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abolishing jaywalking


On December 1, 1915, the New York Sun published a rousing letter from a Mr. Clarence John Davis, which ended like this:

I think it is time for pedestrians to assert themselves and to prevent the issuing of ukases from certain czars who are appointed to represent and protect and not tyrannize over those who by their votes were foolist enough to aid in appointing them to office. I will “jaywalk” the same as before, and I defy the Police Commissioner or any other civil officer to prevent me.”

The quote marks over “jaywalk” were proof of its uncertain distinction as a dictionary recognized word. The sentiment marks the decade in which city streets first became car streets. The mixed use of streets, between pedestrian and horse, was ceding to the automobile. Pedestrian rights were being sacrificed on the altar of civic safety. Although there was a struggle. Even the president of the United States – at least, the President Calvin Coolidge – was a jaywalker, according to journalist Harry B. Hunt’s Washington Letter of April 30, 1924:

“Brakes squealed and horns honked as drivers swerved or slowed up to avoid collision. But Cal flanked right and left by a secret service man held his course. In the middle of the street he had to pause to let a stream of vehicles pass. At the first opening, however, he plunged in again and made the other curb.”

Walking jay became a convenient devil for the newspaper editorialists, all of course on the side of the harried policeman and driver. The word itself was hyphenated in Mencken’s The American Language, but seems, in newspaper usage, to have settled early into a compound. Walking jay, according to some sources, comes from jay meaning a country bumpkin – a clown, a collonus, a plebe from the country. However, the OED also lists jay as meaning a flamboyantly dressed woman “of light character”. The streetwalker, in other words. Words, like roads, are multi-use items, where everything crosses and runs.

Jaywalking, according to legend, became a legal offense first in California. According to my research, it was already an offense in New Jersey. No matter, the abolition  of the jaywalking law, which was signed five days ago by Governor Newsom, is being celebrated as a blow against the car-centric vision that has weighed like a nightmare on the bent shoulders of the pedestrian for nearly a hundred years. Although not just any pedestrian. Jaywalking laws are used by the cops to single out an persecute the usual suspects: blacks, protestors, leftwingers, Hispanics, and whoever is on the chart at the police station.   

In the state of New York, a 2019 study shows that 90% of jaywalking tickets were issued to Black and Hispanic Americans even though they represent 55% of the population.”

One spirit that is looking down and smiling at the change in the California law is Michael Brown, the most famous victim of jaywalking. In Ferguson Missouri, where he was murdered, a study found that 95 percent of the people cited for jaywalking were black. Jaywalking, which was promoted as an offense by car companies in the 20s, fits in very well with the growth of policing in the 20th century.

So, a small victory for better streets, California!  We’ll see how long it lasts.