Democracy Under Attack on the Streets of Berkeley

It took the savage beating of a homeless man to reveal the terrible cost of allowing business owners to create their own private patrols on the streets of Berkeley.

On March 17, protesters marched to the Berkeley City Council in resistance to the anti-homeless laws. Sarah Menefee photo

On March 17, protesters marched to the Berkeley City Council in resistance to the anti-homeless laws. Sarah Menefee photo

 

by Terry Messman

The whole world is watching. A video taken by Bryan Hamilton has gone viral and is being watched around the nation. It is a shocking video of the brutal assault on a homeless man carried out by ambassadors of the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA).

On March 19, two DBA ambassadors accosted two homeless men in downtown Berkeley, James Cocklereese and Nathan Swor. After a brief verbal altercation, DBA Ambassador Jeffrey Bailey began viciously punching Cocklereese, a 29-year-old homeless man, in the face.

Bailey unleashed a flurry of three blows to the face and one to the body, knocking the homeless man sprawling to the sidewalk. What happened next was even more cruel and senseless.

Ambassador Bailey stood over the homeless man and forced him to remain lying down on the sidewalk, grabbing him by the neck and savagely punching him six more times in the face. Bailey then dragged him bodily across the sidewalk and threw him face down on the street. Cocklereese offered no resistance while the prolonged beating took place.

The assault took place on March 19, only two days after nearly 100 people filled the council chambers and warned the Berkeley City Council that the anti-homeless laws proposed by John Caner, the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, were cruel and punitive, and would make Berkeley a pariah for its violations of human rights and international law.

In the aftermath of the assault, Caner expressed remorse over the beating and announced that the ambassador who committed the assault had been fired, and the second ambassador involved was suspended during an investigation.

Police Arrest Victims of Assault

What of the homeless victims of this assault? They were arrested and jailed by the police for the “crime” of having been brutalized by DBA ambassadors. After all, this is Berkeley, where homeless people face repression both from city police and the extrajudicial mercenaries unleashed on the homeless population by the Downtown Berkeley Association.

In an appalling case of blaming and defaming the victim, the Alameda County district attorney initially joined the assault on human rights by filing seven misdemeanor charges against the two homeless men. Finally, on April 1, after viewing the video posted on YouTube, the district attorney dismissed the case against the two homeless men charged with battery.

The senseless beating confirmed the dire warnings that scores of concerned citizens had made to the City Council at the council meeting on March 17, only two days prior to the assault.

For the past few years, the Berkeley City Council has allowed a private force, the Downtown Berkeley Association’s ambassadors, hired by Block-to-Block, to patrol the streets and keep homeless people under surveillance. On March 17, the City Council went one step beyond, by passing a sweeping battery of anti-homeless measures in a backroom deal to placate CEO John Caner and the DBA.

The City Council ignored the testimony of nearly 100 homeless people, advocates, attorneys and university professors who told the council that the draconian anti-homeless measures championed by the DBA’s John Caner and supported by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilmember Linda Maio, were inhumane and would lead to a state of siege for homeless people on the streets.

The mayor and the council completely disregarded the warnings from a broad cross-section of citizens and passed the anti-homeless measures by a vote of 6 to 3. In doing so, they essentially abandoned their responsibility to uphold basic human rights for all citizens.

Two days later, in fulfillment of the urgent warnings voiced by homeless advocates that Caner and the Downtown Berkeley Association were acting in wanton disregard of human rights, James Cocklereese was severely beaten by ambassadors employed by the DBA.

UN Condemns Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva condemned the criminalization of homelessness in the United States as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” that violates international human rights treaty obligations.

“I’m just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter,” said Sir Nigel Rodley, Chairperson of the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee called on the U.S. government to “engage with state and local authorities to abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels.”

I read that statement by the U.N. Human Rights Committee to the City Council on March 17 and warned them that Berkeley was making itself a pariah city by renouncing the principles of human rights and international law and voting for the anti-homeless measures.

But it took the savage beating of a defenseless homeless man on the streets of Berkeley to reveal the human costs of empowering corporate business owners to create their own private patrols to confront homeless people on the streets.

Extrajudicial Mercenaries

The checks and balances of a democracy are gone, and the DBA “Ambassadors” have become an extrajudicial force of mercenaries hired by big business to patrol the streets. This has no place in a democracy.

On March 27, homeless people held a demonstration and press conference near the offices of the Downtown Berkeley Association on Shattuck Avenue.

