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by Terry Messman
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he attempt by big commercial real-estate interests to push a sitting ban through the Berkeley City Council ran into a new wave of opposition this past month. Public protests by The Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down coalition stirred up support from unexpected sources — the University of California student government, and the City of Berkeley’s own Peace and Justice Commission.
Town and gown spoke with one voice, as the ASUC Senate and city commissioners both voted nearly unanimously to condemn the sitting ban as a discriminatory attack on the poorest, most vulnerable residents, and a violation of international law.
First, on May 2, the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission voted, without a single dissenting vote, to urge the City Council to reject a sitting ban proposal.
Two days later, on May 4, the ASUC Senate voted 18-1 in favor of a resolution to notify Mayor Tom Bates, the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce that a sitting ban in Berkeley is a misguided attempt to criminalize poverty and a failure to actually deal with homelessness.
The Peace and Justice Commission drafted a letter to the City Council that stated: “An ordinance prohibiting sitting would cause harm to the most vulnerable members of our community because it would be selectively enforced against those who are or appear to be homeless or poor. Moreover, criminalization of the poor will not solve any of the economic problems faced by the merchants of the City of Berkeley.”
Peace and Justice Commission members are appointed by City Council and School Board members, and it is their official responsibility to advise the council on issues of peace and social justice.
The letter concluded: “The Peace and Justice Commission asks the Berkeley City Council to not enact any ordinance that would ban sitting in commercial districts and further criminalize the homeless population of the City of Berkeley.”
International human rights
George Lippman, chair of the Peace and Justice Commission, said that the 14 members of the commission passed the measure without a dissenting vote, although a small number abstained.
In an interview with Street Spirit, Lippman looked at the proposed sitting ban from the perspective of the commission’s focus on upholding international human rights. Lippman is the former director of the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute in Berkeley, a prominent think tank that does extensive research on human rights and international law.
He said, “A single standard of human rights has emerged over the past 70 years or so — a human rights framework expressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and in the treaties that emerged, the covenants and conventions which are binding law in the United States, in fact the supreme law of the land.”
The “real meat of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” according to Lippman, is that human rights include not only civil and political rights, but economic, cultural and social rights as well.
He said, “Nothing defines the right to human dignity more clearly than such elemental human needs as this: as the right to sit, the right to rest, the right to eat, the right to relieve yourself in dignity.”
At times, Berkeley’s various commissions have been faulted for focusing, not on issues of direct relevance to local residents, but on far-flung resolutions about issues overseas. Lippman said it is often important for the commission to weigh in on international human rights concerns.
Yet, he added, one of the strengths of the resolution in opposition to a sitting ban is that it defends human rights at home, in our own neighborhoods and back yards. Not all human rights violations occur in Burma. Some occur down the street in Berkeley.
“We sometimes get criticized for focusing on worlds that seem to be far from our shores, far from the concerns of people who live in Berkeley,” Lippman said. “While I think it’s certainly within our mandate that we support international peace and conflict resolution and social justice around the world, this is something we want to do more of, which is focus on human rights within Berkeley.”
Discrimination and harassment against the homeless, he said, is a violation of their rights to dignity and legal personhood, and is therefore illegal under international and, consequently, domestic law.
Lippman said he found out about the sitting ban proposal in the first place from Street Spirit. He said, “I want to say before I forget: the way I found out about this was from your newspaper, Street Spirit, actually. From a man on the street, on University, near the bike store Mike’s Bikes. I saw the headline on it and I said ‘Oh, I should go to that meeting.’ And I did and that’s how I found out more about it.”
The Students Speak Out
On May 4, more than 60 UC students from the Suitcase Clinic, Habitat for Humanity, and CalPIRG, packed an ASUC Senate hearing and convinced the UC student government to vote 18 to 1 to pass a resolution opposed to the sitting ban proposal. The letter was directed to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Improvement Districts.
In an interview, Chris Andersen, class co-coordinator of the Suitcase Clinic, pointed out that an anti-sitting ordinance would make the very existence of nearly every homeless person an illegal act.
“At its core,” Andersen said, “a Sit Ordinance would make being too poor to afford housing a crime. If you have no other place to go, then it’s impossible to avoid getting ticketed.”
