A Column on Human Rights
by Carol Denney
You know you’re in exotic territory when you’re at a meeting in Berkeley and someone looks up, announces an opportunity for public comment — and nobody wants to say a word.
The annual meeting of the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA) on April 14 featured talks by pumped-up staff hoping nobody would make an issue of the international black eye given the whole town by the viral video that exposed the harassment, assault and false arrest of two homeless men at the hands of the DBA’s Block by Block “ambassador” program.
They didn’t have to worry. If you subtracted DBA board members and staff and the requisite city functionaries and catering crew, the place was pretty much empty except for a handful of curious observers enjoying the refreshments. Both city officials and the DBA are skilled at feigning surprise when international and local backlash against the repressive anti-homeless laws they trot out like clockwork every few years guts Berkeley merchants’ chances at a normal year.
They’re also skilled at feigning that they are representative.
The Downtown Berkeley Association’s job is supposed to boost the city’s desirability as a place to be and to see, a place to do business. It poses as representing “downtown” or “downtown businesses,” but at this point it’s made up of a handful of large property interests collapsing inward, trading appointed board positions between them like casseroles at a potluck, and relying on poorly disguised fake grassroots (i.e. BARF, Anchor Tenancy arts groups) to imitate support. In other words, it’s a lot like the City Council.
John Caner, the DBA’s CEO, tried to seem upbeat as he mentioned the $60,000 they’d spent in 2014 on sparkly holiday lights, the effect of which was pretty much ruined by all the CS gas unleashed on December’s Black Lives Matters protesters now suing the city, adding “hopefully that is now behind us.”
Caner did mention the viral video of the beatdown by DBA ambassadors, which he called “an opportunity for us to learn.”
Lance Goree, who oversees the Block by Block ambassador program, said of the videotaped violence against two homeless people: “The mistake I made in hiring him (the one ambassador who was fired) will not happen again.” Kind of an easy assurance to make since rehiring someone you’ve fired and who may be charged with criminal assault would make you look pretty dumb.
Oh well, these aren’t rocket scientists. I kind of felt sorry for the Berkeley City Councilmembers who were there: Lori Droste, Susan Wengraf, Darryl Moore, Laurie Capitelli, and of course Mayor Tom Bates, who tried to reassure these bumblers that they have their back since most of Berkeley sleeps through the systematic harassment and criminalization of the poor and nobody’s paying attention to that stuff.
But they may want to rethink the fact that over $100,000 each from the City of Berkeley and the University of California is going straight into the pockets of these ineffectual knuckleheads and their ridiculous hanging flower pots, since the housing, mental health, and educational programs that are currently being starved are a big part of what would make a practical difference to one’s downtown experience.
That $200,000 and the million-plus that make up the DBA’s budget still looks like real money to some of us.
Flower pots or housing and shelter space — your choice, Berkeley. The DBA ambassadors serve as a foil for the police, the DBA serves as a foil for the City Council, and what got lost along the way was an honestly representative voice for any community, since the large property owners, well, let’s just say they travel a lot.
Caner cited his DBA poll’s landslide public concern that they should do something about homelessness. The numbers on any other issue were miniscule compared to the obvious idiocy of trying to have a vibrant town center with people trying to brush their teeth, organize their belongings, and find their way out of the nightmare created by a housing crisis for which the DBA’s own property owners and landlords are largely responsible.
If there were honest market forces in the mix, the empty retail spaces downtown that have been yawning vacantly for years, would long ago have lowered their rates and be bustling with new businesses and jobs. Notice how that just doesn’t happen the way your civics teacher said it would?
Caner tried to look happy about the 16 new businesses opening downtown, knowing that anybody can go to the City of Berkeley’s website and contrast the number 16 with the more than 70 empty retail spaces which large property owners have no particular interest in filling up — unless they can get pre-2008 rates. And that’s not mentioning the hundreds of empty office spaces — don’t even go there.
The City of Berkeley and the Downtown Berkeley Association — which are pretty much one and the same — could, of course, prioritize shelter and low-income housing to meet community needs, creating more housing and protecting what’s left.
But that would interfere with the juggernaut of out-of-town real estate interests who prefer to knock down the old single-room-occupancy and cheap housing and kick out the artists, hippies and musicians who whine about civil rights and democracy.
And who can gather signatures for a referendum on the City Council’s new anti-homeless laws when the City Manager gets done fluffing them? It’s not that hard, since so few people vote, and one only needs a set percentage of the voting public to rescind a law. Which the council will then put on the ballot, followed by the comedy of the City and the DBA trying to look respectable while pouring their out-of-town real estate money into robbing the poor of their blankets.
Mayor Tom Bates also spoke at the DBA annual meeting, and seems to have perfected inaudibility. Not only could nobody hear him, nobody asked him to get closer to the mike or turn up the sound. I suppose they were happy enough to see that his lips were still moving.
The mayor had two unexciting things to announce for the DBA’s future: a BART Plaza redesign for what must be the fifth or sixth time, and changing Shattuck Avenue to two-way traffic — keeping the bar low in a year when the assessments for mandated membership are going up 2.5 percent and the property-based improvement district has to be reaffirmed by its membership right after the international embarrassment of that ambassador beatdown.
They haven’t fired the second DBA ambassador, by the way, the one who stopped people from helping the fellow being beaten and who was, in fact, supervising the green-shirted pugilist. The program and its staff were saluted without embarrassment at the DBA annual meeting despite the Peace and Justice Commission’s recommendation that the program be disbanded.
You can’t make this stuff up. It’s going to be a blast. It’s the same thing a lot of us have done before, but come out and join us because defending civil rights is really, really fun. Our songs are better. Our food is better, especially considering the DBA’s raggedy menu the other night.
There’s nothing quite like the roaring company of people who know the street, lawyers who love the people who know the street, ACLU types who love to sing the old civil rights songs, artists whose work seems to blossom under the press of repression, and all of us who get to embrace honesty and conscience as a matter of course in life. Come to the party! I want to meet you.