Sally Hindman, executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks, said, “Ninja Kitty, a homeless man, was amazingly articulate at the homeless-led demonstration.”

David Teague, also known as Ninja Kitty, described the repression that homeless people have experienced at the hands of DBA ambassadors.

“John Caner of the DBA says that this is contrary to his organization’s goals,” he said. “But part of the ambassadors’ job is to intimidate homeless people off of Shattuck Avenue. People are only intimidated if the violence is sometimes real. This brutality is a part of what the DBA does. This isn’t the first time that ambassadors have assaulted homeless people — it’s just the first time it’s been caught so well on camera.”

Homeless people have warned that the ambassadors and the police work hand in hand. Some call it collaboration, and others call it collusion.

Osha Neumann, an attorney who has defended the rights of homeless people in court for many years, warned that this assault was not simply an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of “criminalization and brutality against homeless people” carried out by the Downtown Berkeley Association.

Neumann said in a public statement, “When the DBA pushes for criminalization, police and ambassadors feel pressured to use force to push homeless citizens out of public spaces. We don’t want to see just the one guy who got caught fired: We want the DBA to end its campaign of criminalization and brutality against homeless people.”

The DBA Versus Democracy

It is nothing short of surreal that a private force hired by an association of business owners would come to have so much power in an electoral democracy, especially in a city that prides itself on its commitment to diversity and human rights.

Yet the wealthy realtors, developers and big business owners of the Downtown Berkeley Association are now “the powers that be” on the streets of Berkeley.

John Caner, the CEO of the DBA, was the campaign manager of the Measure S Campaign in 2012, an anti-homeless ballot initiative that attempted to criminalize sitting. Measure S was defeated by Berkeley voters. Caner’s attempt to undermine the electoral process was exposed during the struggle over Measure S.

Caner admitted in a letter dated Sept. 19, 2013, to Berkeley’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission that shortly before the 2012 election, he handed out more than $5,530 in $100 and $50 cash payments to more than 50 “poll workers,” many of them homeless and formerly homeless clients of Options Recovery Services, to distribute misleading fliers in support of Measure S near polling places.

At the time, Patricia Wall, executive director of the Homeless Action Center in Berkeley, said that the Fair Campaign Practices Commission decided to investigate the Yes On S campaign “because John Caner admitted to paying 52 homeless people in cash on election day to campaign against themselves.”

Many of the homeless people hired by Caner were never told that they were assisting an anti-homeless ballot initiative. They had no idea that they were working to criminalize their own lives and actions.

Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin had said of Caner’s violations: “It’s outrageous. You’re paying people to take their rights away. It’s unacceptable.”

It is also unacceptable that Mayor Bates and the City Council would betray the will of Berkeley voters in the 2012 election by passing the new anti-homeless measures championed by Caner and the DBA. The DBA lost the public election, yet it won the vote of the City Council.

Big business trumps the democratic process in Berkeley.

A Who’s Who of Big Business

It is very revealing to look at the powerful corporate figures behind the scene who set the agenda, overturn election results, change the laws to serve their own interests, and send out private mercenaries that control the downtown streets.

A few of the DBA board of directors come from local agencies or businesses such as the Berkeley Repertory Theater, Berkeley Art Museum, Comal restaurant and Pegasus Books. Yet the most powerful elements of the DBA board are the big business owners, hotel owners, real estate developers, investors and realtors. The Downtown Berkeley Association is run by wealthy, powerful business owners who contribute to electoral campaigns and pull the strings at the City Council.

The DBA board of directors make up a virtual Who’s Who of big business. These are not the kindly proprietors of mom-and-pop grocery stores. These are the corporate powers who constitute a shadow government that has the power to convince the City Council to reverse the vote of its own citizens, do an end-run to avoid all the city commissions, and pass the same kind of anti-homeless laws that citizens already have voted against.

Let’s take a closer look at the propertied class that wants to make life so miserable for the propertyless class.

“Segregation, After Norman Rockwell.”  The segregation laws of the past are now revived as anti-homeless laws.  Art by Nili Yosha

“Segregation, After Norman Rockwell.” The segregation laws of the past are now revived as anti-homeless laws. Art by Nili Yosha

 

Hotel Owners Versus the Poor

In many cities, the owners of luxury hotels are some of the most powerful members of Business Improvement Districts, and they take aggressive action to “economically cleanse” the commercial districts by banishing homeless people so they can attract upper-class tourists.

