by Carol Denney
I was walking on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley recently when a woman walking ahead of me leaned over to a woman in a wheelchair who was panhandling and said something to her about her appearance. The disabled woman was so hurt and upset that she called after the woman who was now walking triumphantly away saying, “but I don’t weigh 350 pounds,” and she began to cry. Her despair and her tears were heartbreaking.
I stopped by the woman in the wheelchair and looked ahead at the walking woman who was now waiting for the stoplight. She continued disparaging the woman’s appearance to the other people waiting for the light, freely making additional gratuitous comments about the woman’s weight, although the other people just looked at her blankly or looked away.
It was horrifying to see how free she felt to judge the disabled woman so openly, so publicly, so unnecessarily, and with such enjoyment.
I walked quickly to catch up to her and gave her a piece of my mind, telling her she had no excuse for being so unkind. She seemed startled that anyone would object, but she finally agreed that she should be more courteous to people less advantaged than she.
I went back and comforted the woman using the wheelchair, who then told me about the “ambassador” for the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), a white man with a goatee on the street-cleaning team, who routinely belittles her and had called her names just the day before. She described him to me.
I listened to her and hugged her while she cried in my arms. I cried, too. She told me how difficult it was trying to collect enough money on the street for one night’s shelter in a place nearby. It takes hours to panhandle enough to cover the cost since people generally give so little.
She was tired. She was in pain. She was so emotionally wounded she poured her heart out to me, a stranger. I gave her what I could and told her I would do my best to make a complaint about her mistreatment, at least by the DBA employee, part of the bright-green-jacket crew ostensibly hired to clean the streets of a selected property-based area of the downtown.
The map of this select area is growing. It once was business-based, but that allowed businesses to more easily opt out of the yearly tax, which masquerades as a hospitality and marketing service but looks like equal parts homeless harassment to others.
Until recently, the green-jacketed street-cleaners the DBA likes to call “ambassadors” considered it their job to tear down community posters in the downtown with some special content-based exceptions.
The Berkeley City Attorney advised them, at Street Spirit’s insistence, that this was unconstitutional, but the DBA’s staff had before that time insisted that this was simply beautification.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason that the casual, public abuse of this young woman in a wheelchair was so traumatic for both of us. I am much older, and my gray hair nets public vocal disdain often enough. Both women and men seem to think it their right, almost their obligation, to publicly and loudly disparage my body as casually as the current Republican nominee.
My initial letter to the DBA’s Lance Goree, who supervises the street hospitality workers downtown, got a response stating he would look into it. I copied several other commissions on the letter, hoping at least some other community members might share my concern and my interest in the DBA’s nascent complaint process, a complaint process the DBA hastily instituted after one of their “ambassadors” was videotaped brutally beating a homeless man while another looked on.
I asked for copies of any complaints about their employees they had received up to that point in order to evaluate any patterns of conduct or misconduct. Four days later Goree sent another email:
“It is very important to point out, this is a verbal confrontation between two adults, one of which happened to be an off-duty ambassador. The off-duty ambassador was NOT providing any direction to the other adult, or act (sic) in the capacity of an ambassador in any way. To the best of our knowledge, any derogatory terms used, by either individual, were not aimed at any person’s disability, mental capacity or presumed living situation.
“With that said, especially but not specifically, since the confrontation happened within district boundaries, the conduct of said ambassador is under review for further disciplinary action.”
Even if the DBA has complaint forms one can download from its website, its ambassadors continue to operate without any independent oversight as specifically called for by the Homeless Task Force.
The Police Review Commission’s (PRC) staff seem bewildered that anyone would think the PRC would have any interest or involvement in the conduct of the DBA’s employees, who are all armed with special communications tools to communicate quickly with their supervisor and with the police.
The reluctance of merchants and members of the public to call the police on people with no home, no money, and nowhere to go in a city with no resources for them is no small part of the reason the current Berkeley City Council majority insists on having the DBA’s unaccountable green shirts patrolling the streets.
The DBA’s internal complaint form has a space for people to praise the employee, but even so, Goree has not responded to the Public Records Act request for the complaint forms received so far.
The ambassador in question was temporarily suspended, but there is no clarity regarding my own complaint, complaints generally, or how the complaint process works. The DBA’s process is entirely internal, and so far entirely invisible.
Our downtown streets and open spaces are a very private workplace and playground for the DBA and its employees when they want to tear down public posters, physically attack people who don’t comply with their orders, or abuse people who don’t meet their standard of beauty.
But our streets are a very public place when that abuse is questioned, so that the free speech of the abusive employee is defined as protected behavior.
Until independent minds evaluate this conundrum, this sleight of hand is just another publicly funded anomaly observable in our streets — along with the despairing, broken-hearted victims of a profit-driven housing policy.
We can ignore, or even join in to abuse those who can’t keep up with skyrocketing rents, failing health, or both. But I hope we can also imagine a downtown where people in need could be easily connected with safe, accessible, honestly affordable housing. Especially considering all the new units being shoveled into the Planning Department’s pipeline, it doesn’t seem at all hard to do.