by Bob Offer-Westort
On February 10, Berkeley police arrested a woman known on the street as Mama Jude who was in the middle of a psychiatric crisis. Observers reported that she was walking around Shattuck Avenue screaming. Two officers grappled with her, forced her to the ground, kneeled and leaned on her knees to prevent her from getting back up, and instructed her to put her hands behind her back to be handcuffed.
“You could handcuff me in front, you could be nice,” she objected. “I have fibromyalgia.” They repeated their order, and she sobbed, “I’m unable! I have a degenerative joint disease, I can’t put my arms like that!” (Fibromyalgia is not degenerative, but onset is usually recognized in adulthood, which can lead to that impression.)
She pled to onlookers, “They’re hurting me.” The woman lay prone crying for a moment, saying, “I didn’t do anything…”
After this, the police officers forced her arms behind her back, and escorted her to the back of a squad car. One of the officers is alleged to have referred to her as a “drama queen.”
We know all this in detail because a young man named Ninja Kitty was able to capture the entire incident on his smartphone. In 1991, when George Holliday captured the brutal Tasing and beating of Rodney King by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department, the recording of violent police encounters with the public was exceptional, rather than the norm.
One year earlier, in 1990, the first Copwatch group in the country was formed in Berkeley to document police harassment of homeless people on Telegraph Avenue. Similar groups were formed around the country, including out of the Coalition on Homelessness, the publisher of the Street Sheet newspaper in San Francisco.
The cost of video cameras and the poverty of people who have the most common contact with police meant that copwatching work required these specialized groups.
But a lot has changed in two decades. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 58 percent of adults in the United States own a smartphone. Many of the phones owned by the other 22 percent of cell-phone-carrying adults have cameras. The majority of adults in the United States are effectively carrying video cameras at all times.
The spread of the smartphone coincided with the growth of social networking. What was unusual about Rodney King’s beating was, unfortunately, not that Los Angeles Police officers were beating a black man, but rather that it was captured on camera and broadcast through the country by national media.
Today, a week does not pass that police abuse of power somewhere in the country does not get captured on an Android or iPhone and spread throughout the world via Facebook.
A 2012 Berkeley Police Department memo instructs officers to assume that their actions are being recorded any time that they interact with homeless youth.
For many Americans with greater privilege, this confluence of technologies has made it harder than ever to ignore longtime everyday realities of communities of color and mixed poor communities. For many people from oppressed communities, the spread of this documentation can have the effect of reducing isolation, and building community of struggle across great distances.
After recording this arrest in Berkeley, Ninja Kitty uploaded it to Facebook the same day. The video spread rapidly, getting shared hundreds of times within a couple days — not llamas on the lam in Arizona levels of fame, but quite a lot for people who follow politics and social justice in the small city of Berkeley.
That same day, February 10, was the date of a meeting of the Berkeley City Council, and Ninja Kitty and several other homeless people from downtown Berkeley marched to City Hall, and spoke out against police brutality at the meeting.
Ninja Kitty got his recognition from the Berkeley Police Department the following morning, when he was awakened by a kick to the testicles by Officer David Marble.
Ninja Kitty sleeps on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. He and those who stay near him reported continuous harassment by Berkeley cops over the following two weeks. This culminated in Ninja Kitty’s arrest early in the morning of February 23 for violation of California Penal Code Section 647(e): public lodging. PC 647(e) is the standard state law that criminalizes homelessness.
Berkeley’s meager shelter system is full, which means that a large number of homeless people sleep on Shattuck Avenue and surrounding streets. But Berkeley police singled out Ninja Kitty for arrest. He does not doubt that the arrest was retribution, either for filming, for participation in the march and speak-out at City Hall, or for both.
“The same officers [Marble and another, unidentified] woke me up at like 6:45, seven in the morning,” he said, “around the time I normally wake up anyway, and they said that they were arresting me for lodging. So I sat up and put my hands behind my back and they helped me stand up.”
After he was cuffed, the officers began searching his pockets, and at the same time twisting the handcuffs against his wrists. At this point, one of his companions began recording the arrest on her smartphone.
“As they were searching me,” he said, “one of the officers started squeezing the handcuffs in between the bones of my hand and my wrist and I told him to quit doing that. ‘It hurts!’”
In the video, the unidentified officer can be seen to twist his arm upward, to which Ninja Kitty objects, “Quit twisting the metal into my wrist!”
At this point, the officers began instructing Ninja Kitty to stop resisting arrest, “even though I was cooperating the whole time.” While Ninja Kitty is vocal and loud in the video, his story seems backed up by film.
Following his arrest, Ninja Kitty was held at Santa Rita, the major Alameda County jail, until February 26. He reports being denied medical treatment both at Berkeley’s holding facility and Santa Rita. On his release, he went to Highland Hospital in Oakland, where he was treated for a sprained wrist and elbow, and for nerve damage.
Ninja Kitty’s situation is far from unique. Ramsey Orta was arrested following his recording of the murder of Eric Garner. Homelessness puts people in a category wherein — in ways with some similarities to people of color, people with mental illnesses, and transgender people — they are presupposed to be criminals, and are subsequently at far greater risk when they take stands against police misconduct.
Of course, general social attitudes and consequently police attitudes toward homelessness are not identical with attitudes and fears concerning race. Mama Jude, who is white, was fortunately not killed. Ninja Kitty, also white, is out of jail, though awaiting trial.
But sleeping outside means that people like Ninja Kitty are in a very specific way unsheltered from retribution. “This is all a response to me being politically active and standing up for rights,” he said.
But he is not cowed, and intends to continue protesting against the criminalization of homelessness in Berkeley.
“I mean, what am I supposed to do? If the shelters are full and I got to sleep here, I got to sleep here. It can’t be illegal for me to sleep. It just can’t be. It’s highly inhumane. I will fight it.”