Public Comment

Commentary: Blaming the Poor — It Costs, But Oh, How It Pays

By Carol Denney
Tuesday March 27, 2007

Ten years or so ago, the new-born Downtown Berkeley Association flexed its taxpayer-funded muscle and pressured the City Council to pass a raft of laws against “problematic street behavior,” widely touted as responsible for local economic decline. 

The citizen panel empowered by the City Council to share the responsibility for the obvious unconstitutional aspects deferred to the city attorney, civil libertarians predictably revolted, hundreds of people wasted thousands of hours working on referendums, the issue finally floated into court, where more taxpayer-funded hours were spent arguing on behalf of, arguably, the richest people in town versus the poor. Why are we here again? The University of California has again hired an expensive consultant group, MKThink, to waste $100,000 of public funds trying to “design” the poor out of People’s Park, and Mayor Tom Bates, following in his wife’s, former mayor Loni Hancock’s, shoes, is ready for another pound-on-the-poor proposal to either ticket them, jail them, or move this already exhausted group from one part of town to the other, probably criminalizing sitting on a milk crate in the bargain. The proposal is called, ironically enough, the “Public Commons for Everyone Initiative.” 

We’re here again because the current City Council majority would rather waste the money than take a stand for civil liberties, a stand which might be construed by their constitutionally impaired business constituencies as “soft” on panhandlers, milk crate sitters, and lost kids caught between a hardened, often brutally violent home and whatever comes next. 

The current council majority doesn’t mind if local, state, or federal legal protections for the poor are manicured by the courts once again in favor of profit. That costs nothing, if you don’t count staff time dreaming up the exotic language needed to skirt constitutional protections. The payoff is looking as if you care to the business groups, such as the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), which have no patience with people who suggest that their customers should share the streets with the poor. They know their Rodeo Drive-style patrons have trouble spending $400 on shoes anywhere near people who obviously need new ones. 

The payoff is also in not having to look at or implicate the skyrocketing rents being asked by the DBA’s often absentee property owners, which have driven anchor businesses out of town or out of business altogether after decades of serving Berkeley’s public. The DBA property owners are the group least likely to blame themselves for making it impossible to do business in Berkeley. And the people who need their campaign funds are the least likely to point it out. It’s easier, much easier, to point a finger at the poor. 

Be assured, as this foolish raft of business-driven prohibitions takes wing, that politicians are adept at walking the delicate path required to imitate support for the local economy while simultaneously imitating respect for human rights. But don’t expect anyone along the way to ask the real questions, chief among them, “how much money is enough?” Property owners who drive out long-standing businesses with sky-high rents are less visible but do much more damage than the down-and-out fellow asking for spare change. 


Carol Denney is a Berkeley musician and activist.