It is a sad spectacle to see the once-liberal mayor and City Council promoting the right-wing proposals of powerful business interests and ordering a law-and-order crackdown straight out of Nixon.
All across the nation, cities are responding to the rising floodtides of poverty and homelessness, not by creating model programs to enable people to survive these harsh times, but by persecuting the victims of an economic downturn of historic dimensions. This is as shortsighted as responding to the plight of shipwreck victims capsized by a torrential deluge by banning the right to swim.
Scores of cities from coast to coast have criminalized such harmless and necessary behaviors as sitting on sidewalks, sleeping outdoors, "lodging" in public, asking for spare change, and "camping" in public parks. These repressive new laws trample on the constitutional rights of the poorest of the poor, but few people are even aware of the massive extent of these human rights violations because they are targeted at people who are almost invisible to mainstream society. The sheer inhumanity of these discriminatory laws would cause an immediate outcry if imposed on any other minority group in our society.
The basic right of homeless people to even EXIST in public spaces is increasingly threatened by these repressive new laws. Most disturbing of all, many of these "new" laws and ordinances aimed at banishing the poor are identical in spirit to the segregation laws that attempted, in one of the sorriest eras of American history, to banish African-Americans from public facilities.
In recent months, both San Francisco and Berkeley, two of the most liberal cities in the nation, have attempted to enact ordinances that banish homeless people from sitting or lying in public spaces or on public sidewalks. Activists have responded by jointly calling for same-day protests on May 22 in both cities to challenge Berkeley's proposed new sitting ban, and to protest San Francisco's sweeping sit/lie ban which went into effect in January 2011.
In this brave new world of unregulated capitalism, nearly everything can be bought and sold, or rigged and controlled. Everything is up for sale -- the city sidewalks, the public commons, the political process, the candidates running for elections, even the vanishing rights of the poor.
In Berkeley, the sidewalks evidently no longer belong to the public, but to the businesses that line the shopping districts on Telegraph and Shattuck avenues. Many business owners assume they have a proprietary right to dictate new repressive laws to city politicians in Berkeley, in an effort to eliminate undesirable citizens from public view.
The latest effort by merchants to banish the poor from their doors was uncovered on Feb. 8, 2011, when Sally Hindman, a longtime homeless activist and the director of Youth Spirit Artworks, unknowingly walked into a roundtable lunch of the Berkeley Business Improvement Districts. Hindman was startled to hear the business associations plotting to pass what she called a "most disheartening" effort to pass new laws to "nail homeless people for sitting on the sidewalks."
The business leaders were in a triumphal mood, declaring publicly that Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates had promised them that he would push through an ordinance modeled on a San Francisco law passed by voters last November that criminalized homeless people for sitting or lying on public sidewalks.
Berkeley's proposed clampdown was championed by the Downtown Berkeley Association and the Telegraph Avenue Merchants' Association. The business associations followed up their luncheon with a Chamber of Commerce forum on April 4, where they discussed the prospects for passing a law to banish homeless youth sitting in business districts.
Only a few weeks ago, many business owners thought they had this repressive new law in the bag, expressing confidence that they had enough votes on the Berkeley City Council to pass their proposed sitting ban with little opposition.
Yet when homeless activists learned of this plan, they began a very effective campaign that quickly mobilized broad opposition. In only a few weeks, they had created a Keep Sitting Legal coalition, which now includes virtually every homeless service provider in Berkeley, along with homeless activist groups and legal agencies fighting to defend the rights of the poor.
Nearly every homeless organization in Berkeley is now united in opposition to the sitting ban before it has even been introduced at the City Council. Already, some council members that the business associations had boasted were already in the bag are evidently having second thoughts about supporting the ban.
When the groups protesting the ban packed the City Council on April 26 to show the strength of their opposition, even Mayor Bates began to distance himself slightly from the ordinance he had promised the businesses he would sponsor, by saying no law had yet been put forward.
