Public Comment

Discrimination and the Smokefree Universe Far, Far Away

By C. Denney
Monday May 16, 2011 - 05:05:00 PM

Smokers congregate outside the Acme Bar on San Pablo Avenue, blowing clouds of smoke into the air of the smokefree business district. No cops, no tickets, no scolding by management. It’s the same story down the street at the Albatross, where employees who smoke join the crowd, puffing away in the evening air, even using an ashtray by the door supposedly forbidden for establishments to place in smokefree areas. It’s the same at the Jupiter, in Downtown Berkeley, the same at the Trieste Café. It’s the same all over town. 

Police officers asked about the situation will point out smokefree business district policy passed with the understanding that it would be largely self-enforced; people who smoke would come to appreciate the common sense of protecting the majority, who don’t smoke, from the deadly effects of secondhand smoke, moving away from public areas to indulge in a habit most of them hope to break. 

Perhaps this is taking place in some universe far, far away. 

If one lives in a mixed-use commercial area, as policymakers want more of us to do, the current non-enforcement policy means that bus riders get exposed on a daily basis while waiting for their bus, dog walkers get exposed regularly just circling a block or two, people trying to mail a letter or run an errand get exposed over and over throughout any ordinary day. 

The kids who live in my apartment building get exposed in our common areas by smokers next door whose secondhand smoke carries through ventilation systems, light fixtures, cracks in the building, and out of windows and doors, and then again as they go to and from school through the supposedly smokefree commercial district in which they live. 

I would be more patient with the non-enforcement model if I didn’t hear regularly from service providers that transient youth and homeless people are getting tickets for violating smoking regulations. Anyone who wishes to evaluate a possibly discriminatory pattern of enforcement will be told that there is no way to track these tickets, which cover a broad array of so-called “quality of life” offenses. 

Our community currently has no way of knowing whether or not the smoking regulations are being used primarily against certain groups, since while Berkeley once had a viable system of police review, it is now so thoroughly gutted that people no longer crow about its being a national model. Most people don’t bother with it when they experience misconduct. 

But our Berkeley City Council should think twice before giving birth to yet another law with strong potential for being used in a discriminatory way, such as the anti-sitting law now brewing behind the scenes, according to the Chamber of Commerce. Vulnerable people on the streets caught in the net of discriminatory “quality of life” ordinance violations end up with an exponential burden of court dates, fines, and jail time. 

We need to track the use of the laws commonly applied to transient youth and homeless people, and find out whether we already have a pattern and practice of discrimination at work in our community. These are problems difficult to see from the standpoint of people who don’t live in the commercial districts and don’t have any way of knowing how many tickets are being given to whom.  

I urge the Berkeley City Council and the mayor to put some effort into a tracking system, such as the one which the Police Department initially promised would accompany the institution of the use of pepper spray on Berkeley citizens, and did in fact at one time prove that pepper spray was being used primarily against people of color in the area near Sacramento and Alcatraz.  

Our community suffers in serious ways when laws are utilized in a discriminatory fashion. Most Berkeley citizens, policymakers, and police would agree. Let’s take a systematic look at what’s going on today on our streets, and make sure we’re not further tilting an already tilted game.