ENDORSEMENT SPECIAL: Sitting Down Should not be Banned in Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Friday September 14, 2012 - 09:41:00 AM
Sitting the sidewalk on Pacific in Santa Cruz, a man whose sign describes him as a veteran begs passersby for money.  Sitting on the sidewalk is illegal in Santa Cruz, but the law is seldom enforced.
Becky O'Malley
Sitting the sidewalk on Pacific in Santa Cruz, a man whose sign describes him as a veteran begs passersby for money. Sitting on the sidewalk is illegal in Santa Cruz, but the law is seldom enforced.

Here’s the big date: October 8.

That’s the day voters can get their mail-in ballots, and many Berkeley voters will eagerly jump the gun, get their ballots and vote on the spot.

Me, I have a nostalgic fondness for the ritual of walking to my neighborhood firehouse, seeing that nice lady who always knows my name even though I don’t always remember hers, placing that “I Voted” sticker on my shoulder. But realistically I know that mail-in ballots are safer and even easier for many, so decisions need to be made soon.

We’ve gotten the simple decisions out of the way here already: the council candidates, including the mayor. Or at least the top-rank candidates are apparent, though deciding the one-two order for mayor and District Two are not as easy.

This week we’ll ease into the rest of the ballot with a freeby, Measure S (Don’t Sit Down). 

As I’ve said elsewhere, Measure S is just another swift kick aimed at the down-and-out. (That’s such a good line that the Green Party’s election handbook has appropriated it, with my blessing.) But banning sitting from commercial sidewalks is no joke. 

It’s a colossal waste of money and police resources which will make absolutely no difference in outcomes. An elaborate ritual of warnings, citations and eventual arrest is postulated, which if enforced equally will result in much city employee overtime and no observable change. 

Measure S offers no new funding, which is badly needed if we really want to get unstable people off the streets and into services. It provides no new services, which would be a much more efficient use for the money which S proposes to spend on enforcement. 

And it is a joke, or even a bald-faced lie, to say that No-Sit laws have worked elsewhere. A study of the San Francisco version confirmed what opponents had predicted: The same small number of chronic violators were picked up and let go repeatedly, with little or no effect on either the streetscape in commercial districts or the offenders’ personal problems. 

I go often to Santa Cruz, another city that attempts to ban sitting down, and I can attest to the fact that people are sitting and begging on commercial sidewalks on the main drag, the grandiosely named Pacific Garden Mall, exactly as much as they were before the law was passed. And also, some obviously disturbed people who have been evicted from the commercial zone have moved along into the adjacent residential neighborhoods, an undesirable result which Berkeley can expect to see here if Measure S passes. 

The “Ambassadors”, the new guys downtown with the Orwellian name, have already started rousting the unsightly, using laws already on the books against lying on sidewalks, blocking sidewalks, having dirty old dogs on sidewalks, and so forth. 

One mightily confused transient, who described himself as a veteran, wandered into the house next door to us on Ashby Avenue one Sunday afternoon while all the residents were home and managed to make it as far as the second floor shower, where he defecated. The residents called 911, six police cars came, officers interviewed him for an hour, and eventually he was taken away in an ambulance. That’s an expensive intervention. 

As annoying as some might find it to have people like him downtown, at least it’s possible to keep an eye on them if they’re in a central location. Using the money which would be spent on Measure S for added social services, it might even be possible to get them some effective aid. 

Saying that the law will only be enforced against “some” and not “others” doesn’t make things better, it makes things worse. Selective enforcement can easily become constitutionally suspect, inviting expensive legal challenges. And even if it’s not unconstitutional, it’s wrong. 

For the nostalgic old-timers among you, I’ll just mention that some of us old-school progressives have a commitment to an admittedly old-fashioned idea called civil liberties. Some of us have fondly hoped that Berkeley is special, that Berkeleyans respect the equal rights of all citizens to share in the use of public spaces. 

For people like us, the privatization of city sidewalks for the benefit of Wi-Fi cafes, with simultaneous ousting of the poor, the friendless and the unappealing youth, seems wrong. Should the law in Berkeley be that you can use the sidewalk for sitting if you have a cappuccino and a chair, but not if you have just a ratty backpack or a garbage bag filled with old clothes to sit on? 

By now you’ll have figured out that you’re being urged to vote No on Measure S, called by some the Uncivil Sidewalks law. You should not only conclude that it’s inherently an expensive bad idea, maybe even unconstitutional if enforced poorly, but also you should be aware of how it got on the ballot in the first place. 

The ACLU of Northern California has written a letter which succinctly describes how Mayor Tom Bates, with the collusion of his council allies, strongarmed the measure onto the November ballot in blatant violation of both the Brown Act and the council’s own rules. The cynics among us (and I’m one) suggest that he hopes it will bring Berkeley’s more conservative voters to the polls in November, where they will vote for him and his allies who are up for re-election., Darryl Moore and Laurie Capitelli. 

Most opponents of those three candidates oppose Measure S, and you should too—as well as voting No on Bates, Moore (if you’re in District 2) and Capitelli (in District 5). Bates has two excellent opponents (Worthington and McCormick), as does Moore (DeLane and Cabral), and Capitelli has one (Sophie Hahn). Significantly, the progressive Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club declined to endorse any of the incumbents as they had in previous elections, most likely because of their support for S. 

If you’re persuaded and would like to do more, the campaign kickoff for No on S is this Sunday, September 16, at 11 a.m. The location is—where else?— on a Downtown Berkeley sidewalk at Constitution Square, the plaza on the southwest corner of the intersection of Shattuck and Center. Candidates Max Anderson (District 3) and Kriss Worthington (Mayor’s race) have already promised to show up, and there will be more, plus the Brass Liberation Orchestra. Could be fun.