Public Comment

No Sit Ordinance Would Be A Violation Of Our Freedom of Assembly

By Mahendra Ramanna Prasad
Thursday June 14, 2012 - 04:20:00 PM

I was born and raised in Memphis. One of the stigmatizing aspects of growing up in the American South and especially Memphis was knowing that its place in civil rights history was that MLK was killed there. On the other hand, as a kid, I was consistently given the impression that Berkeley was a bastion of freedom given its involvement in the Free Speech Movement to allow college students the right to advocate against segregation.

However, as a Berkeley graduate student these days, I find myself more and more convinced that perhaps Memphis today is a better friend of free speech and civil rights than Berkeley. Memphis still has an ongoing Occupy encampment. Berkeley does not. Memphis has a thriving Tea Party community that invited Occupiers to debate with them. I don't see that many debates like that today in Berkeley.

In any case, what really is convincing me that Memphis is freer than Berkeley these days is the possibility of a no sit no lie ordinance. While sitting public officials may contend this ordinance is not intended to block free assemblies such as sit-ins and sleep-ins, who knows what future government officials will do. This is a clear violation of our first amendment right to freely assemble. 

Some may say, "we need this ordinance to protect the public from the homeless, because several homeless people are either (1) violence threatening or (2) public health hazards due to a lack of hygiene." But this argument for the ordinance is unwarranted. First off, there are plenty of non-homeless people that fit those descriptions, especially Berkeley graduate students when it comes to hygiene. Second, there already exist laws on the books that allow law enforcement to act if someone is publicly threatening people or relieving themselves in public spaces.  

Others might say that this ordinance is designed to protect Berkeley shop owners that believe they are losing business due the unkempt appearance of the homeless in front of their businesses. I have nothing against shop owners. They are just people, most of them good, trying to make a living. But while we remember that business owners and customers are people, we also must remember that the homeless are people too. The first amendment was designed to protect people, not just business owners and their customers. 

The logic of such a pro-ordinance Berkeley business owner's argument might be: "I have nothing against homeless people. I try to help them out the best I can. But when they are at my shop, customers don't come and I lose business." Perhaps. But how is that any different from a mid-20th century pro-segregation business owner in Memphis who might have argued: "I have nothing against Black people. I try to help them out the best I can. But when they are at my shop, customers don't come and I lose business"?