Public Comment

Track Discrimination at its Source

C. Denney
Friday March 20, 2015 - 02:26:00 PM

Ever tried it? Not cigarettes – have you ever tried to get the city’s help with the people who constantly smoke in the smokefree areas? Maybe the smoke is coming in your house, yard, or workplace, and it is affecting your health. Maybe there’s a group that always smokes in your favorite park, so you can’t bring your kids. Maybe the employees at your favorite watering hole or restaurant smoke right out front despite the smokefree commercial districts law, filling up the place with smoke so you can no longer patronize the business. Buckle your seat belt if you try.

Be prepared to wait for hours for an officer to show up if they show up at all. Be prepared to get a boatload of attitude from the officer about how the law you’re trying to get enforced doesn’t exist (“that’ll be the day” is one officer’s direct quote). Be prepared to have to describe the offender’s height, weight, age, race, and clothing in great detail even though by the time the officer shows up (if he or she does) the cigarette is out and the violator is long gone. But the majority of those who violate the law are not homeless.

The majority of the people creating the worst secondhand smoke problem in Berkeley’s smokefree are the customers and employees of businesses in the commercial districts. Take a look outside the Berkeley Rep during a theater intermission. The poorest, odd-looking, possibly homeless people in downtown are by any measure an extreme minority, and if some of those people violate the smoking regulations it’s because customers, students, employees, and passers-by do the same thing as a matter of course without ever being ticketed. But guess who’s getting tickets?

It’s hard to prove that the majority of smoking violation tickets are being issued to poor people and panhandlers, because there is no tracking system for such tickets, something the Berkeley City Council should have asked for when the law was enacted in 2008 and is still badly needed. Secondhand smoke is a serious issue, and the hard-working public health advocates who worked for the ordinance deserve respect. But discriminatory use of the law is equally serious.

When the Berkeley City Council allowed initially allowed the police to use pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum) in Berkeley their permission came with an obligation to track the date, location, age, and race of the person pepper-sprayed as well as the name of the officer using the spray, a system which Editor Grace Underpressure of the Pepper Spray Times used to prove that the overwhelming majority of pepper spray uses were taking place in what she called “the Pepper Spray Triangle” near Sacramento and Alcatraz in south Berkeley, an historically black neighborhood. The majority of people being sprayed were black, and the embarrassing racial and geographical imbalance of pepper spray’s use led to more critical press coverage from Paul Rauber’s “Sticks and Stones” column in the East Bay Express and at least temporary changes in police policy.

But the tracking system seems to have disappeared, nor is there any tracking system being proposed for the new anti-poor, anti-blanket laws being shaped without the benefit of commission or community input at City Hall.

Demand community involvement. Once even current anti-poor laws are tracked, the discrimination so obvious to people who dedicate themselves to observing the discriminatory practices of the police can more easily prove what all of us, including downtown businesses and the city council, should agree is unfair.