It may be an understandable maneuver by corporate business owners to increase their profits, but it is anathema in a democracy to eliminate poor people for the comfort of the affluent.

DBA Treasurer Perry Patel is a partner in the giant real estate development firm BPR Properties, and owns and manages its massive holdings with other members of the Patel family. Perry Patel is the owner of the luxurious Hotel Shattuck Plaza near the UC Berkeley campus, among his many other properties.

BPR Properties bought the Hotel Shattuck Plaza for a huge, but undisclosed sum in 2009, and then spent an additional $10 million to renovate the upscale hotel. With its 199 rooms priced at more than $200 per night, crimson chandeliers, and first-class restaurant, accommodations at the Hotel Shattuck are, shall we say, a step up from the conditions in most of Berkeley’s shelters for the homeless people targeted by the DBA for removal from commercial districts.

Gaming the System

DBA Board Member Bill Shrader represents The Austin Group, an investment company based in Alamo, and the developer of the eight-story “StoneFire” building that is scheduled to be developed at 1974 University Avenue in Berkeley.

Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin has expressed serious concerns about the height of the StoneFire building, and the way Shrader has manipulated the regulations around affordable housing, as reported by G. Haley Massara in the Daily Cal on Sept. 2, 2014.

Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan requires buildings that are more than 75 feet tall to offer “significant community benefits” — including low-income housing. The eight-story StoneFire building will only provide a paltry eight affordable units — the bare minimum needed to qualify for a density bonus that allows more market-rate units to be built.

Arreguin said, “The developer, by using the density bonus, was able to game the system to gain the additional (building) height without providing community benefits.” Arreguin called the number of low-income units “absurd.”

In other words, DBA Board Member Bill Shrader of the Austin Group cynically manipulates the law to gain the maximum profits by providing an absurdly low level of affordable housing, while the Downtown Berkeley Association wants to criminalize and banish homeless people who are left out on the streets by the merciless tactics of big-time developers on the DBA board who avoid any social responsibility to build affordable housing.

Mass Evictions for Profit

An even more outrageous example is DBA Board Member John Hyjer, the First Vice President of Investments at Equity Residential, a mammoth corporate juggernaut based in Chicago that owns apartments in 15 states and is one of the Bay Area’s largest residential developers.

One recent example of the massive size of this corporate developer occurred in 2013, when Equity Residential paid $16 billion to buy out the Archstone real estate firm. In that one deal alone, Equity increased their corporate ownership by more than 23,000 high-end housing units in the nation, adding 4,800 more housing units in the Bay Area alone.

This was very bad news for the Bay Area. Why? Let’s look at the corporate misconduct of this giant developer. In 2011, Equity Residential bought 1,800 housing units in East Palo Alto, nearly half the rental housing in the city, and quickly filed a staggering 706 eviction notices in a six-month period from January to June 2012. Hundreds of low-income families were warned that they would be given only three days to pay rent before they would be evicted.

When East Palo Alto’s rent board made the shocking numbers of evictions public, Equity simply stopped publicly reporting eviction notices, concealing their plans to drive hundreds of people out of their homes. John Hyjer, a major mover and shaker of Equity Residential, claimed that Equity “was not required by law to notify the city of three-day eviction notices.”

DBA Board Member Hyjer has made a strong bid to become the Bay Area’s most inhumane corporate landlord. Yet Hyjer and Equity Residential then engaged in an even more outrageous act of corporate disregard for the tenants they had threatened with evictions. After East Palo Alto voters passed the Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance to protect tenants from unreasonable rent increases and from “arbitrary, discriminatory or retaliatory evictions,” Equity Residential challenged the proposals as an oppressive burden on apartment owners and landlords.

Palo Alto affordable housing advocates charged Equity Residential with a scheme of eviction for profit, trying to displace hundreds of tenants in order to increase rents by “making life miserable for long-term tenants,” according to affordable housing advocate William Webster.

Equity Residential was also heavily criticized by San Francisco tenant activists for building ever more luxurious, high-cost housing units in the city, while ignoring the desperate need for affordable housing for low-income people.

The Economic Powers That Be

This is the kind of bad company that the Berkeley City Council keeps when it votes in favor of the Downtown Berkeley Association’s draconian measures to criminalize homeless people. They are following the lead — or slavishly obeying the dictates — of corporate landlords such as Equity Residential which send eviction notices to hundreds of low-income tenants and then have the audacity to fight a law that would provide relocation benefits to displaced tenants in East Palo Alto.

