<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Protesters and Poor


Berkeley Police Serve Christmas Meal

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A Disconnect Between Protesters and the Poor

by Lydia Gans

Photo by Lydia Gans of homeless man at S.F. City Hall ignored by anti-war protesters.

Standard text version


Thousands of people filled San Francisco Civic Center Plaza late in the afternoon of inauguration day, January 20, to express anger at George W. Bush's installation for a second term in office. They voiced anger at the war in Iraq, at the lies the president told to justify the war, at his Middle East policies, and at his favoring the interests of the wealthy at the cost of social programs for the needy. People carried all sorts of creative signs at the protest, and the usual vendors were out selling T-shirts, banners, books, and buttons.

Civic Center Plaza and the surrounding area, especially the main library and United Nations Plaza, are generally populated by homeless people. The city has removed benches in an attempt to drive away homeless people, and, as a result, tourists and ordinary citizens out for a stroll have nowhere to linger. The homeless folks sit or lie on the ground. I was interested in their thoughts on the demonstrations, on the extent of their participation and how effective they considered them to be. The homeless and the poor are, after all, among the people most severely hurt by Bush's actions.

Not surprisingly, their participation was minimal, and their attitude tended to be cynical. However, they were far from hostile. They had opinions which they were eager to talk about with anyone who cared to pay attention. This was the same response I found last Fall when, under the sponsorship of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), we carried out a campaign to get homeless people to register and to vote. More on that later.

A man with a walker sitting by the library shrugged his shoulders when I asked what he thought about the demonstrators. "Let them talk," he said, but he saw no reason to go over and join them. His companion was equally noncommittal, though he agreed that everyone has the right to free speech. At this point, several police cars pulled up, disgorging a crew of officers. This jolted the homeless men out of their apathy even though - this time - they weren't the targets of police surveillance. "Here comes the Gestapo," they observed bitterly.

I strolled over to the mall area, past people sleeping on the grass not ten feet from all the action. A couple of homeless men were sitting on the low concrete wall near the Grove Street side. Their opinions, too, were colored by their own needs and experiences.

One of the men, an amputee who had a prosthetic leg, was agonizing over the difficulty of getting SSI (Supplemental Social Security) for people with disabilities. His application has been rejected and he is currently going through the appeal process. Maybe if he could convince them he was crazy, he speculated, he'd have a better chance at getting on SSI.

What about the protest against Bush's plans to further curtail social programs, I asked, might that make a difference? The other man was cynical about the whole scene. In his eyes, the vendors, like all other capitalists, were there to make a profit even though it was just a buck or two on the T-shirts they were selling.

The one group that earned his praise had a table giving away "funny money" imprinted with pictures of Bush with slogans like "IN FRAUD WE TRUST" and "THE UNINFORMED STATE OF DENIAL," and listing a number of websites including 911forthetruth.com, 911inquiry.org, indymedia.org and others.

While we were talking, a young man approached with a stack of newspapers. He spoke with great sincerity of how his paper contained the truth about the evils of war, the oppression of the poor and the need to change conditions in the country. The homeless men listened politely and nodded appreciatively - until the young man informed them that they could buy the paper for only 50 cents.

To use the jargon of the day, there is a disconnect here. There are the people of good will and broad vision who dedicate themselves to political activism. And there are those who can't afford to because they have to put their energy into their day-to-day survival.

We observed that same pattern in November when we focused on the elections, getting homeless people to register and then out to vote. It's not that they don't care, or don't have thoughtful opinions about national or global issues. It's just harder for them to vote, because they have to pick up their mail in one location, hang on to the election materials with all their other necessities in a shopping cart until election day, then get to the proper polling place to vote during free time between securing some food and a bed for the night.

What will it take to make people feel all that is worth the effort? Poor, homeless, and oppressed people have the power, if they unite, to affect the conditions of our lives.

Howard Zinn, in his book A Peoples History of the United States, describes numerous actions undertaken by an aroused people protesting evil situations that needed to be changed. Zinn writes about sit-down strikes in factories against oppressive working conditions and at lunch counters against racial discrimination, about huge marches, demonstrations and general strikes that, for a moment, stopped the system in its tracks.

These things have happened throughout our history, and we have the power to do it today. It is time we organize, unite and assume that power. There is too much at stake for all of us to sit this one out.

Berkeley Cops Serve Christmas Dinner for Homeless People

by Lydia Gans


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.




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