It's too bad that we need Christmas as an excuse to give presents, share a good meal, communicate and express kind feelings between people who are usually at odds with each other - people like the police and the homeless. On December 22, 2004, the Berkeley police bicycle unit, spearheaded by officer Tom Jeremiason, put on a traditional holiday feast at MASC (the MultiAgency Service Collaborative) in the Veterans Building.
All the bike cops were there, as were Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and representatives of other city agencies, all helping serve the meal. Organized in conjunction with BOSS, the event has become an annual tradition.
Officer Jeremiason boasted, justifiably, that except for the turkeys, which were prepared by Andronico's, he and his wife Laurie cooked the rest of the meal, including stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and beans. Kudos to Tom and Laurie; everyone agreed it was an excellent meal.
The cops also gave out gifts which had been donated to BOSS - fanny packs containing useful items, including gloves, ponchos, hats and socks - though, unfortunately, there were not enough for everybody. Robert Long of the MASC staff estimated that there were about 400 people at the meal, and 175 fanny packs were distributed. Those who received the packs were very appreciative; it's too bad there weren't enough to go around.
In an atmosphere fraught with negative interactions between the police and people who are homeless, feelings about this event were mixed. Tony expressed the feelings of some street people, saying his attitude toward the police hasn't changed "just because they smile."
Michael Anthony, who has also been on the streets, was much more positive. He said, "They seemed less intimidating than usual, seem more human. I enjoyed their company for a change - might even make a few friends." Whatever their feelings about the police, the diners didn't mind saying that they enjoyed the meal.
Tom Jeremiason also sees this dinner as a way to relate to people in a positive environment. He reflected on last year's event when, he said, "there was really good interaction between people. It's just like families - you sit down at tables, you discuss things, talk about things and joke. That's what this is all about. Just giving back a little bit. That's the most important thing about this." He described a number of other volunteer activities the police engage in to help the community.
The people who work at MASC also gave a valuable gift to their clients. MASC staffer Robert Long said that, while normally the facility would be closed on the Fridays and Saturdays around Christmas and New Year's, staff members decided to give up their holiday time to keep the facility open for its regular hours.
Talking about the bad reputation that cops have on the street, Jeremiason pleaded that people "evaluate the person in the uniform, not the uniform." The bike cops, especially, he said, see their role on the street like the old-fashioned beat cop. "People come to us with all their problems and we're part social worker, counselor, and part cop and part school teacher, all wrapped up in one."
Unfortunately, the bike cops are not trained to be social workers or counselors or teachers; those needs should be filled by other city agencies. The police are trained to enforce the laws. And the laws can be very unfriendly, oppressive and punitive to some classes of people, particularly poor people. Many homeless people in Berkeley have been given tickets and criminalized by bike cops and other police officers merely for being out on the streets and sidewalks, with no place to call home.
If a city fails to provide adequate services and affordable housing in favor of gentrification, the police have to participate in a law-and-order approach to the problem of homelessness, and all the counseling and turkey dinners won't help them be accepted as the good guys.