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Disputed Berkeley Ban on Street Sitting to Go to Voters as Fur Flies, Temperatures Rise, and Rhetoric Rolls Through City Hall

By Ted Friedman
Thursday June 14, 2012 - 02:06:00 PM
Outside old City Hall before City Council, Tuesday.
Ted Friedman
Outside old City Hall before City Council, Tuesday.
Ten at a time at 10 p.m. ascend to council chambers to protest anti-sit measure.
Ted Friedman
Ten at a time at 10 p.m. ascend to council chambers to protest anti-sit measure.
The Mayor presides over the council on Tuesday in front of the Romare Bearden mural, a relic of Berkeley's progressive past.
Ted Friedman
The Mayor presides over the council on Tuesday in front of the Romare Bearden mural, a relic of Berkeley's progressive past.
Waiting to oppose no-sitting at Tuesday's council.
Ted Friedman
Waiting to oppose no-sitting at Tuesday's council.
Two men in blue--after late night vote. Worthington, left, Bates, center, under hat.
Ted Friedman
Two men in blue--after late night vote. Worthington, left, Bates, center, under hat.

Tuesday's Berkeley City Council six-hour donnybrook turned ugly, the most rowdy in years, according to council watchers. 

Not everyone who packed the sweltering council chamber on the second floor of old City Hall was there to stop an anti-sitting measure; it just looked that way. The mayor had recently published his proposed ban—carefully worded, but a ban nevertheless—on sitting on Berkeley sidewalks. That was June 1—two weeks before, and too fast, according to some council-members, to deliberate its merits. 

The mayor suggested last year that demonstrations against the measure were premature. Now he seemed to Councilmembers Anderson, Worthington, and Arreguin to be rushing the measure onto the ballot before the public and the city's own commissions, and city agencies assisting the homeless could have input. 

Many showed up to oppose the hotly disputed Westside development plan, which is now slated to go before voters in November with special exclusions for parcels abutting Aquatic Park. 

Opponents speaking against the Westside proposal consider it environmentally unsound, and a threat to the health of the residents of the Westside. Westsiders voiced their disapproval of the plan with folk songs, poetry, and the appeal for clean air from a rabbit named Slingshot Hip-hop. 

Meanwhile, more than fifty anti-sit protesters boiled over in the first floor lobby, awaiting their turn at the seats occupied in chambers. They didn't like being excluded from the council chamber, which has only 124 seats, and attorney Osha Neumann came down to advocate with City Hall security on their behalf—but to no avail. 

When the anti-sitting measure, now bound for the November ballot after a 6-3 late night vote Tuesday, was published in the council’s agenda on June 1, some Berkeleyans had expected a community forum or hearing before voters had their say, but they didn't expect to have the measure "ramrodded" on to the ballot without, as one councilman said, getting some basic facts. 

"What's wrong with getting some facts?" joked Kriss Worthington Dist. 7, as the temperature in chambers hovered around 70 F. 

And what's wrong with just letting the voters decide the issue, as a minority of speakers urged? Max Anderson, councilmember for District 3, echoing the sentiments of many speakers, noted that voters had historically denied fellow citizens their rights. "Voters in the South would have voted in the 50's to extend slavery," Anderson observed. 

Besides, Anderson argued, sitting and lying down are basic rights that should not be voted on. “What's next, breathing?" he said. 

Anderson worried that Berkeley would become a laughingstock for banning sitting: "People just don't see us that way. They'll stop coming here. The city will lose money." 

"Is this how we want to look to the world," Anderson intoned. 

Past movements have "expanded" our rights, Anderson said, but the mayor's proposal "contracts" our rights. "This is no profile in courage; a profile in courage would be to resist this," the fiery councilman roared. 

"When this [proposal] snuck up on us two weeks ago, I thought Karl Rove had snuck into town," Anderson said to the delight of the audience. 

Both Anderson and Worthington quarreled bitterly with Bates all night, mostly over procedural matters. But at one point, Anderson snapped, "I'm not one of your punks," after Bates had tried to stop Anderson from talking. 

The mayor had his hands full trying to preside over the spirited street-people from downtown, who claim they're "organized." Many times, the mayor challenged extending a speaker's time allotments, losing most times, but being repeatedly booed and called a "fascist." 

Last week opposition to the measure (familiarly known as Sit/Lie although lying down on the sidewalk is already illegal) grew among street kids downtown, who say they are routinely being rousted by Berkeley Police. A former city commissioner said there had been 20 citations so far this month. One of the kids is being represented by Osha Neumann, who says his client was roughed up by police who didn't follow the law. Berkeley Police replies that they have no record of the incident and that no citations were issued. 

