Page One

Two "MAD" Berkeley Spies Square Off:
Berkeley Council's Sit-Lie Ordinance is Caught in the Crossfire

By Ted Friedman
Wednesday June 15, 2011 - 03:14:00 PM
Boona, Janney, Mike and her Community Organizing Team outside Berkeley Public Library last week. Boona is up-front; Mike Diehl is in second row.
Jon Mychal
Boona, Janney, Mike and her Community Organizing Team outside Berkeley Public Library last week. Boona is up-front; Mike Diehl is in second row.

Those familiar with the venerable Mad Magazine's 55 year feature, "Spy Versus Spy" will recall that these alter-ego spies come in two colors: white and black, but it's hard to tell the good spy from the bad without a score card. 

I covered two venerable Berkeley spies in a week: BOSS and TBID. When we emerge from this alphabet soup, I'll provide the score card. 

First the players: BOSS is a well-funded group of organizers assisting drug-users to sobriety and housing, and advocates for Berkeley's homeless and anyone else in need. TBID (Telegraph Business Improvement District), Telegraph Avenue commercial property owners, is not so well-funded, according to their own internal fiscal report, and often characterizes itself as needy. 

But TBID's needs (street lights, dedicated police foot-patrols, a more "welcoming" People's Park, and improved business conditions) will require more than a BOSS intervention. 

I visited both groups in one week recently. As anyone who's ever scored a baseball game will tell, you can't take sides. Both teams have to be scored, a type of short-hand reporting system. 

Moreover the spy-vs.-spy stand-off between BOSS and TBID isn't anywhere near the ninth inning. The two groups couldn't be further apart. BOSS has organized several recent protests against a proposed ordinance which would ban, among other things, sitting on the sidewalk. 

Gina Sasso, who recently died at 49 of complications of pneumonia, was an intern at BOSS. Cause and effect is tricky, but there's a good bet that Sasso's protest against the proposal, held at the now-vacant Cody's bookstore site on March 27, influenced the Berkeley City Council against implementing a sit-lie ordinance by council vote. Instead, such an ordinance could be put before Berkeley voters at a future election. 

Dave Fogarty of the city of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development, who was present at the property owners’ group meeting last Tuesday, provided a spy’s-eye view of the city council's machinations. What he said seemed to confirm that when it’s finally written, the sit-lie ordinance will be decided at the ballot box, not at council. 

"The proposal's in limbo for now," said Caffe Mediterraneum owner Craig Becker, 59, prominent member of the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District organization. 

Becker ought to know; he's one of the proposal writers. 

But you can expect the eventual draft by Teley property owners to come firmly down on aggressive panhandlers (already banned by existing ordinances); While lying on Berkeley walks is already banned during certain hours, any new proposal will ban sitting as well, as does the one adopted in San Francisco. 

The idea of banning sitting in business districts offends homeless advocates like BOSS. (The acronym, which has changed from time to time over the years, now stands for Building Our Self-Support). BOSS is part of a broad coalition of community groups opposing sit-lie 

I asked Boona Cheema, 66, a Unitarian-Universalist minister who helms BOSS, why BOSS would demonstrate against an as-yet non-existent ordinance or a proposal for one. "To nip it in the bud," she shot back. 

If Sasso's protest at Cody's, which ended up that night at the Berkeley City Council meeting, did help to prevent a quick adoption by the council, why do protests continue? 

Another good bet: to keep the issue before voters and to remind everyone whom they're dealing with. Although BOSS continues to express Berkeley radicalism long after the bloody battles for Telegraph of the sixties, BOSS bosses Berkeley and many Berkeleyans are glad they do. 

Back at "the BID," ( the property-owners’ nickname for it) a proposal for changing People’s Park, using some of the same language as failed District 7 councilmember aspirant George Beier's campaign planks on the topic, is one draft away from acceptance by the group before it goes to the university, which claims to own the park. I've read the second draft and can report that jaws will drop. 

There will be the usual call for a "welcoming" park environment to attract anyone but tramps and homeless drug users. 

Most BIDders think People's Park needs a serious make-over, while homeless advocates would like changes to favor their clients, not exclude them. Property owners in the group want them gone or relocated. 

Becker may not have noticed that many homeless people owe part of their day's enjoyment to his Caffe Mediterraneum which is close by the park. Backpacks for camping, though not allowed unattended, are all over the Med. A sign barring non-customers from the restroom is mostly ignored by staff and strollers-in, who would rather not play hide and seek in their moments of need. 

Becker is "welcoming" well-behaved street people (while engaging in the all-too-frequent scuffle with troublemakers), even as he presses a proposal to make them less welcome in the park. 

I hope I touched all the bases here. 


Ted Friedman: writes from the always exciting Southside for the Planet.