dropping by, trying to get a the point she needed to just about hide in the back of the store. She did, however, take comfort in some of the things Dr. Date had said about how to handle a situation like that, or not get yourself into one in the first place, by being mindful of the "sacred ritualistic aspect" of giving a guy your phone number.

She pointed out how, yes, she gave him her number...but giving your number to be a witness to an unjustified tow was a completely different matter than just handing a guy your phone number, wasn't it? Indeed, I agreed, it certainly was.

Forget Romantic Relationships--Let's Talk Towing!

The problem I saw here, I told her, was the distinction between "rabidly enforced" towing in private lots, versus "posted lots with de facto slack."

"Take McDonalds in Dinkytown, for an example," I said. "Their lot is huge, and it has about half a dozen warning signs...yet I've never seen anybody towed from that lot. They really don't seem to keep track of who is in the lot. It seems quite easy to go inside, buy a burger, but then slip out the back door to, for example, mail a letter at the post office and maybe do some quick shopping. OK, I'll admit...I do that. All the time."

But, she pointed out, this particular Caribou Coffee has eight precious parking spaces, and needs those spaces to stay in business. They can't really afford to be generous with their parking, the way McDonalds can. That's why she, personally, is always calling to get somebody towed who is just "stealing parking."

Thinking about this administratively, I thought, "The problem is the auto driver has no way to distinguish 'rabidly enforced' private parking from 'posted lots with de facto slack. One could eyeball the situation and judge...this business doesn't have a lot of parking, so many they guard it jealously...but how can you KNOW?"

People need a place to park, desperately, and everybody knows rules get bent all the time. The same person who is calling the tow truck may be in the opposite position tomorrow or next week...cruising, opportunistically, for a place to park "just for a minute."

Why is harsh, expensive towing or nasty notes left on windshields the only alternatives for private business? I've read articles--and I could post some examples--of customers who became permanently alienated by a business which towed them, a business they once patronized...albeit they also patronized the business next door, a moment later, while parked in the lot of the first business.

If I've been saying the City of Minneapolis, for example, should have a clever and high-tech way to "warn the driver" just prior to a tow, so why not give private businesses access to the same system? They wouldn't need to obtain the contact info for the would be a simple matter of typing in the tag number of the vehicle into a website, and generating an alert to the auto owner's cell phone.

A Way To Distinguish "Rapid" From "Slack" Private Lots?

I also had to wonder if there could be a way to "administratively distinguish" rabidly-enforced lots from other kinds of lots...and what kind of a bucket of worms this might open up. Let us say, for example, any lot of a certain size which saw 100 tows in the previous year would be required to post a red "rabidly enforced" sign. And, furthermore, only parking lots which really did tow 100 cars could display the scary red signs.

This would serve as a great warning for vehicles, wouldn't it? However...what if businesses said, "We need to get the scary red signs. Let's tow 100 cars in January and February, though we can let it go for the rest of the year." The warning signs might give an actual INCENTIVE to tow.

No, what might be useful would be if drivers could access the data through a system like OnStar, and know their odds of getting towed from a particular private parking lot.

The most practical way seems to be...just having a better way to warn drivers they are about to get towed. Only the most mean-spirited business manager really WANTS to tow somebody, a person who could be a customer tomorrow (albeit a parking moocher today) and most business managers would prefer to just have the car go away by being driven out of the parking lot, not towed, because heaven knows we often find ourselves on "the other side of the hook."

Keep Building The Movement To Reform Abusive Non-Consent Towing

These are the kind of ideas I had at Wabasha Caves, and discussed with my classmates...well, along with some other topics, like the work I'm trying to do in North Minneapolis to get crack houses boarded up and revitalize the neighborhood, as a relentless do-gooder.

I work to get other people on board, so I won't be the one-and-only "non-consent towing activist" in the nation. Maybe one day there really might be something like a "Wabasha Caves Conference." We will all talk, exchange ideas, exchange contact information...and then emerge from the caves to create a slightly-better world.

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