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The World's First Chair-a-Pillar Comes to Downtown Berkeley

By Lydia Gans
Tuesday May 24, 2011 - 08:25:00 PM
Lydia Gans
Lydia Gans
Lydia Gans
Carol Denney

Sunday at the Downtown Berkeley BART station there was a unique, quirky, dynamic action to protest a proposed ban on sitting or lying on sidewalks. It was sponsored by the Stand Up For The Right To Sit Down coalition and it was called a Chair-a-Pillar, the inspired invention of musician and writer Carol Denny. This new and clever way to stage a public protest went on for almost two hours, attracting much interest and support from passers-by.

Participants gathered at noon with signs and chairs on the street side of the BART station entrance on Shattuck Avenue. They arranged their chairs in a row and sat with their signs facing the street. The action started when the person at one end of the row picked up his chair, took it to the other end and sat down. The next person in line did the same.

As the action continued this way the line of chairs snaked around the BART station and wound its way up and down the sidewalk. Sometimes signs faced the street, eliciting enthusiastic horn honking from passing cars, and at other times they faced the people walking on the sidewalk. 

The continual movement attracted people passing and invited conversation—some grabbed a chair and joined the demonstration. There were plenty of chairs, some brought by participants and others painted in bright colors by the young people in Sally Hindman's Youth Art Works program. 

At the height of the action there were several dozen people taking part. A couple of Berkeley High students downtown with their bicycles came over to check it out and decided to participate. It was their first time joining a demonstration.  

When sitters explained to passing pedestrians that an ordinance forbidding sitting down was being considered for Berkeley, the reaction, repeated several times, was “You’re kidding!” Matt Brennan, a participant, said “sitting is a complete right for everyone in this country and there's no reason to take it away.”  

A woman came by with a case of bottled water which she passed out to those in the chairs. She would not give her name, explaining that she had been homeless with a daughter and her daughter would be embarrassed because of the stigma attached to homelessness. 

She brought copies of a printed statement she has written and is passing out all over town. It is a powerful criticism of the sit/lie ban, calling it “an act of classism.” She speaks in the flyer of the “common sense of the social uproar and public outrage that would occur if [it were] said that 'We don't want black people hanging out in front of the stores' “, but points out that it is also “very damaging and discriminatory to homeless persons … to say 'we don't want homeless people sitting in front of the stores.' ” She says that “classism is just as bad as racism when prejudice occurs.” 

The action, while it was lively and fun, might also be looked upon as a metaphor for homelessness, when people are constantly having to pick up their belongings and move, which soon gets quite exhausting. The participants in the demonstration began to show weariness as time passed, though they continued to the end as planned. 

This event was just one in a continuum of actions intended to put the issue of the draconian anti-sitting law in front of the people of Berkeley. The coalition of people and organizations providing services and support for homeless people has been active in staging protests and will continue to do so as long as necessary. 

It all started back in February when Sally Hindman, Executive Director of Youth Spirit Art Works stopped in for a cup of coffee at Addie's Pizza Pie which is next to her office. There happened to be a meeting going on, of members of the business improvement districts (BIDs). Since she is a local business person she was invited to join in. 

She now says that she was surprised when suddenly the discussion turned to the anti-sitting ordinance which “they all agreed was necessary and that they could successfully push forward on the heels of what happened in San Francisco.”  

She reports that “Everybody said ,oh yes, we want it… and Mayor Bates is for it too. There was no dissent or disagreement of any sort.”  

“I was really quite stunned”, she says. “I had just gone in there to get a cup of coffee and all of a sudden I'm sitting there with all these people who are demonizing homeless people and saying how we've just got to pass this ordinance to be able to do more to get rid of them. ... As a concerned person from the religious community, that's been working with homeless people I was upset that this was something that they would be planning. Especially I was pretty shocked that at this really tough time economically people would be thinking in this direction. It just seemed very disturbing.” 

She tried tactfully to point out to the group that Berkeley has a only a six month emergency shelter with 25 beds, and no drop-in center for homeless youth, no place for homeless young people to go during the day. From the discussion she describes, it seemed clear to her that these people have no concept of the nature and extent of homelessness in our community. “I walked out completely blown away and emailed my friends,” she says, “people that I knew were homeless service providers who had been involved in the challenges in the past.” 

Very quickly a meeting was called, the coalition Stand Up For The Right To Sit Down was formed, and a broad contact list was developed. The members felt that they would get support from an informed public. 

Attorney Osha Neumann of the Neighborhood Justice Clinic explained that the plan was to “put it on the radar of the public while the business interests were trying to move it along as a stealth measure, denying that it was happening. The city council members and Mayor Bates [were] saying there's nothing going on, while all along we knew that it was happening.” 

The first public action the coalition members organized was sign painting, followed by a march downtown and appearance during the public comment period at the city council meeting about a month ago. 

On Friday evening there was a music and poetry event at the Art House Gallery and Cultural Center sponsored by the coalition and the Revolutionary Poets Brigade. An enthusiastic audience of about 80 people filled the hall and heard songs and poems dedicated to the sit-lie law issue. 

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington attended and spoke briefly. He explained his opposition to a sit-lie law, pointing out that among other arguments enforcement would be very expensive for the city as well as for Alameda county (when they are taken to Santa Rita jail). He indicated that at this time at least two other council members are opposed to the law.