Commentary by Michael Diehl
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates is attempting to pass an ordinance prohibiting sitting on the sidewalk in commercial areas. Nonprofit legal and human service agencies, and a wide spectrum of Berkeley residents are decrying this proposal, calling it a veiled attempt to criminalize the homeless population.
According to boona cheema, executive director of BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency), “Criminalization of the homeless will not solve any economic problems faced by the business owners in Berkeley. The homeless will simply be moved around the city from place to place, and the incarceration will exact both human and dollar costs on this community.”
A question now arises as to whether Mayor Bates was able to successfully and legally get the anti-sidewalk sitting ordinance put on the ballot for the November election. At the tail-end of the Berkeley City Council meeting on July 10, Bates and four council supporters exited the meeting just prior to midnight, joined by City Councilmember Susan Wengraf on speaker phone from Santa Monica.
This took place after 60 members of the public had spoken against the proposed anti-sitting ordinance and only one spoke for it. Just prior to midnight, three in opposition started to sing the old civil rights spiritual song of resistance, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
Then Mayor Bates and the other four council supporters of the ordinance exited the meeting and returned after midnight when the meeting was technically over. They voted for the measure despite the fact that not all the public had spoken, and none of the City Council members had been able to comment. Nor was City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin able to introduce his alternative motion.
Earlier in the day there had been a witnessed Brown Act violation where the five supporters of the ordinance met together and planned to ram through the measure in spite of the public resistance they anticipated.
As with the previous council meeting on June 12, the public was forced to wait until almost 11 p.m. at night with the anti-sitting proposal put behind other contentious and time-consuming agenda items before the public was allowed to comment.
On June 12, the same 6-to-3 council coalition voted to direct the city manager’s office to come up with ballot language for a ballot initiative banning sitting. The initiative did not come out until a week before the vote at the council meeting on July 10.
In the past two years, official commissions of the Berkeley City Council — the Homeless, Mental Health, Housing Advisory, Peace and Justice, and Police Review Commissions — have all come out against the idea of an anti-sidewalk-sitting ordinance.
On June 12, 75 people showed up at a 6 p.m. rally in opposition to the ordinance and 50 remained through several hours to speak out against the ordinance. Some ten people from the Shattuck and Telegraph Business Districts spoke for the ordinance.
During the last month, the Berkeley police have shown they are already able to remove folks from public sidewalks — and many of those targeted by police are street youth protesting this attack on their very right to exist in the public commons.
The Berkeley police have awakened folks sleeping at different hours of the night and day, so many of those on the streets have been sleep-deprived. There have been four police assaults on the youth and about 40 citations given for sitting on the sidewalk — even though it is not illegal yet.
The police, when pressured by powerful commercial and big property interests, and by city government officials, have shown they do not need the proposed ordinance to clear the streets.
Meanwhile, more and more businesses (50 and growing) standing against these big 1% interests have come out in opposition to the anti-sidewalk-sitting ordinance.
The heavy police presence focusing on the homeless has moved from downtown Shattuck Avenue to the Telegraph and People’s Park area of Berkeley.
The reality is that, at present, there are more folks sitting on Haight Street in San Francisco — even though they have already passed an anti-sitting ordinance — than on Telegraph and Shattuck combined.
In the face of what has been a strong police attack on their very right to be in Berkeley, the street youth have often shown great unity and courage in fighting for their right to be in the public commons. They have been happy to see a broad coalition of Berkeley citizens come out against this most egregious attack on their civil and human rights.
This has moved them to want to fight militantly, and to follow the example of peaceful nonviolent resistance that we showed in the collective singing of “We Shall Not be Moved” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Now, the very act of sitting is an act of civil disobedience, as first shown at the Berkeley City Council by Ann Fagan Ginger, who is the founder of the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, and a longtime defender of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
By joining us in our protest, progressive City Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Max Anderson and Jesse Arreguin have shown us that not all members of the Berkeley City Council have been corrupted by the baleful lure of big-time developers and their filthy lucre.
Why I No Longer Read the City Papers
by George Wynn
Someone is always panhandling
Tenderloin streets smell of urine
They always find someone half
out of their mind blowing up
at the least provacation
Some tourist is always stepping out
of the Hilton frightened out of his wits
by a beggar pleading for two bits
Some once handsome alcoholic with a
serious hangover is always getting
a free ride to detox “costing
the city a king’s ransom”
Some homeless soul or punkster
with a dog is sprawled out
on a merchant-blessed street
Of course there’s always those
nasty shopping cart soldiers —
the foul-breath type that security
guards bar on sight
Let us not forget those men and
women with great survival skills
who stand tall and strong against all
odds who do everything right under
the sun and fog to get a job yet cannot
become the people they want to be
Of course they are not newsworthy
Irony of the Summer Homeless
by Claire J. Baker
More relaxing under the sun,
rain not dripping down one’s neck.
Still alive, a lucky one
almost coping under the sun —
survival’s game at times half won.
Winter’s coming, what the heck.
Sidewalk-sleeping under the sun,
rain not seeping down one’s neck.