by Michael Diehl
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]nce again there is a push by Berkeley merchants associations and big property owners to criminalize the act of sitting on downtown sidewalks during business hours. The merchants are lobbying heavily to pressure the Berkeley City Council into banishing street youth from shopping districts on Telegraph and Shattuck avenues.
On April 26, a group of about 50 of those mostly homeless people who sit on the sidewalks joined with advocates in a protest against the proposed law. The group gathered on Telegraph Avenue in front of the now-closed Cody’s bookstore starting at 3 p.m. and made signs declaring that they were human beings worthy of respect, not criminals to be persecuted..
From there, our numbers swelled as we marched up the sidewalk and on Telegraph Avenue itself, down Bancroft and on to Shattuck Avenue, where the northbound lanes were taken by the protesters, while others took the sidewalk. At that point, about 100 folks held a sit down in front of the Berkeley BART in defiance of the proposed sitting ban.
During the sit-down protest from 5: 30 to 6:00 p.m., we received word that the Berkeley City Council chambers were already opened and another protest rally in support of the libraries was being held on the City Hall steps. We decided it would best to have people head to the City Council immediately at 6 p.m. so our people could get into the chambers and sit, rather than being kept out.
When it came time for the public comment for the sitting ban — an item not yet on the council agenda — only six people were allowed to speak against the proposed anti-homeless law. Most of the speakers were UC students from the Suitcase Clinic who run weekly clinics for the homeless youth and older homeless people. They spoke very effectively against the proposed sitting ban.
When one of the Suitcase Clinic speakers asked all those who opposed the anti-sitting law to stand up, virtually everyone in the council chambers stood up, making a very strong statement to the City Council. It had been my hope that the homeless people and street youth who actually sit on the sidewalks would have a chance to speak, but sadly they were denied.
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates noted that because the issue was not yet on the City Council agenda, that was all the comment allowed at this point, but he told people to come at the end of the council meeting at 9 p.m. to speak out more on this issue. Several of the homeless youth did come back later to speak, and encountered problems getting back in due to a police line in front of the chambers, in spite of there being an obvious number of empty seats we could clearly see on the TV cable monitor downstairs.
Ironically enough, the City Council was grappling with budget issues involving homeless services. A number of homeless service providers in Berkeley are facing significant budget cuts, though some may get increased funding. Even though the street youth were legally allowed to speak on the issues by the State’s Brown Act, the mayor made it clear he wanted only comments from those speaking for the nonprofit agencies, and the youth left feeling frustrated and lied to by the mayor.
Efforts to pass a law banning sitting in Berkeley have been unsuccessful in the past, although one might believe the media’s mistaken coverage that it had been passed as part of the mayor’s earlier Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. A sitting ban was indeed proposed as part of that initiative, but it was dropped after a number of street youth went to the City Council with protest signs and advocates met with council members.
As Mayor Tom Bates noted, no anti-sitting ordinance has yet been formally proposed, but the word is that in July such a law will be on the agenda following the conclusion of the budget process.
I have been involved in grassroots campaigns against anti-sitting laws since 1994, having experienced homelessness as a youth myself in Berkeley and elsewhere and having lived most of my adult life in poverty.
Although there is already a strong coalition of advocates, attorneys and homeless service providers who have joined together to fight this proposed ordinance, I was concerned that there needed to be an action coming from the homeless people who actually sit on the streets, So I did direct outreach to folks on the street to get this action to take place.
Many of those who sit on the street are homeless youth, but it is not limited to them. I work as a community organizer for Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) where a big part of my job is doing homeless outreach on the streets. Other members of the BOSS Community Organizing Team worked with me in reaching out to homeless people on the streets and in People’s Park for this action.
The protest received favorable coverage in the Daily Cal, the normally conservative UC student paper, which came out on the day of the protest with an editorial against the sidewalk sitting law. It also received good coverage from the online Berkeley Daily Planet whose editor, Becky O’Malley, along with myself and many others, was quite involved in the fight in 1994 to 1996 against Measure O, the first attempt to pass a law criminalizing sitting on the sidewalk in Berkeley.
In 1998 and again in 2009, there were additional serious pushes to pass such a law in Berkeley, and activists were successful in stopping both efforts.
In organizing the sidewalk sitdowns and the march to Berkeley City Hall on April 26, the core group of activists who worked on the 42nd People’s Park anniversary held on Sunday, April 24, provided very strong and important support. We were able to use the Park anniversary as a platform to promote the protest two days later, on Tuesday, April 26.
The UC students in the Suitcase Clinic played an important role in mobilizing people for the successful protest on April 26. The staff of Youth Spirit Artworks and the YEAH homeless youth shelter who work directly with the homeless youth, have been strong voices against the proposed anti-sitting law. The youth themselves at their programs have been talking up and talking to each other about the need to support the demonstrations against this proposal.
The Neighborhood Justice Center of the East Bay Community Law Center, headed up by Osha Neumann, works to legally fight the citations the homeless get for being on the streets and sleeping outside. They have also been an important voice in fighting this anti-sitting ordinance. Food Not Bombs, as always, has been quite supportive by bringing food and their visible presence to the actions.
I have had several conversations with Telegraph and Shattuck merchants who support the sitting ban. I have told them that their concerns about problematic street behavior are better dealt with by active engagement of the youth. In working with the youth to counter the merchants’ proposed ban, I have seen how involving the youth in community organizing has given the youth a positive focus.
The way they took so well to making signs, along with their eloquence and creativity, have shown me, as well as the staff at YEAH and Youth Spirit Artworks, how much they can be engaged in this positive community effort and in revitalizing a creative edge to Telegraph Avenue and Berkeley as a whole. Many of the youth are artistically and musically talented. This is what we need to cultivate, rather than engaging in negative public relations campaigns about how dangerous and bad for business the young people are.
At present, business on Telegraph Avenue is doing relatively well, in comparison to other shopping areas like 4th Street where homelessness is less visible. The key to economic revitalization to Telegraph Avenue is to embrace the creative spirit of the youth who are, after all, the biggest consumers there.
On Shattuck Avenue, there is a campaign to clamp down on Berkeley High students. Several of them who stood in opposition to an earlier clampdown attempt by the Berkeley police and City Council, now have taken a stand against this most recent anti-sitting ordinance.
Why in Berkeley, of all places, are so many of our older folks (even some of the older homeless folks) so down on the youth? They are the future, so we would do best to mentor what is best in them rather than seek to punish them for what we fear in them.
As Street Spirit is a paper with a spiritually progressive Christian perspective, I would remind folks that Jesus Christ did say, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” in defense of a certain woman probably not much different than our wayward youth. He also said our entire society would be judged by whether we fed and sheltered and clothed the homeless poor, or whether we persecuted them.
At this point, it looks like the Berkeley City Council is evenly divided, so please contact them. Contacts can be found by going to the Berkeley City website or looking in the White Pages. This campaign obviously is just starting, so feel free to e-mail me on how to get involved at firstname.lastname@example.org.