More than 100 UC students volunteer at the Suitcase Clinic, providing meals, legal help, housing and job referrals, and offering massage, haircutting and footwashing to the poor. Students work with medical professionals to offer medical, optometry, chiropractic and dental services.
It is eye-opening for many students to see at first hand the severity of suffering endured by homeless people. Andersen spoke out against the sitting ban proposal because it would only increase that suffering. “A Sit Ordinance would hurt severely our homeless clients. Increasing burdens of tickets will increase their financial strain, as well as inhibit their access to some government social services.”
Passionate about justice
Andersen said that members of the Suitcase Clinic got involved in organizing against the ordinance because they are “passionate about social justice.”
When they learned about the proposed sitting ban, he said, “We knew that we couldn’t idly sit by and watch while the rights and well-being of the homeless were assaulted. We think that by bringing to bear the full weight of the student community on the City Council, we can effectively stop the ordinance.”
A side benefit of organizing against the proposal is the way it has united the campus service organizations. Suitcase Clinic, Cal Habitat for Humanity, and CalPIRG are all large social justice groups with at least 100 members each, he said, and they met regularly to decide how to present their best case to the ASUC Senate.
“ASUC Senators Farrah Moos and Courtney MacDonald were also instrumental in getting the other ASUC senators on board,” Andersen said.
Stephanie Falwell, a UC student majoring in molecular and cell biology, has worked with the Suitcase Clinic for a little over a year. As an advocacy group discussion leader at their Tuesday night clinics, she helps homeless people get involved in social justice issues that affect their lives.
So, it was natural for her to speak out at the ASUC hearing for the rights of people on the street. She told the hearing that it was wrong for those pushing a sitting ban to assume there was a causal link between homelessness and crime. “I told them it’s a matter of getting them help and that we have no right as students to deny help to these people,” she said.
In an interview, Falwell described the long-term damage caused by treating homeless people as criminals. “When you give people citations for sitting on the street, you’re first off criminalizing homeless people,” she said. “But when and if they don’t show up to their court date, then there is a warrant out for their arrest and when you get arrested and have a criminal record, then it’s just that much harder to get housing or any other services.”
An anti-sitting law would only pile up new hardships on homeless people and would especially hurt the disabled. She said recent studies have shown that “71 percent of individuals living in Alameda County who are homeless have some sort of disability” that already makes it difficult for them to access lifeline services.
“I think that by passing this ordinance,” Falwell said, “we’re actually preventing people from getting the services that could help them. That’s personally why I’m against it, at the core level.”
Homeless people are already gun-shy about being accosted by the police and by the private security teams of the Downtown Berkeley Association. They will be all the more difficult to approach if they constantly fear they’re going to be persecuted simply for sitting down.
“It’s a hindrance because we do outreach on the streets,” Falwell said. “And I think that by dispersing people every which way, that will make it harder for us to go out and help introduce our services to people sitting on Telegraph or in the downtown Berkeley area.”
Chris Andersen and Stephanie Falwell both expressed amazement that the ASUC Senate voted to oppose the sleeping ban by such a lopsided margin.
Andersen said, “The Senate members were very impressed and moved by our presentation. A number of the senators made public comments afterward expressing their opposition to a Sit Ordinance and their support of our work. It was a stunning victory in that sense.”
The night before the vote, Falwell said, “there was kind of a rumor that it might not actually pass.” The students held onto their hopes, she said, “and on the morning of the vote, we kind of felt that it might pass, but by a very, very slim margin.”
Falwell was increasingly excited as the votes began to swing in their favor. “I was counting on my fingers how many votes were yes,” she said. “I was really relieved when we passed the majority. But it was just really exciting to see that all the things we said really mattered because people who we thought would vote against it ended up voting to send the letter.”
Andersen said, “Winning this victory in the ASUC Senate was a big morale boost for the students. I think there will be a lot more Suitcase Clinic members and other students who will stay involved in larger advocacy efforts to empower and support the homeless.
Grass-roots democracy appears to be on the rise in Berkeley. When all is said and done, the big merchants, real-estate interests, and cynical politicians who pushed this sitting ban may regret the day they woke up a new generation to fight for the rights of people living on the streets.