Merchants' Flawed Logic
Elisa Della-Piana, director of the Neighborhood Justice Clinic of the East Bay Community Law Center, pointed out the flawed logic of the merchants promoting the bill. "The purported goal of the new law would be to improve the economy, but the City's own data shows that businesses are doing best in areas where sitting people are most prevalent: Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues." Her analysis cited the Berkeley city manager's own memo to the City Council stating that Telegraph Avenue and downtown merchants are doing better than Fourth Street, where there are practically no homeless people.
Homeless people don't have anywhere but public spaces to sit and rest. If the act of sitting down is criminalized, the obvious intent of the law is to drive visibly poor citizens out of downtown areas.
Punitive laws that banish certain groups of people from public spaces -- whether based on appearance, economic class, or race -- are, in fact, modern-day segregation decrees, plain and simple. Berkeley's proposed sitting ban is based on the same kind of societal prejudice against "undesirables" that gave birth to the discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the worst moments of our nation's history.
'I'm Leaning To The Right'
We live in a cruel era when both Republicans and Democrats are destroying the nation's safety net, decimating anti-poverty measures that took generations to build, beginning with FDR's New Deal, enacted in the Great Depression.
Many poor and working-class people are once again enduring Depression-level economic hardships, yet now the country is controlled, not by a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but by the banks, corporations and Wall Street investment firms. Those powerful forces have bought and sold the electoral process, so that now business interests and the pursuit of profits are valued more highly than human rights.
Business interests not only control the economy; they also control the political system, because most politicians are for sale. This ongoing triumph of profit over human rights is occurring on the national and international level.
We see the microcosmic equivalence of this process played out on the smaller stage of Berkeley, where the rights of the poor are being sold out at firesale prices. When businesses call the tune, as they do in Berkeley, the Chamber of Commerce ends up exerting undue influence on even a supposedly liberal Democratic mayor.
Jack Bruce of Cream wrote a prescient song, "Politician," that lays this dynamic bare for all to see. As the song's Politician declares: "I support the left, though I'm leaning, leaning to the right." That quite aptly summarizes the trajectory of Mayor Bates' descent.
It is a sad spectacle to see the mayor of Berkeley, a longtime liberal, agreeing to support the right-wing pressures of powerful business interests and, at their behest, order a law-and-order crackdown straight out of Nixon.
When liberals run for election, they tell us they support the progressive and humane values of the left. Once in office, they learn the substantial advantages of switching sides to support the right.
Bates demonstrated that he has long since learned this lesson when he sponsored Public Commons for Everyone, an initiative that utilized Orwellian double-speak to cover-up its real aim of banning homeless people from existing in the public commons. The measure, passed by the City Council on Nov. 27, 2007, criminalized lying down or "lodging" by homeless people on every sidewalk of every commercial zone in Berkeley.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and Berkeley City Council member Kriss Worthington continues to shine as an example of a public servant who will stand up against those who want to unleash the police on the most powerless and vulnerable citizens.
Not For Sale
In the harsh new era of profit before people, only one thing isn't for sale: the human conscience. We must keep alive the sense that it's wrong to sell out our brothers and sisters on the streets for the interests of a few businesses.
It is heartening that the Berkeley politicians who only a month ago appeared ready to enact a sitting ban at the bidding of their business associates, have now run headlong into the human conscience.
The first protest against this proposal was organized by one of Berkeley's major service providers, BOSS, on April 26. Homeless people, street youth and their supporters marched through downtown Berkeley, held sit-down protests on the sidewalks of Telegraph and Shattuck avenues, and then jammed the City Council to overflowing.
At an electrifying moment, a speaker from UC's Suitcase Clinic asked everyone in the council chambers who opposed the sitting ban to stand up. Virtually everyone in the packed chambers stood up as one, in determined and united opposition.
As we all stood in silent opposition, I was grateful to see that the business associations have not yet found an effective way to buy and sell the human conscience.