In what promises to be a heated fight for Berkeley's soul, a Berkeley anti-sitting-ban committee launched a well-organized campaign downtown Sunday against Measure S, which would prohibit sitting on the sidewalk in commercial districts.
If Measure S supporters thought Berkeleyans would give up their rights to sit on business district walks, they may have seriously miscalculated—if Sunday's anti-S kick-off campaign at a spirited downtown rally is any measure of opposition to the ballot measure.
Berkeley, apparently, likes to sit on sidewalks. It's a tradition as sacred as the right to stage sit-in protests. Or, for that matter, to breathe.
Again and again the measure's opponents miss no opportunity to heap scorn on the measure, which some veteran political observers believe could pass.
Patti Wall, director of Berkeley's twenty-year-old Homeless Action Center, kicked off the rally Sunday morning at Constitution Square, near the southwest corner of Center and Shattuck.
Wall has given several rousing speeches in city council sessions. She rails against what is now Measure S, which she says will keep the city's homeless on the streets by "criminalizing" them, and preventing them from getting government benefits.
She simplified that message, Sunday. "Can you imagine not being able to sit down in Berkeley?" she taunted.
If the no-sitting measure passes, "you can expect wide-scale acts of civil disobedience," Max Anderson, charismatic District Three councilmember, told the lively crowd Sunday. He proclaimed that opposition to Proposition S would be a "fight for the soul of Berkeley."
"Berkeley is at at the crossroads," Anderson says.
"There is an assault on the homeless around the country," Anderson said. "They want to hide poverty. It's political quackery—draconian crap."
"El Cerrito Plaza is eating our lunch downtown, and Emeryville is taking our business.
"Downtown needs an anchor store," Anderson noted.
"And Berkeley wants to respond by hiding the visual sight of poverty," he said.
Dan McMullan, who uses a wheelchair and was homeless 10 years in Berkeley before receiving housing assistance, told a crowd of more than fifty that he had to sit down.
"We need social services, not bans," he said scornfully.
"Ninja Kitty," a homeless man downtown who has charged repeatedly that "police are rousting us constantly," said "we're here as citizens fighting for our constitutional rights. I don't see anything in the Bill of Rights about no-sitting."
"Why go after everyone for the bad behavior of a few? We're your eyes and ears on the street. We keep your rents down. If it weren't for us, rents would soar."
"We're rent control," he said, as an afterthought, and laughing over his concept.
"The problem downtown is not us, it's the city, which harasses us." he added. "They should be protecting us."
Linda Lye of The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the largest ACLU affiliate in the country, said Proposition S was legally "problematic." The Planet recently published an ACLU letter to Berkeley’s mayor and city council which was highly critical of Proposition S.
Mike Diehl, a community organizer with a Berkeley drug addiction outreach program, told me, "they passed Prop. O almost twenty years ago, banning aggressive panhandling, and now they're coming back at us again with No-Sit." [Proposition O was thrown out in federal court on constitutional grounds, since it violated the First Amendment by prohibiting asking for money, which is an illegal regulation of the content of speech.]
The crowd was rocking to the rousing roar of brass from a fourteen-piece jazz band, the Liberation Music Orchestra. The group performs exclusively at political events, according to an event organizer.
A partial list of support for the Anti-S campaign, www.noonsberkeley.com, includes Councilmembers Worthington, Arreguin, and Anderson., the Green Party of Alameda County, Alameda County Peace and Freedom Party, John George Democratic Club, the City of Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, Gray Panthers of the East Bay, the International Indian Treaty Council, and a number of Berkeley businesses.
The Planet's Southside reporter, Ted Friedman used to be "the voice of the Southside."