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First Protest Against Sitting Prohibition Proposal Pronounced a Success by Organizers

By Ted Friedman
Wednesday April 27, 2011 - 02:01:00 PM
Attorney Osha Neumann, sitting on the sidewalk in front of the former Cody's bookstore, explains what's wrong with the proposed ordinance as he makes protest signs.
Attorney Osha Neumann, sitting on the sidewalk in front of the former Cody's bookstore, explains what's wrong with the proposed ordinance as he makes protest signs.
The sit-down protest attracted a variety of demonstrators.
By Steven Finacom
The sit-down protest attracted a variety of demonstrators.
This Suitcase Clinic volunteer spoke to the Berkeley City Council during its public comment period.
By Ted Friedman
This Suitcase Clinic volunteer spoke to the Berkeley City Council during its public comment period.
Students joined the demonstration.
Students joined the demonstration.

More than 60 sitters, lie-ers, crawlers, and a clown engaged in a little street theater Tuesday at the old Cody’s building on Telegraph Avenue, demonstrating what might happen if a new measure prohibiting sitting or lying on public sidewalks were to be adopted by the Berkeley City Council.

Afterwards, demonstrators moved on to speak in the public comment period of the Berkeley City Council meeting, picking up more supporters along the route. They were joined by a large group of Cal students, workers at the Suitcase Clinic—who weren’t getting course credit for their efforts. The clinic provides medical treatment for homeless and other underserved clients.

At the city council meeting, five names were drawn at random to make public comments before the meeting started about items not on the council’s agenda for the night. Suitcase Clinic workers, who had become a sizeable percentage of the 100 or so protesters who occupied most of the seats in the council chamber, made impassioned statements defending the rights of their clients to sit down when they needed to, even on public sidewalks. 

According to one of the protest organizers, Gina Sasso, the goal of the action was to influence three city council members who protesters believe might change their yea votes to nays as the idea of a sit/lie prohibition moves closer to adoption at City Hall. 

Funny thing is, if you believe a quip made by Mayor Tom Bates during the comment period—there is no sit-lie ordinance proposed. But others claim one is in the works. 

Ordinance drafters are waiting to monitor legal challenges to San Francisco's recently passed sit-lie ordinance before they pull the trigger, according to Roland Peterson, spokesman for Telegraph Avenue businessmen, who, he intimates, are mad as hell and aren't going to take allegedly blocked doorways and other perceived threats to business on the Ave. 

"We also want to be less restrictive with our Berkeley ordinance," said Peterson. "For instance our ordinance won't—like S.F.'s—apply citywide," he said, "and will focus on the most egregious violations, such as blocking business doorways." 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who represents the Telegraph Avenue area, says that the main push is not coming from merchants, that some commercial property owners in Berkeley “just want to maximize their high rents.” 

But if the property owners would lower their rents to market levels, he says, “we could rent all the vacant storefronts.” 

He noted that similar efforts to get people off the street were made by local business groups in good economic times. “They tried to do it when the economy was booming, and now they’re trying to do it when the economy is down.” 

“Why is it that the sales are down worst in the areas with the fewest homeless people on the street? It’s clearly the recession, ” he believes. 

According to Berkeley homeless activist and renowned muralist Osha Neumann, an attorney at East-Bay Community Law Center, some Berkeley police "think sit-lie has already passed." He pointed out a protester who readily displayed his ticket for allegedly trespassing in a Cody building doorway. 

As Neumann lay prone during the demo, blocking the walk at Haste and Telegraph, two Berkeley police officers watched from across the street on Haste. The police left without doing anything more than eye-balling the civil disobedience event and kept citations to themselves. 

Neumann said that he hoped the action is going to be the start of an awakening in Berkeley…so we can move on from the fight to come together.” 

“This is absolutely not the way,” he said. “We already have an ordinance against lying on the sidewalk during the day.” 

He noted that laws of this sort have “hidden consequences”, and “don’t help the businesses.” 

“The City’s own studies show that the areas that have the most people on the street had the least decline in revenue” recently, he said. Business areas in Berkeley with the fewest homeless have actually seen the biggest drops in sales and City revenue, because of the recession, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development. 

Neumann sees the demonstration as representative of Berkeley’s “progressive values, the outgrowth of an earlier culture.” 

He remembers that Berkeley’s current tradition of progressivism and activism “grew out of a period when people were sitting on the sidewalks all the time…this political culture had its finest moment in the FSM when people sat down in front of a police car.” 

He believes “Berkeley could set an example here of not going with the flow, not scraping the bottom of our moral barrel.” 

The city could “talk about the real problems in our public spaces and deal with them without going for the police state,” he suggested. 

Later in the evening, on the sidewalk in front of Old City Hall as the protesters left the council meeting, Neumann, Sasso and other organizers agreed that the first outing of the loose coalition that has come together to try to head off yet another attempt at enacting a sitting ban in Berkeley had been a definite success. 

Becky O'Malley and Steven Finacom contributed to this article.