Editorial by Terry Messman
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ome of Berkeley’s most powerful business leaders are attacking homeless people in their efforts to remake this once-progressive city in their own image as a place where profit and business interests are sacrosanct, and the poorest human beings are disposable.
Berkeley’s long-held peace and justice traditions are being kicked to the curb, along with the homeless people targeted by powerful business associations.
First, Roland Peterson, head of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, led an attempt last spring to banish homeless people — especially homeless youth — from downtown business districts by criminalizing the act of sitting.
No sooner had the creative protests of the Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down coalition beat back that heavy-handed effort at repression, but Peterson was back with an equally inhumane proposal to force the University of California to drive homeless people out of People’s Park.
Telegraph Business Improvement District
On August 9, Peterson sent an official letter conveying what he called “the approved position of the Telegraph Business Improvement District” to UC Vice Chancellor Ed Denton.
Peterson’s letter is a reactionary and crude blast at the very existence of homeless people in People’s Park. He claims that Telegraph merchants and property owners widely believe that People’s Park is “a detriment to both the business and general community.”
That sweeping statement is a manipulative ploy to claim that Peterson isn’t just speaking on his own behalf, but for all business owners, and the entire city as well. In Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm, some of the animals are “more equal than others.” This letter makes it clear that business interests are far more equal than anyone else in Berkeley when it comes to dictating the fate of People’s Park.
Peterson writes: “The Park is viewed primarily as a homeless campground,” a center for the illegal use of drugs and alcohol, and “as a focal point for various activities which attempt to serve the destitute, substance abusers and the mentally ill.”
His letter concludes that People’s Park “should not be the homeless encampment” and the “national destination for nomadic youth that it has become.”
It is an amazingly heartless document. Not only must homeless people be banished from the Park, but acts of compassion and charity as well. Evidently, in the hallowed name of profit, we must stop caring about the poor. This is aimed not only at homeless people, but also at the Catholic Workers and Food Not Bombs for feeding hungry people in the Park.
Almost simultaneously with Peterson’s letter to the UC Vice Chancellor, another business leader, Craig Becker, owner of the Caffe Mediterraneum and incoming president of Telegraph Business Improvement District, convened a group of business leaders to press UC officials, in only slightly more diplomatic language, to take action against People’s Park.
Arthur Fonseca has done volunteer work at People’s Park for more than 15 years, and worked with Food Not Bombs since 1991. He said, “Roland Peterson is using these incredibly prejudiced terms against poor people and characterizing the Park as a homeless campground. If he were saying these kinds of things about people of color he would be considered a racist. Our economy is in the toilet and the richest people in our community are trying to discriminate against the poorest people.”
The Spirit of Berkeley
These attempts to drive homeless people and charitable meal programs out of the Park are an assault on the very values that gave birth to People’s Park in 1969.
People’s Park is so much more than just another municipal park. It is a living symbol of the fact that it is possible to fight the powers that be — all the entrenched power of the police, the corporations and the university — and win.
It is the spirit and history of Berkeley itself, as a renowned center of the anti-war movement. It embodies the spirit of a time when people deeply believed in the countercultural ideals of peace and justice.
People’s Park is the still-living dream of a place liberated from corporate control and reclaimed for the common people, including the homeless people who themselves are victims of an unprincipled economic system run by corporate power.
The Park is the legacy of thousands of activists who dreamed it into existence in the first place.
It is a visible reminder of a time when people cared so much about justice that they risked jail sentences, police clubs and bullets and carried out massive protests in the face of overwhelming governmental firepower and repression.
It is the courage of tens of thousands of demonstrators who defied the police and Ronald Reagan’s heavily armed National Guard to build a park for all the people.
It is the blood of James Rector and the eyesight of activists who were deliberately shot, maimed and murdered by out-of-control police. More than 100 people were injured by police firing shotguns into the protesters and Rector was killed by police in the struggle for the Park.
It is the commitment and perseverance of hundreds of volunteers and gardeners who kept the dream of the Park alive for the next decades.
It is the brave idealism that inspired hundreds of people to risk arrest the last time UC officials tried to remake People’s Park in the image of some suburban vision of volleyballs and sunbathing students.
Fonseca said, “I’ve seen the corporate takeover of America, and People’s Park is one place that has managed to resist corporate domination. It was founded in the middle of the Vietnam War as a protest against the military-industrial complex, and it continues to be an important symbol as a protest against the militarization of our society.”
The key thing forgotten by Roland Peterson and the bullying crowd of businessmen intent on evicting homeless people is that People’s Park was liberated by activists struggling against the Vietnam War, poverty and racism. It was built by people who gave a damn about protecting human life from corporate interests.
For self-appointed business “leaders” to say we should now abandon our brothers and sisters who are homeless, and banish them from the park “in order to save the park,” shows that the leaders of the Business Improvement District never understood People’s Park at all.
Tearing out the heart of People’s Park
Compassion for the poor was one of the foundational ideals of the peace and civil rights movements that created People’s Park. Tearing out that legacy of compassion for the poor would tear the heart out of People’s Park.
Many otherwise well-meaning people fail to understand this. Wouldn’t the Park be more appealing if only the homeless people who clutter it up were moved out?
Yet the activists who love People’s Park are not just committed to preserving the grass and trees and open space. They are dedicated to preserving the spirit of peace and love that gave birth to the Park.
It has always amazed me that activists really see this connection between the countercultural ideals that gave birth to the Park, and the compassion for the poor and hungry that was inextricably interwoven into the movement of the 1960s.
I always fear that when push comes to shove, the poor will be sold down the river in order to preserve People’s Park. Instead, Berkeley activists have been unwavering in their incredible commitment to defending the Park and the poor.
“Roland Peterson has been making a fine living persecuting the poor and homeless,” said Dan McMullan, a longtime homeless advocate and founder of the Disabled People Outside Project.
“He is directing a little group of brown shirts that have done nothing to help any of the problems in Berkeley and are actually damaging and killing off Telegraph business by destroying the culture that people come to experience.”
Perhaps these business leaders should recall that Shelley once said that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — poets, not businessmen.
In that spirit, consider T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Rock.” A Stranger arrives unannounced in the city and asks its residents if they live huddled so closely together because they love each other — or only to make money from each other. The question is a prophetic warning to the masters of commerce that if they worship only profits, they’ve lost their very souls.
Every rotten piece of anti-homeless legislation they propose hangs over their heads as an indictment of how the greed of the business class has driven them to sacrifice the humanity of their poorest neighbors on the altar of commerce.
Perhaps that is the deeper reason why People’s Park is always under attack by business interests. For it keeps alive the rebellious spirit of the counterculture, and reminds us that peace, love and justice are higher values than money and real estate.
“Glimpses of the Spirit” is a series of columns exploring the connections between social justice and spirituality. These columns search for glimpses of the spirit that inspire people to seek compassion and justice for all those who suffer from poverty and oppression.