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Demonstrations Opposing Sitting Ban Continue

By Lydia Gans
Wednesday June 15, 2011 - 11:59:00 AM

The media is ignoring them but homeless activists and providers of services for homeless youth and adults are making sure the Berkeley mayor and city council are paying attention. The threat that the city might pass a law prohibiting sitting or lying on the city streets (so-called anti sit-lie law) has mobilized a broad coalition of organizations to express opposition to it. Tuesday evening June 7 there was another demonstration at the city hall where a number of young people who have or are experiencing homelessness joined with organizers in explaining the wrongheadedness of the idea and pointing out the paucity of services for the homeless. 

At 5:30 people began to gather. They held up signs with the message of the organizing coalition, Stand Up For The Right To Sit Down. One man had a sign reading “9 out of 10 violent crimes are committed by someone standing”. A table was set up with food and drinks that had been donated by various businesses and organizations. On another table there were dozens of hand painted prayer flags. Young people from Youth Spirit Art Works were serving the food and stringing together the prayer flags to spread on the lawn where people later gathered to speak to the issues. 

The prayer flags are a project of Youth Spirit Art Works. Director Sally Hindman explains; “Those prayer flags are a prayer for compassion and justice for youth and all the people that are on the streets right now. (A prayer) that our community will continue to bear in mind the difficulty that they face on the street and not penalize them for being homeless.” 

When it came time to speak out people formed a circle with Venus Morris of Youth Spirit Art Works taking the lead in facilitating the conversation. She talked about young people who are on the street in Berkeley because they can't get into the schools if they don't have an address. “So they're on the street and they're panhandling. They have nowhere to go.” And if they get a ticket any money they get from panhandling would go to pay the ticket. Or they would go to jail and get a record. Another speaker pointed out that Berkeley has exactly 8 shelter beds available all year round for 14 to 17 year olds and just 25 shelter beds for 18 to 14 year olds that are only open 6 months of the year. 

Hali Hammer and Patrick Fahey livened things up with a song “Living in a P.O. Box”. More people spoke about their experiences with homelessness. Attorney Osha Neumann read from Daily Cal article quoting Roland Peterson, director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, where he said “In my view a sit -lie is not really a threat to anyone. It's really a statement saying this is not OK, you ought to be doing something better with your life.” This was met with much derision from the crowd. 

Carol Denney reported on important legislation pending in Sacramento which adds homelessness or homeless persons to the list of groups protected under the current California hate crimes legislation. Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal from Long Beach is the sponsor of AB 312 which appears to have a good chance of passing. She sponsored an identical bill last year which passed the legislature but was vetoed by by Governor Schwarzenegger. The bill may not be all that is desired but it can bring about what Denney described as a “shift in the cultural perspective on homelessness.” 

As 7 o'clock approached BOSS organizer Michael Diehl suggested people go up to the council chambers if they wanted an opportunity to speak during the public comments period. Several people went up and Diehl was able to address the council. 

But it was out on the lawn prior to the council meeting that the young people from Youth Spirit Art Works made the strongest impression. This was their event. It was their message of compassion, their plea for justice, expressed so beautifully with their colorful prayer flags, that carried the message. And, Sally Hindman says, they will continue to make many prayer flags and use them for community organizing and events like Stand Up For The Right To Sit Down. “We're going to be doing it as long as we need to be doing it.”