For over 40 years Michael Diehl was a presence in Berkeley, on the streets and the parks, connecting with people, talking, listening, or just being present. Many were homeless or inadequately housed. Some may have been sitting alone and having unexpected outbursts of anger and violence. They were people who needed help but had given up asking for or expecting it. Or they may have been people who were deeply concerned about political or social justice issues and were looking to engage with others in community action. Wherever he went, there were always people coming up to him, wanting to talk to him. He would never turn anyone away.
Berkeley lost Michael Diehl on September 29, when he was struck and killed by a car in Newark at around 8:30 in the evening, according to officials. He was 64 years old.
Michael moved to Berkeley from the East Coast in 1976.
From the moment he got here, he was deeply invested in the Berkeley community. He would be on the streets or in People’s Park where there are people who need help, people with nowhere else to go. These people felt safe expressing their feelings and admitting their fears to Michael. Throughout his life here, I watched him calmly dealing with troubled people and defusing stressful situations.
I heard about him appearing at city council meetings, at various government and civic organizations speaking on behalf of people who couldn’t speak for themselves.
Michael and I met at People’s Park when I was helping serve the Food Not Bombs afternoon meal. We would often greet each other at the park. I wanted to get to know him—he was special. I asked him to sit and talk with me. I had a lot of questions and I felt I could learn much from him. We sat down on a bench and we talked. He shared his knowledge with me, his experience, his spirit.
For 14 years he worked for BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self- Sufficiency) as a community organizer. Actually, he said that his job was better described as peer outreach. “The word peer is important,” he told me during a conversation we had for an article I wrote for a 2014 issue of Street Spirit. “I mean, somebody who has their own mental health issues, some recovery, and is able to help somebody. I’ve been on the streets, suicidal, depressed, done just about every drug there is,” he told me. “I don’t do all this now. Sometimes I sleep out just to remember.”
At BOSS, his job involved connect- ing homeless and at-risk people with community services that would help them find housing and stabilize their lives. “But the work is extremely frus- trating,” he said, “because there are not enough services and there is not enough affordable housing to meet the need.”
It was not just housing but the ever-growing need for mental health services. He talked about people in the street who act out, who yell and get violent or abusive. He often said that there is a mental health compo- nent to homelessness. He talked about the traumatic effects of poverty and homelessness. “You’re not feeling safe on the streets…It’s dangerous on the streets…And a lot of people who have been victims of violence project it out. They’re on the edge.” He told me that he himself had to do years of medita- tion to get rid of his anger. He put it simply, “hurt people hurt people.”
These things are even more true now, but Michael never stopped try- ing, even long after he was no longer employed by BOSS.
I once asked what he does with people who are traumatized. His answer was a lesson I will never forget. “Get them to tell their story. That’s the most important thing. That’s a lot of what I do.” To elaborate, he described a demonstration that took place in front of the Marine Corps recruiting office in downtown Berkeley some years ago. A crowd of very angry men had gathered threatening violence. “It became very clear. There was one guy with an American flag. He came from inland California and he was mad. He was a Vietnam vet,” he said. Michael asked the man to tell his story. “He told his whole story about Vietnam.” Michael listened to him speak for twenty minutes. Afterward the man said, “thanks, that felt good.”
“I figured you wanted to come to Berkeley and tell someone,” Michael said to the man. Then, he took his flag and walked away.
Michael was also a successful community organizer. When he saw an interest developing around a particular issue or activity, he would help people work together to make it happen. By way of an example, he told me the story of establishing a garden in People’s Park.
“I helped get things going and then stepped back and let other people
do it,” he said. Though it was not easy—he recalled watching agonizing months of conflict and temper tan- trums as well as relentless pressure from the University. But he stayed with it all the way. “Now it seems to be working so I don’t need to contin- ue. That’s the essence of being a good organizer. You want to avoid being the one doing it all.”
Michael loved music and dancing. If someone set up their drums in People’s Park and started playing, Michael would break into an exuberant dance. It didn’t matter if nobody joined him. He made this part of his activism. “It brings a whole new dimension to it,” he declared. We recalled how at Occupy Oakland someone brought some music, and he started dancing. Soon, it became a group activity. He also built a connection with the street youth on Shattuck Avenue based on a shared appreciation of music.
After losing his job at BOSS, Michael found himself unemployed for the first time in 14 years. It was a devas- tating blow. Though he was no longer in a formal position to be a commu- nity organizer, he continued to take part in actions and to write about the issues and problems facing the community in Street Spirit as well as other publications.
He wrote about city council attempts to pass anti-homeless laws and reduce services for homeless and mentally disabled people. He focused on policies and practices of the police department, calling for crisis intervention training, and speaking against the use of tasers.
He had contacts and kept in touch with the many public and private agencies that had programs and services for homeless and mentally
ill people, so he was able to advise people in need where and how they might get help. But over time, he him- self came to need help. He might have gone on permanent mental disability, but he would not accept that.
He was increasingly conscious of his own impending homelessness. Without a job, no income and no access to medical care or services, he was struggling to support himself by selling buttons and getting signatures supporting various political issues. People noticed his energy flagging, his swollen legs and painful walk but nobody was in a position to help him.
The time came when he no longer had a roof over his head, or a bed to sleep in. His last home was on a hill above the Caldecott tunnel with a view of Berkeley spread before him.
Boona Cheema is organizing a memorial for Michael at BOSS. As of this writing, it is tentatively scheduled for November 3.
Street Spirits is a column that features the stories of unhoused people.
Lydia Gans is a writer, photographer, and activist who lives in Berkeley.