Creative Sit-In Challenges Berkeley Sitting Ban

A unique, quirky and imaginative protest was held at the Berkeley BART on May 22 to protest the City Council’s proposed sitting ban ordinance. Called a “Chair-a-Pillar,” the colorful act of defiance summoned forth a powerful historic echo of past sit-ins for civil rights.

by Lydia Gans

 

On Sunday, May 22, at the downtown Berkeley BART station, there was a unique, quirky, dynamic action to protest Berkeley’s proposed sitting ban ordinance. Sponsored by the Stand Up For The Right To Sit Down coalition, they called the creative action the “Chair-a-Pillar.”

A new and clever way to stage a public protest, the Chair-a-Pillar went on for almost two hours, attracting much interest and support from passing cars and pedestrians. The action was held in colorful defiance of the proposed sitting ban, and it called forth a powerful historic echo of past sit-ins for civil rights.

Protesters in downtown Berkeley hold a "Chair-a-pillar" event in defiance of the proposed sitting ban. Lydia Gans photo

The participants gathered at noon with signs and chairs on the street side of the BART station on Shattuck Avenue. They arranged their chairs in a row and sat with protest signs facing the street. The action began with one person at the end of the row picking up his chair, taking it to the other end and sitting down again. The next person followed by picking up his or her chair and walking to the beginning of the line and sitting down.

One by one, the person at the beginning of the line of chairs kept moving to the end. As the action continued, the line of chairs snaked around the BART station many times. The line of chairs managed to wind its way partly up and down the block, so the signs could sometimes face the street, eliciting enthusiastic horn-honking from passing cars. At other times, the snake-like line of chairs would face people walking on the sidewalk.

The continual movement attracted people coming by and invited conversation. Some grabbed a chair and joined in the action. Plenty of chairs were available, many painted by the young people in Sally Hindman’s Youth Spirit Artworks program. At the height of the action, several dozen people were participating.

A couple Berkeley High students rode over on their bicycles to check out the protest, and decided to join in. It was their first time taking part in a demonstration. A man named Mat Brennan said, “I came here because sitting is a complete right for everyone in this country and there’s no reason to take it away.”

A woman came by with a whole case of bottled water which she shared with the chair sitters. She had been homeless in Berkeley herself, and she said she remembered how much people on the streets need water. She carried with her copies of a printed statement she had written and is passing out all over town. It is a powerful criticism of the proposed sitting ban, calling it “an act of classism.”

It reads in part, “Passing the law would be a discriminatory act of prejudice.” She wrote that there would be “social uproar and public outrage” if a law was passed banning black people from hanging out in front of stores. “However, it is also very damaging and discriminatory to homeless persons to say ‘we don’t want homeless people sitting in front of the stores.’”

The African American mother insists that “classism is just as bad as racism when prejudice occurs.” The woman would not give her name, explaining that she had been homeless with a daughter and her daughter would be embarrassed because of the stigma attached to homelessness.

The action, while it was lively and fun, might also be looked at as a metaphor for homelessness, with people constantly having to pick up their belongings and move. It soon gets quite exhausting. The participants in the demonstration began to show weariness too, though they continued to the end as planned.

This event was just one in a continuum of actions intended to alert the people of Berkeley about this draconian proposal to ban sitting. The coalition of people and organizations providing services and support for homeless people has been active in staging protests and they say they will continue to do so as long as necessary.

It all started back in February when Sally Hindman, executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks stopped in for a cup of coffee at Addie’s Pizza Pie, which is next to her office. Members of the business improvement districts (BIDs) happened to be there, holding a meeting. Since Hindman is a local business person she was invited to join in.

Hindman exposed the plans for a sitting ban in her article, “Berkeley Merchants Try to Ban Sitting,” in the April 1 issue of Street Spirit.

She was surprised when suddenly the discussion turned to the anti-sitting ordinance which, she said, “they all agreed was necessary and that they could successfully push forward on the heels of what happened in San Francisco. Everybody said, ‘Oh yes we want it.’ There was no dissent or disagreement of any sort. We want it and Mayor Bates is for it too.

“I was really quite stunned. I had just gone in there to get a cup of coffee and all of a sudden I’m sitting there with all these people who are demonizing homeless people and saying how we’ve just got to pass this ordinance to be able to do more to get rid of them. As a concerned person from the religious community that’s been working with homeless people, I was upset that this was something that they would be planning. Especially, I was pretty shocked that at this really tough time economically, people would be thinking in this direction. It just seemed very disturbing.”

She tried tactfully to point out to the group that Berkeley has only a six-month emergency shelter with 25 beds for homeless youth, and no drop-in center, no place for homeless young people to go during the day. From the discussion she describes, it was clear that the business representatives had no concept of the nature and extent of homelessness in our community.

“I walked out completely blown away and e-mailed my friends,” she said, “people that I knew were homeless service providers who had been involved in the challenges in the past.”

Very quickly a meeting was called, and a coalition was formed called “Stand Up For The Right To Sit Down.” A broad contact list was developed. The members felt that they would get support from an informed public.

Attorney Osha Neumann of the Neighborhood Justice Clinic explained the plan was to “put it on the radar of the public while the business interests were trying to move it along as a stealth measure, denying that it was happening. The City Council members and Mayor Bates saying there’s nothing, while all along we knew that it was happening.”

The City of Berkeley already has a number of laws on the books that target homeless people or are unfairly enforced against homeless people.

The first public action the coalition members organized was a sign-painting event on Telegraph Avenue, followed by the march downtown and appearance at the City Council meeting a month ago, on April 26. The City Council protest was reported in two articles in the May issue of Street Spirit: “Taking It to the Streets,” by Michael Diehl, and “Berkeley Merchants Plot a Police Clampdown on Youth,” by Terry Messman.

On Friday evening, May 20, a music and poetry event was held at the Art House Gallery and Cultural Center, sponsored by the coalition and the Revolutionary Poets Brigade. An enthusiastic audience of about 80 people filled the hall and heard songs and poems dedicated to the sitting ban issue and the many progressive causes dear to our hearts. [See “Poetic Resistance to the Berkeley Sitting Ban.”]

Active coalition members Carol Denney and Andrea Pritchett were among the singers who participated. City Councilmember Kris Worthington attended and spoke briefly. He explained his opposition to a sit-lie law, pointing out that enforcement would be very expensive for the city as well as for Alameda County. He indicated that at this time at least two other council members are opposed to the law.

The Chair-a-Pillar event was the brainstorm of Carol Denney. She said, “Once we have a population of people here in Berkeley that would never, I mean never, vote for a city council representative or a mayor who would waste time on an idea like making sitting illegal, then we won’t have to worry about stuff like this. But right now we have people who put these people in office. So the larger issue for me is educating people.”

The Chair-a-Pillar event did so in a big way!

 

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