Walking by an art gallery opening at Berkeley Central Arts Passage on Center Street one recent afternoon was a young woman who took the next-door brewery’s wooden signboard blocking the sidewalk and slid it several feet into the passageway.
I was standing nearby and thought the signboard sliding into the gallery was an amusing special effect — some kind of strange magic. I walked out to see what had happened.
Two people who apparently knew her counseled me to let it go as she walked away down Center, explaining that she was one of the people constantly getting ticketed and hassled for sidewalk stuff, while nobody bothers with the signboards blocking sidewalks.
I watched her go, wondering what she’d been through with the ever-changing sidewalk laws in Berkeley, which gives birth to new, twisted iterations of sidewalk restrictions with horrifying regularity.
I had recently photographed dozens of business violations of sidewalk restrictions, hoping to affect the Berkeley City Council’s latest round of discriminatory restrictions aimed at poor people, but only Councilmember Cheryl Davila abstained.
The woman’s disdain for the not-permitted signboard blocking her path made perfect sense to me. The tables, chairs, signboards, and rolling racks of merchandise all over Berkeley have no legal permits. I had checked with various planning and code entities to make sure.
But the police and the City Council have an agenda, and signboards aren’t on it the way poor people are, and poor people are on the agenda mostly due to their visibility. They’re serious when they insist that their downtown look like Disneyland.
This is the same nexus of policymakers who want your money and your vote in a few months. They want you to support more taxes without addressing the lopsided use of police resources against the poor.
If you’re anything like me, you’re receiving newsletters and carefully ironed updates with carefully chosen vocabulary in the hope that you’ll have your view of the city and your neighborhood’s issues framed in a manageable parameter.
This is your chance. Ask them why they haven’t spoken up for respect for People’s Park’s city landmark status.
Ask them why they haven’t led a parade through your local commercial district picking up sidewalk-blocking signboards and placing them back inside the businesses where they belong.
Ask them why the tent sweeps always seem to happen in the middle of the night, in the dark when it is hardest for the people affected to pack their belongings, find their glasses, and safely comply.
You don’t have to raise your voice, sound angry, or use profanity; you’ll probably give them an advantage if you do. Just ask. Watch them to see if there is any sign that they recognize the issues you’re raising and have given them thought. Call their opposition and ask the same questions.
This matters. Because those carefully constrained newsletters and campaign events are going to come harder and faster as the election grows closer. And each time someone hears the civil rights concerns that too often go unaddressed in a town that thinks it has all the answers inquired about with dignity and civility, it gives others courage to raise the same questions.
The best politicians are not born. They are crafted and nourished by eagle-eyed citizens taking their measure, nurturing their talent, and if necessary, exposing their corruption.
Be that citizen with your poetry, your art, your dance, your theater, your wallet, your activism and certainly your voice. You may start alone, but you won’t be alone for long.
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“Faux Street Revisited.” The public sidewalks are seen from very different viewpoints — depending on poverty and housing status. Painting by Christine Hanlon, oil on canvas

A Woman’s Song and a ‘Me Too’ Moment

by Carol Denney

It started with a slightly salacious lyric that moved quickly through what any woman would recognize as the typical trajectory; he loves her, he kills her, he mutilates her body in an effort to humiliate her and/or cover his tracks. It elicited a couple of nervous laughs, but most of the audience quietly endured it.
There’s nothing original in such storylines. If you cleared all folk, rock, rap, and ballads of this stuff you’d have a free speech battle and knock out half of both the traditional and contemporary canon. The music was a classic blues riff so there was nothing in the music itself that was particularly original, either. Some of the women in the hall exchanged glances, but most of the hall just quietly waited it out, even giving it reluctant, polite applause.
But one woman addressed it. She sat quietly at the piano when it was her turn to play, and told the story of her own reaction to hearing the story of another unnamed woman murdered and mutilated, played for laughs. She spoke quietly, with no apparent anger. The mutilation song singer tried to interrupt her and someone near him hushed him, pointing out that the woman onstage had not interrupted him during his performance.
The storyteller onstage did her best to compliment the player’s playing. She had no trouble convincing us how hard she had tried to just enjoy what she could of the performance, because we all had tried to do the same. But she just couldn’t, she said quietly, and began to sing.
It was a song about people from disparate worlds trading perspectives sung and played with elegance, simplicity, and beauty. It was a song about the sometimes complicated path to unity and respect.
Woman after woman met eyes across the hall during the song, tears running down cheeks, sighs of relief breaking like waves across a barren beach. The dark hall seemed to fill with light, with stars. Without knowing how or why, small groups of us nodded toward the lobby after the song ended so we could just cherish the moment, meet each other, be there longer.
When the mutilation song singer had tried to interrupt the woman onstage, he’d said, “no women were hurt in the writing of that song” or something similar, a play on the typical disclaimer in movie credits to ward off critics of animal abuse, etc.
He was wrong. Women walk daily through a world where they’re thought of as prey and discarded as an inconvenience. The ugly jokes, the songs about digging a hole in the meadow go right by many people; perhaps most people. But women, and the men who care about them and listen to them, have songs capable of putting things right.
No free speech rights were violated in addressing that night’s misogyny.
The sad, sapped nature of the mutilation song was the perfect setting for a woman’s voice in perfect, resonant, original, powerful response, and a flowering of connections in a crowd of both men and women who knew, after patiently waiting for a long, long time, that a world with a long way to go can, in fact, change when women’s voices are included.
It may not be all it takes, but it is a powerful way to begin.

Carol Denney is a writer, poet, and musician who lives in the East Bay.