The kids, some of whom are in their thirties, showed up in a defiant mood before they even got into the chambers. An hour before the council convened, a crowd of more than 100 showed up outside Old City Hall to celebrate its opposition to the mayor's proposed ordinance, opposition that arose in several protests last year, when Sit/Lie was just a gleam in Mayor Bates' eye. 

Those who stayed for a showdown with the mayor simmered in the lobby, often roaring disapproval to words they were hearing from the council video-stream on a screen above them. 

The council chamber was still swelteringly hot at 10:20 when the first ten protestors hurtled up the magnificent city hall spiral staircase. They were allowed up in groups of ten as Westenders came down. 

In the chamber, Worthington complained that some Westenders were losing their seats unfairly. As the speaking list was extended into the wee hours, seating was plentiful. 


The number of peakers lining up to comment in chamber never dropped below twenty-five, as new speakers stocked the line, through hours of mayor-baiting. 

Pattie Wall, Executive, Director of Berkeley's Homeless Action Center, led the audience of mostly opponents of the Anti-Sit ordinance in a call and response in which "this is not what democracy looks like," was repeated. Wall has repeatedly charged, in the Planet and elsewhere, that Sit/Lie citations will prevent applicants from receiving benefits that might ease their difficulties. 

More than one protester questioned the mayor's sanity, and many his competency. Osha Neumann questioned the mayor's sincerity: "Just don't tell us we will benefit from this [the proposal]...your carrot is really a stick." 

Cal students, who have long been aligned with local opponents of the sitting ban, complained that the mayor was trying to push through his proposal while many student were gone for the summer. A Cal student senator said that ASUC had recently voted 18-1 against the ban. 

Carol Denney, a local activist, poet, and singer [and Planet contributor] said that discriminating against any group was a great shame. Buildings emptied by high rents, not homeless youth were behind merchants' complaints, she said. 

Sistah, a South side activist, brought 100 South side signatures against the mayor's proposal. 

A teacher who works with homeless youth reminded the mayor that Berkeley has 731 homeless youth, who might be swept up in the no-sitting ban. 

The board of directors of YEAH, a Berkeley youth advocacy and housing group condemned the mayor's proposal, suggesting that the estimated $25,000 cost of putting the mayor's proposal on the ballot go to Berkeley's homeless youth. 

According to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, Dist. 4, at least four Berkeley commissions oppose the mayor's measure. 

Several past and present members of Berkeley's Mental Health and Homeless commissions spoke out against the measure. 

Local activist Russell ("the good") Bates, as usual cut to the quick, calling the measure "a load of crap." 

Representing a group of youths downtown, who are directly in the headlights of the mayor's measure, J.C. Romero, founder of Coalition for homeless Teens, and himself homeless, claimed "police are beating us up in the streets." 

Romero angrily flung a toy bear to the floor along with a scatter of dollar bills, both of which he later retrieved. "We'll sit when we want," the emotional leader vowed. "We don't have any money, so you can fine us all you want. "I'll get three hots [meals] and a cot [in jail]," he said. 

Worthington noted that enforcing the mayor's plan would be costly, as those cited would have to be transported, at great expense, to jail. 

Michael Diehl, organizer of many anti-sit protests, asked whether exposing homeless youth to jail made any sense. 

As midnight approached the mayor was showing signs of short temper. He clashed with Worthington repeatedly over protocol. Finally, he angrily told Worthington that if Worthington had no proposal of his own, he should stop stalling the mayor's. 

But Worthington was ready, laying out a four-step plan to get facts that would support or challenge the mayor's plan. He asked for: (1) sales figures that would show whether kids outside stores decreased revenues (Worthington claims there is little correlation); 

(2) reports from police on the effectiveness of new street patrols, which might make the mayor's plan unnecessary: 

(3) more input from a charette conducted by a group of architects and concerned Southsiders, who have discussed positive changes on Telegraph; 

and (4) an evaluation of the new Downtown Ambassadors’ protocols to see if they go to problem spots, thus lessening merchants' complaints. 

Wouldn't it be better to pass a law against strewing the streets with up to twenty possessions, Worthington wondered, than to ban sitting? 

Worthington's plan was voted down by the same 6-3 majority that then voted to refer the mayor's proposal to Berkeley voters in November. 

As Roland Peterson and Craig Becker of Telegraph property owners group left the meeting, they observed, "Same votes we've had all along." The two predicted last year the measure would go to voters, who despite all the moral doubts of the evening will have to decide whether you can sit in Berkeley streets. 

The mayor was followed to his car across from City Hall by a band of angry protesters, who rained down epithets of scorn. "Some day”, one said, “you'll be down and out like us, and I won't help you the way you aren't helping me." 

A manned police squad car stood a block away. 

Worthington summed up, suggesting that Berkeley's wealthier districts were dictating to the parts of the city that would be more directly affected by the mayor's plan. 

Another all-nighter for our Southside reporter, as his attention turns to downtown hot spots.