The Public Commons for Everyone Initiative campaign, Berkeley’s latest effort to target the poor, featured a grey-haired woman who carried a photograph of her aged parents, and told their story.
Her parents had enjoyed sitting on a bench near Vine and Shattuck, but when homeless people began using the bench, “their” bench, they stopped sitting there. The local bank which, she said, had provided the bench for the public, finally took the bench away.
Debra Bahdia, the Executive Director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, cited this testimony to me as proof that something must be done. Surely elderly couples who refuse to share public space with the overtly poor can not be wrong, she suggested, as though this should be obvious.
I responded, that yes, they could be wrong. Charming older couples who insist that poor and homeless people be tucked out of sight for the comfort of the comfortable can indeed be wrong. Short-sighted politicians who obediently craft policy based on this discriminatory presumption get applause from the business community, but they are wrong as well.
It was wrong in the eighties for former Berkeley mayor Loni Hancock to send the city’s trash compactors up to People’s Park to destroy poor people’s property, hoping that the poor would just go away. It is wrong, thirty years later, to keep hounding the poorest people in town with tickets and bench warrants, cycling them unnecessarily through prisons and courts at the most vulnerable point in their lives.
The “Public Commons for Everyone Initiative” doesn’t just add an Orwellian flavor to Berkeley’s seemingly perpetual anti-homeless traditions. This new law takes the necessity of a public complaint completely out of the picture. The police no longer need a personal declaration from a member of the public to ticket the unwanted people who frequent downtown streets, the way they did years ago when the Downtown Berkeley Association printed up posters of an outstretched hand in a red circle with a line through it, trying in vain to change Berkeley’s quotient of sympathy for people in trouble.
The police in Berkeley are currently free of even the mild oversight of an ineffectual Police Review Commission, since the courts have decided that police accountability is a private, personnel matter, and as such is none of the public’s business. Now, thanks to the passage of the “PCEI” as embarrassed Berkeley city staff prefer to call it, the police can toss people in jail without evidence, without witnesses, and without worrying about getting a complaint in their file. If you are unaware that some officers have been doing this for years, you’re not discussing the matter enough with the crowd that buys their smokes one cigarette at a time.
Years ago, an earlier iteration of a proposed anti-poor policy began traversing Berkeley’s religious community in the hope of finding religious leaders who would sell out the poor’s civil right to sit down to rest for a moment for much-needed, albeit politically questionable, public funding. The late Father Bill O’Donnell and I walked into a local church’s Social Justice Committee meeting where the new proposal was being discussed, and heard a woman lament that when she was asked for spare change she just didn’t know what to do.
Bill told me later that he could hardly hold on when I responded that she should just give away a dime if she had one to spare. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent by the City of Berkeley to help people avoid learning exactly that, that there are dozens of creative ways to address an unexpected encounter with poverty, but that enlisting powerful business lobbies and politicians to silence and vacate the poor from public spaces is not right or fair.
Driving the poor out of public sight is currently being tolerated by a sleepwalking Berkeley public. I worry about the poor on these cold nights, but I worry even more about Berkeley’s absent conscience. We were once a community which would never walk past someone in trouble without pausing to see if we could help.
The rich are free to venture into what little is left of public space, and if the disparity between the rich and the poor bothers them, to do something creative with their concern. Let them sing, let them dance, let them give their money away. But we should never, never let them silence the poor. The poor truly do reflect the net result of their greed, and they absolutely need to see it.
Carol Denney is a community activist and musician.