How can the Berkeley mayor and City Council simply ignore these cases of egregious corporate misconduct? This is as comprehensive an assault on low-income people as has ever been formulated.

Connect the dots. John Hyjer, the First Vice President of Investments at Equity Residential, sits on the board of the Downtown Berkeley Association as it tries to criminalize homeless people. At the same time, Hyjer is the corporate spokesperson for Equity Residential as it heartlessly files hundreds of eviction notices in East Palo Alto and then opposes relocation benefits for the evicted victims.

Another corporate entity represented on the DBA board is Laksh Lakireddy, the president of Everest Properties, a real estate firm that owns many apartments near the UC Berkeley campus. Simply take a look at the Yelp reviews of the abysmal and squalid conditions reported at Everest Properties, and then ask yourself if this property owner should ever be a moral arbiter for homeless people in Berkeley. While you’re at it, google the past owner of Everest Properties, Lakireddy Balireddy and his sons, and you will be reminded of one of the most horrifying human trafficking scandals in recent Berkeley history.

Ito Ripsteen of Vine Street Investments is a realtor, lender, broker and property owner of retail, office and rental properties in the Bay Area. His touching, self-written, rags-to-riches story informs us that his parents purchased a rental property for him when he was in grammar school, and from those humble beginnings he now manages a portfolio that “includes retail, office and multifamily properties.”

What an inspiring Horatio Alger story that he could succeed as a realtor even though he had to wait until elementary school before owning his first rental property. Somehow this grade-school landlord beat all the odds and prospered. Maybe it’s true that even an underdog can make it big in America. And his success story has made him quite the financial philosopher.

On the Vine Street Investments web page, Ripsteen writes, “I have told myself there are two main criteria when exploring a real estate opportunity: It has to make money, and it has to be fun.”

Reading those words, I couldn’t help wondering how much “fun” James Cocklereese was having on Berkeley’s real estate when the DBA ambassadors were beating him senseless in the name of better business opportunities for DBA board members.

Ripsteen now owns several properties on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. The Contra Costa Times reported on October 1, 2014, that Ripsteen had purchased the corner building on 2499 Telegraph Avenue which houses Shakespeare & Co. Books and three other businesses.

The Times reported, “One certainty is that Ripsteen intends to be part of a broad effort to revitalize Telegraph Avenue. He stressed that the street needs to be clean, safe and attractive to attract a wide variety of shoppers and businesses.”

“Clean, safe and attractive.” Roughly translated into English from the universal language of property owners, that usually means: “homeless go home.”

Segregation and Discrimination

The bottom line is that laws that banish homeless people are the modern embodiment of the segregation laws of the Deep South and the anti-Okie laws that discriminated against poor families fleeing the Dust Bowl.

Most members of the Berkeley City Council would like to believe that they are on the right side of these historic struggles between civil rights and segregation laws. The truth is that it is always easier to celebrate the civil rights activists of the past who challenged discriminatory laws in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s.

It is far harder to take a courageous and principled stand for human rights in your own era, especially when homeless people are now the despised minority.

So Berkeley’s mayor and City Council can go on celebrating civil rights movements of the past, even while voting for segregation laws that discriminate against the modern era’s persecuted minority.

It may be hard for Berkeley officials to understand that the anti-homeless laws they vote for are identical in spirit and intent to the past discriminatory laws of Selma, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi.

Yet, even as the Berkeley City Council was passing these anti-homeless measures, the UC Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic made it all very clear in their report, “California’s New Vagrancy Laws.”

UC Berkeley Law Professor Jeffrey Selbin, director of the UCB Policy Advocacy Clinic, said, “The first thing that stood out to us is that anti-homeless laws today and the vagrancy laws of prior eras — restrictions like anti-Okie laws, the Sundown Towns and Ugly Laws that explicitly discriminated against migrants, people of color and people with physical disabilities — have come back and they’ve come back with a vengeance. They are designed to keep people out, to push people out.”

Since Berkeley is committed to changing its identity by voting for these discriminatory laws, it might as well go all the way and change its name to Selma, Alabama. It has already changed its laws and discarded its conscience.

 

A sign of resistance to Berkeley's repression.

A sign of resistance to Berkeley’s repression.

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