Blogging for a better world

It’s time for the springtime ‘running of the tow trucks’ festival to snag as many student cars as possible.

If you’ve tried to park a car near campus lately, you may have noticed little white signs popping up like fungi after a spring rain. The signs purport to be about “street cleaning” but the true purpose appears to be raising revenue by using tow trucks to make hostages of student vehicles.

I have two passions which find their expressions on blogs. Turning the tide against abusive non-consent towing practices is one of those passions, and I write about it at

Last week I solicited my classmates at the Humphrey Institute for their horror stories, and soon tales of woe and tow filled my inbox.

Graduate student Emily Sachs has been towed four times in the past year, and sees the city’s leaf removal operations as a “semi-annual fundraiser.” Sachs says, “If you can register by e-mail for the snow emergency notification, then why won’t the city let you register for leaf removal notification?” Apparently, the “land lines” possessed by home owners are notified, but the cell phones utilized by college students of modest income aren’t part of such routine notification.

The result is (surprise surprise) students get the shaft.

Students also get a raw deal because of the “abandoned vehicle” ordinance. Graduate student Katie Roth points out how the ordinance “puts renters in the city at a major disadvantage, as we are constantly forced to relocate our cars every 72 hours or risk a tow. This means in a given week, even if I ride transit or bike every day, I have to move my car once every three days for fear my home-owning neighbors will report my vehicle as abandoned.”

Though Roth has a “critical parking” sticker showing her car belongs on that street, she doesn’t believe this will protect her from getting towed if she doesn’t keep flipping her vehicle around like a soufflé on a hot skillet.

Roth has also suffered at the hands of Hollywood Video in Dinkytown and said, “they have a car permanently parked there during the weekend nights and they watch. If you come out the Hollywood door and go around the corner to the ATM on the other side of the building, for example, they will put a boot on your car, promptly.”

Knowing the argumentative nature of the Humphrey student listserv, I expected somebody to say something like, “Gee, rich Americans complaining about getting their cars towed. Think of the people dying in Africa.”

Instead, a student named Robyn Skrebes, who is involved in a group to fight child abduction in Sudan, said towing is “a regressive tax on the poor.” In other words, the poor pay more, in proportion to their income, than the rich.

Skrebes said, “I mean, if you have money you can probably have a driveway or a garage in which to park safely” and said towing the vehicles of low-income people was “a serious problem.” Another student said “I’ve heard of people getting charged for two days of storage when their car was towed at 10 pm and they picked it up a few hours later at 1 a.m.”

But the story which really put the ugly red cherry on the rancid ice cream sundae of towing horrors came from Steph Peterson, who described what had happened to her just the day before due to the “street sweeping” fundraiser.

Peterson said, “I awoke yesterday to find one fourth of the cars on my street being towed. Apparently it was ‘spring sweep’ day, but the city had posted its small signs of notice less than 24 hours before towing. To me, this seems like a lack of due process and fair warning, especially in an urban location where metro transit is encouraged and individuals should not feel compelled to run outside every 12 hours to see if the city will be implementing any last-minute plans.”

Running outside and seeing her vehicle hooked like a trophy fish, Peterson begged for the release of her car. The tow truck driver said he would take five bucks. Steph ran inside and found a $10 bill. Pulling out his own wallet, the driver handed Peterson $3, saying he didn’t have change and “that will have to do.”

Writing her story for my blog, Peterson asked, “If this $5 fee was a legitimate company fee, wouldn’t they have change? Or at least a way of controlling cash flow besides the diver’s own back pocket? Basically, I paid for this guy’s lunch to get my car back. Unfortunately, for dozens of others on Garfield Avenue, they were not so lucky.”

Though I sympathize with my classmates, I see the issues as bigger than Hollywood Video in Dinkytown, or the springtime “running of the tow trucks” festival to snag as many student cars as possible before the slow summer semester, when Minneapolis will have to prey on low-income renters from West Africa and Vietnam, instead of college students.

I believe high-tech solutions are needed so the owners of vehicles would have an opportunity to learn of an impending tow, and quickly move their vehicle (Yes, they might get a ticket, but that’s not as expensive or disruptive to one’s life as having your car seized).

Some social conditions are accepted for a long time, like the way people accept the weather and can’t change it. But sometimes society wakes up and says, “Why should we accept sketchy ex-convict tow truck drivers shaking down graduate students for cash, or people who try hard to obey the law getting towed four times a year?”

As I begin to wrap up my three year career as a columnist for The Minnesota Daily, I see blogs like as the best way to have an impact on emerging social issues like abusive non-consent towing, or the evil-on-hard-toast which is Aramark’s control of university dining services all over the nation, or the way college students are enslaved by landlords while afraid to buy bargain houses on the North Side. (Check out

Blog, I say. Blog for the improvement of civilization. Blog for your children’s children.

Blog like somebody just took your car hostage, and only your impassioned words will take back what is rightfully yours.

Blog until your fingers bleed.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]