Public Comment

Who Owns The Commons?

By Thomas Lord
Tuesday December 11, 2007

Who “owns” the commons is, indeed, the right question but we must ask it clearly. There are two, relevant meanings of “own” in modern English: Ownership in rights, and ownership in disposition. Children use the latter sense when, for example, one might say “A-ha—I owned you in that videogame,” meaning that the speaker’s skills were so fabulous the competitor couldn’t do much. 

You can see the difference in meaning in a statement like: “Cal owns the grove but the protesters have owned the trees.” 

O’Malley ponders the difference between Telegraph and another, posher neighborhood. In both she finds boisterous, potentially quite dangerous behavior, offenses against the public health, infringements on the enjoyment and mobility of others through the space—in short, she uncritically finds in both places nothing but “city life.” 

Finding no serious difference in the sharing of public space between the two places, she then makes a very serious insinuation: that those of us who want new rules must be acting out of prejudice against poverty, tattoos, general scruffiness, and age. In short, she finds us to be, at best, uptight, snobbish squares. Sells papers, I guess. 

But, who “owns” the commons is the right question. By definition, all of us collectively own the commons “by right.” It should follow that no one or group of us owns it by disposition. 

So, what is the difference between Telegraph and some of the posher neighborhoods? Why is a dog pooping on a school yard less of an issue than a desperate homeless person, for want of a restroom, pooping in some comparable place? Why is a sprawl of strapping bikers less of an issue then a resting, itinerant, scruffy youth? 

The difference is in what, on the basis of history, we expect the effectiveness of policing to be. 

If the bikers in the posh neighborhood start to get too out of hand, the police (more likely the zoning commission) will be called. Owners of stores, bikers, neighbors, and other people from town will all participate. Complainers, the accused, and the town will all submit to an orderly, civil, conflict resolution process. Those people are accountable. We live by rule of law in those neighborhoods, even if compliance with the law is perpetually imperfect.  

In contrast, the problems on Telegraph have been illusive and troubling for as long as I’ve known the place (about 20 years). It ebbs and flows but, on average, you’ve got: (a) a small set of poor, some homeless, arguably pretty darn nuts people that everyone around has known and loved for years; (b) a larger set of adventure-seeking itinerant youth who have long found some of the free floating socialist spirit of Berkeley a great place to regain one’s feet, or at least energy to resume seeking; (c) a set of truly criminal youth who prey on group (b) and become both cover and retail front for petty drug trade, fencing trade, etc. (d) a longer-lived, multi-generational set of loose criminal organizations who compete to gain the benefits of group (c). 

In good times, group (d) is extremely benign, thus group (c) is well policed, group (b) is helped rather than exploited, and group (a) gets well fed and a lot of work helping group (b). In bad times, this soft, friendly atmosphere becomes a hot potato because competition for the economic niche of group (d) increases: people come to Berkeley hoping to gain “territory". With that increased stakes, things do start to get nasty and aggression by members of groups (c) and (d), especially, comes to be rewarded by group (d). It’s all quite Shakespearean when you see it up close. 

In short, the reason that some people feel unsafe going to Telegraph Avenue is because of a criminal conspiracy to make them feel that way. Our police, by virtue of our carefully restrained laws, are hampered in their right to directly address this conspiracy. 

Well, “conspiracy” is too strong a word. It isn’t that organized. There is no evil mastermind, just lots of people trying to survive in the moment. The pattern whereby people who might put a foot down about the criminal trade are chased away before they can form a complaint is just a natural side-effect of how the economics work out. 

This is bad news for O’Malley, in my view. When she says we should not crack down on the reports that places like downtown and Telegraph are out of hand, she is basically helping “group (d)” during a period of time when the criminality and aggression are on the rise. 

People in the posh neighborhoods, when they behave badly, are a problem, certainly. I’m all in favor of reminders to clean up your dog poop, leave room on the side walk, control your animals, etc. It’s good to have conversations about those hypocrisies. But—it’s entirely folly to glibbly equivocate between those issues and the smoldering brush fire we see in less fortunate neighborhoods. 


Thomas Lord is a Berkeley resident.