About a dozen people marched Saturday from People’s Park toward the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists on Cedar Street in memory of Kevin Freeman, the longtime Berkeley transient who allegedly was murdered by his cell mate in Santa Rita Jail in May.
Like most of the marchers, John “Papa” Lacy held up a sign protesting the circumstances of Freeman’s May 9 death. Critics say the fatal beating of Freeman, a chronic alcoholic who was in and out of jail for public drunkenness for years, is an example of what’s wrong with a system that incarcerates addicts and alcoholics instead of treating their substance abuse problems.
Those critics—including chemical dependency counselors, homeless care providers and veteran Berkeley activists—say the city needs to open a detox center. But, unlike most of those critics, Lacy, a self-described speed addict who lives with his wife on the streets, knows firsthand how it feels to struggle with addiction and to be demonized by the rest of the world.
While walking on Shattuck Street near Center Street, Lacy gets yet another taste of that regular dose of antipathy from a pedestrian crossing the marchers’ path. “Maybe you shouldn’t take the shit in the first place,” the passerby snaps.
“Maybe you should have your brains and guts splattered, too,” Lacy spits back, alluding to the grisly scene found at the scene of Freeman’s murder. According to jail guards, the walls of the jail cell were smeared with matter from Freeman’s brains and internal organs.
Lacy, who is called “Papa” by the street kids he looks after, has lived in Berkeley since 1993, when he moved here from the Southwest. Shortly afterward he met Freeman, whom he says was “always drunk.” Lacy added: “I’ve heard hearsay about him doing other things but the only thing I’ve ever seen him do is alcohol.”
While Freeman’s death has made him a sort of symbol for the national movement to implement more humane ways of dealing with drug and alcohol problems, Lacy’s continuing struggle makes him a living testament to the need for such reform. Lacy said he would be more likely to sober up and seek treatment if there was a place nearby he could go to.
“I think it would help ... me and my wife,” said Lacy, a wiry, slouched-over man with an eager-to-help attitude and the weathered face of a long-term addict.
But whether Freeman himself would have done so in time to save his life is questionable. Friends who eulogized him said his problem was intractable. Teddy Mead, who first met Freeman more than 20 years ago when both were residents at a former student co-operative called Barrington Hall, said he and other friends tried for years to convince Freeman to get help. “But he never listened to us,” Mead said.
Mead said he didn’t know Freeman well, but never knew him to “be a liar or a thief. He always maintained his ethics.” Speaking before a crowd of about 45 people, he said Freeman, a former high school state swimming champion, could talk with him “about the differences in Hindu spiritual paths and about politics. He was well read and intelligent.”
The memorial included an invocation by Beaver Berry, a Native-American elder from Oklahoma, who recounted his own struggle with chemical dependency and homelessness. “I know how it feels. People look at you like they don’t want to be around you, even your own family,” he said.
One of the eulogizers was Michael Diehl, a longtime Berkeley activist most noted for his work with Copwatch. He said he had seen him around since the early seventies, when both men moved to the Bay Area, Diehl said, “looking for the legacy of the 1960s.” Diehl said he believed Freeman was “pretty disenchanted with political dissent,” recounting an incident in which Freeman took money from a police officer to tear down flyers Diehl was passing out to rally support for a sleep-in demonstration on Dwight street to protest the arrest of homeless people for sleeping outdoors. “I said, why you tearing my flyers down man? We’re doing this for you. And he told me a cop gave him $50 to do it,” Diehl said, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
Diehl took the opportunity to criticize the city’s use of stay-away orders to prevent transients from going into certain areas. Freeman’s last arrest involved not only public drunkenness, for which he had been arrested repeatedly in the last few years, but also for violating a court-ordered stay-away order, which proscribed him from being in certain areas of Telegraph Avenue. Diehl said that by issuing the stay-away order the city “took his home away from him,” forcing him into the outskirts of the city, away from the familiar band of street people.
Christina, who would only give her first name, gave a glimpse into Freeman’s darker side. She said she was a friend of a woman with whom Freeman was involved. At times, she said, this friend would call her asking her to rescue her from Freeman’s physical abuse.
But she also recounted his good side: “He had a good sense of humor and a distinctive laugh that in turn made you want to laugh. ... When I heard about [his death] I was devastated,” she said, breaking out into tears.
Another who took to the microphone was Debbie Moore of the Xplicit Players, a pro-nudity activist theater group. She painted herself white and held a totem with a skull to symbolize death and the vulnerability of the homeless. Moore, who has been arrested 12 times for public nudity, said jail is a dangerous place, particularly because it becomes a sort of wasteland for substance abusers. “When I was in there, there were a lot of people on drugs, in various states of distress, and I was trying to heal them and comfort them, but it was very difficult to maintain the balance. It’s a delicate situation. Anything can happen in there,” she said.