Public Comment

Commentary: Community Courage

By Winston Burton
Tuesday March 27, 2007

The law of the jungle is survival of the fittest; the law of civilization is cooperation! 

I had walked by the same one-story office building in Hayward for over a year on my way to work, often waving good morning to the occupants, but only rarely getting a wave back. One day a woman ran from that building to my office, which was down the street, screaming, “Help! Help! He stole my purse!” “Who?” I said. She pointed to a white male running down the street. I took off in hot pursuit. He was not slowing down. He zigzagged through traffic, tried to hide behind bushes and jumped over a number of fences. I continued to follow. Eventually he jumped over a fence and I heard the sounds of dogs barking. I stopped. I was eight blocks away from where I started, out of breath and figured I had done enough. In a few minutes the women whose purse was stolen pulled up in a police car. I told the officer which direction the assailant was running and got in the back seat of the police car. He drove us back to the street we worked on. As we pulled up in front of her job, her co-workers started yelling excitedly “You got him! You got him!” Pointing at me in the backseat of the car!  

Community courage is about personal courage. It has taken individual courage to achieve the gains we’ve achieved through the civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and ultimately the human rights movements that state we don’t want to be segregated, but welcome and encourage multi-ethnic, racial, cultural and religious participation. If we want to live in a society like that, we need to all be involved. If not in this nation, at least in Berkeley! I may be mistaken, but I thought that’s what Berkeley was all about! But here we go again!  

Now—about the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative (PCEI).  

Community standards should not just be about how the have-nots, can-nots and will-nots should and don’t behave, but also how we who are housed, well educated, well fed and paid should behave to protect the lessors if we care about an integrated and free society. 

He was grabbing her by her hair, kicking her and punching her in the face. My friend and I who were walking by grabbed him and shoved him against a wall. The women he was beating turned to us and said “Get your hands off my husband.”  

I remember Selma, Alabama, dogs, hoses, Montgomery bus boycott, sit-ins, beatings, and it all happened in my lifetime. So please don’t blame me if I sometimes question the authorities who were agents of my discrimination, and my government that sanctioned it, and who made it the law of the land. When it comes to deciding how the public should behave and who is right and who is wrong. I think America’s track record is tainted.  

She must have been close to 80 years old with a walker alone on Shattuck Avenue, near Oscar’s hamburgers. Someone she didn’t know ran up screaming in a psychotic rage, “You bitch you owe me.” She was terrified. I intervened and said, “Back off man.” Now his rage was directed at me. We argued. A car pulled over and four guys jumped out, and in a few minutes a crowd formed, and for no reason, was convinced I was harassing an old woman on the street. Fortunatelyf before I was attacked, she convinced the crowd (mob) that I was the good guy! 

Let’s call it what it is! If you don’t want to see poor people begging on the streets or if that embarrasses you to out- of-town visitors, you can’t hide it under the rug by penalizing bad behavior in one part of town but not the other. It should be a community standard, supported by community courage. If you want to stop panhandling, maybe we need to stop poverty or redistribute the nation’s wealth and stop blaming the victims. How can three people dictate the lives of 50! It’s a lack of courage, it’s our fault. If you see bad behavior, resist it, report it, and sometimes you may have to intervene. We don’t need new laws. We need each other! Community courage does not mean you have to chase people down the street or wrestle with evil doers. We need to take more interest in things beyond our selves and our immediate family. Fear is our enemy, not poor people! 

To me, public safety is not threatened by a person with a cup on a corner. And even though when I have intervened to help people in the past and been accused of being the wrongdoer, that’s the price of freedom in America and I’m willing to pay the price—are you? I’ve got your back! Do you have mine? 


Winston Burton is a member of the Downtown Plan Committee.