by Carol Denney
Sitting is not a crime in Berkeley. Loitering and sleeping are also not crimes in Berkeley, at least not yet.
But the “ambassadors” hired by the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA) freely admit and even formally present themselves as monitoring and curbing these behaviors, as witnessed by those attending the Peace and Justice Commission in a taped hearing on Monday, May 4, at the North Berkeley Senior Center.
The DBA’s ambassador program has apparently unilaterally determined, independent of any law or community standard, that these legal behaviors are “inappropriate.”
DBA ambassadors are walking around in the dubious authority of their bright green uniforms curbing the behavior of poor people, panhandlers, and people who appear to be homeless — absent any basis in law, any probable cause, any authority of any kind, and without any oversight.
The ambassadors are putting on a public display of institutional discrimination so visible and obvious that they made it part of their public presentation on May 4 before Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commissioners, many of whom seemed understandably appalled.
The DBA staff and ambassadors did not mention even once that they are the “eyes and ears of the police,” as their website states. The ambassador who was their primary presenter at the meeting gave a lengthy view of himself as a benign presence on the streets.
It was a highly revealing moment, for he spoke just before a citizen read an affidavit by someone who witnessed the same ambassador abusing a senior homeless man with threats and profanity only weeks before.
Even on the occasions when ambassadors manage to refrain from threats and profanity, it is absurd that a small, unrepresentative landlord’s lobby — the DBA — has somehow conferred upon the ambassadors the unjustified opportunity to make up arbitrary standards of behavior in a town which once had a city-sanctioned “How Berkeley Can You Be” parade and made tie-dye a global fashion.
It goes without saying, especially after the cascade of personal testimony before the Peace and Justice Commission regarding the prevalence of discriminatory and sometimes abusive practices of the ambassadors, that people on the streets often see a side of them that is far from benign.
The ambassadors of the Downtown Berkeley Association are, in short, an absurd gang of civil rights violators. Poor and homeless people are in the worst position to try to combat this kind of institutionalized discrimination.
Absent any responsible oversight from the City Council, this role is sadly falling to beleaguered, overworked city commissioners. And city commissions have too little influence over the council and the city manager to truly protect the public — even the public which might be poor or homeless — from absurd, artificial standards of behavior invented out of whole cloth by a private gang of green shirts to try to turn public streets into some peculiar version of Disneyland.
Berkeley citizens need to see the very real, inevitable results of the city’s poor planning when it comes to housing policy. They need to know when people are in need, or cold, or hungry. Chasing poor and homeless people off the streets or into the parks is an irrational response to the emergency we face, thanks to a City Council majority which refuses to address a lack of shelter, low-income housing, and a need for public campgrounds.
We’ve already had several acts of brutality committed by the ambassadors sent roving through our streets by the landlords’ lobby known as the DBA.
It is time to call for a complete suspension of the ambassador program until all voices are equally represented on the board of the DBA, until its programs honestly meet true community standards, and until the DBA recognizes its role in creating the crisis in housing which represents the truly inappropriate behavior — leaving families to suffer in the streets.
Both the Peace and Justice Commission and the Homeless Task Force have now called for the termination of the ambassador program with respect to its interaction with poor and homeless people.