Two Square Feet of Space — Unless You Own a Business

This is how democracy works in Berkeley: The City Council majority represents the Downtown Berkeley Association. One guy — John Caner, the CEO of DBA, who wrote the initial law (with Maio and Arreguin) in a back room — felt represented in all the madness. And he didn’t have to say a word.
“First They Came for the Homeless.” An eye-catching banner hangs in front of the occupation on Martin Luther King Street in front of Berkeley City Hall. Lydia Gans photo

“First They Came for the Homeless.” An eye-catching banner hangs in front of the occupation on Martin Luther King Street in front of Berkeley City Hall. Lydia Gans photo

 

by Carol Denney

The only guy, just one, who spoke in favor of the new two-square-feet law at the Berkeley City Council on December 1, gave an unexpected compliment to the ongoing protest withstanding the freezing weather in front of old City Hall in Berkeley on Martin Luther King Jr. Way for having strict behavioral standards.

“This town needs to have standards,” insisted Eric Panzer of Livable Berkeley, a booster group for all things developer-friendly. His compliment to the protest group which began its demonstration with a sleep-in on November 16 and included local activists, city workers, and clergy, did not go unnoticed by the wide-eyed council or by attorney Osha Neumann, who was next in line to speak and invited him to endorse the newly named Liberty City protest more formally.

Many of the Berkeley community have done just that. Around 75 people gathered in front of the old City Hall building to share stories, music, food, and march together for just over a mile to the Longfellow Middle School being used for the Berkeley City Council meeting, a larger hall than the tight 123-seat capacity of the usual council chambers.

Liberty City has a large “No Drugs or Alcohol” sign prominently displayed by their circle of colorful tents and has now received its third warning from the Berkeley Police Department recommending that it take advantage of local shelters, etc. Their supporters spoke for hours at the City Council meeting on December 1, trying to stop the second reading of what most already knew could perhaps be delayed, but certainly had the votes it needed to become another layer of Berkeley’s anti-homeless laws.

The best quote of the night heard over an auditorium reverberating with chants and stomping was Vice Mayor and Council Chair Linda Maio’s plaintive defense that the two square foot law would not be used until storage was made available, and that “they are really big bins.”

Really big bins. The photographs of rows of ugly plastic garbage bins used in San Diego and elsewhere — in lieu of honestly providing low-income housing — never has quite the desired effect on people who wish to convince themselves that criminalizing having more than two square feet of possessions (shopping carts and blankets excepted, or so Maio claims), among other idiocies, is somehow okay.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, recovering from a fracture at home, was present over a phone system and sounded like he was gargling.

The City Councilmembers who opposed the measures tried valiantly to craft substitute motions. Councilmember Jesse Arreguin tried to add a directive making currently locked bathrooms open all night and expanding the possessions footprint to four square feet, while Councilmember Kriss Worthington kept getting shut down by Maio who seemed terrified of letting him speak at all. The vote apparently took place while the room rocked, at least three members of the City Council were locked in various arguments, and the clock ran out.

That’s how democracy happens in Berkeley. The last time anti-homeless laws passed in Berkeley with this same cast of characters, the ordinance was overturned by a people’s referendum and then put before voters who turned it down.

So who does the City Council majority represent? At least one guy, the Downtown Berkeley Association’s CEO John Caner who wrote the initial law (with Maio and Arreguin) in a back room, felt represented in all the madness. And he didn’t have to say a word.

A sign in front of a tent at Berkeley’s old City Hall bears this message: “This is an occupation, not an encampment.” Lydia Gans photo

A sign in front of a tent at Berkeley’s old City Hall bears this message: “This is an occupation, not an encampment.” Lydia Gans photo

 

Berkeley’s Sleep-In Occupation Has Location! Location! Location!

While the City Council voted for new measures of repression, a creative group of people has solved the storage problem for about 50 people without homes in Berkeley, California.

With no money, no forms to fill out, with just a spirit of fellowship and cooperation, the sleep-in (or occupation) on the steps of old Berkeley City Hall which began on November 16, 2015, in response to new anti-homeless laws, solved an issue which Berkeley city leaders have been unable to solve for more than 30 years.

These people are working together with community support to build a cooperative community occupying the old City Hall steps on Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

The location of the colorful tents and tables has a lengthy list of advantages over the City Council majority’s plan for homeless people, which for 30 years, has been to chase people all over town, constantly change both written and unwritten rules, and provide assistance to an extremely small ratio of the people in need, with no storage or safe place to rest for anybody else.

For about 30 years, it’s been a shell game where the respite is temporary, the stakes are high, and the disinterest from Berkeley voters is deafening.

The occupation at Martin Luther King Jr. Way, on the other hand, is storing gear for about 50 people near transportation and services and has a grassy area for tents with soft lighting at night from nearby streetlights. There are two port-a-potties right across the street in a public park right by City Hall, the main library, and the Public Safety Building.

It’s right by the farmers market, out of the way of shoppers and tourists, and located on public property near an almost unused building where the City Council meets in the old council chambers.

It may not be perfect, especially in the near-freezing temperatures the occupation’s residents are currently enduring, but the creativity and poetry is top notch, and the environmental standards would give it a platinum LEED rating. Bring some hot food and come on by.

Two weeks into the occupation, they have developed a proposed government they shared with supporters, declaring: “Our first proposed government here at the Berkeley City Hall Occupation is done. We may need some minor adjustments as we develop and grow. Self rule with consensus. A desired 100% consensus, with a graduated scale.”

Their plan details intricate and thoughtful gradations of consensus, such as: “70% minimum to approve, but must be revisited monthly to revise and improve consensus percentage. At 80% approval, item gets revisited every two months to revise and improve consensus percentage. At 90% approval, item gets revisited every 6 months to revise and improve consensus. Once 100% approval is reached, the only way to revisit is with 51% approval to revisit.”

The statement concludes: “As the village evolves, these guidelines will allow for the government and community guidelines to evolve.”

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