Public Comment

Peace and Justice Commission Address Behavior Against the Homeless by Berkeley Ambassadors

Peace and Justice Commission
Saturday April 11, 2015 - 03:41:00 PM

WHEREAS, the Peace and Justice Commission of the City of Berkeley advises the City Council on all matters relating to the City of Berkeley’s role in issues of peace and social justice (Berkeley Municipal Code (BMC) Chapter 3.68.070); and 

WHEREAS, a member of the Ambassador program, contracted to the City of Berkeley through the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), physically attacked two homeless men near Shattuck Avenue and Bancroft Way in downtown Berkeley around 7pm on Thursday, March 19, 2015, punching one of them approximately ten times in a one-sided assault that was captured on video;[1] and 

WHEREAS, the City government is a strategic partner of the DBA, a quasi-public “Property-Based Business Improvement District (PBID),” with the manager of the City’s Office of Economic Development sitting on the DBA’s Board of Directors, and pays approximately $106,000 annually in assessments to the DBA; Block by Block is the DBA’s contractor / service partner that runs the Ambassador program; and therefore the City is contractually responsible for the activities of the Ambassador team; and 

WHEREAS, DBA CEO John Caner stated that the attack was “totally unacceptable,” and Block by Block president Blair McBride said the intolerable “uncalled-for response by these Ambassadors has angered and appalled us deeply;”[2] and 

WHEREAS, the stated goal of the Ambassador teams is to “enhance both the reality and the perception of public safety, welcome and assist downtown pedestrians and connect street populations to social services and other appropriate resources….Ambassadors bear witness against persons who conduct nuisance crimes. Ambassadors act as ‘eyes and ‘ears’ for police…they do not carry weapons;”[3] however, 

WHEREAS, homeless people and their advocates have complained for years about a pattern of aggressive and rude enforcement by Ambassadors, culminating in the March 19 attack on the two homeless men; that enforcement systematically went far beyond simply “being the eyes and ears of the police;” that the Ambassador responsible for the March 19 attack had committed at least three other violent attacks previously; that another Ambassador had a similar record; and that therefore the March 19 incident could not be accurately described as an individual isolated incident, but rather an extreme example of the confrontational and demeaning approach taken by the Ambassador program as a whole; and 

WHEREAS, the 2011 Council Resolution establishing the PBID defines success metrics to measure staff performance, including, in the “Safe and Welcoming” section, metrics including “Homeless Contacts, Homeless Referrals, Homeless Housed,” etc., but none measuring complaints against Ambassadors or respectful treatment of homeless people; nor is there any provision for ensuring that the human rights of the homeless population are respected in the four oversight responsibilities assigned to the DBA in the Governance Section;[4] and 

WHEREAS, Block by Block is owned by the right-wing corporation SMS Holdings, which has a record of attacking unions including SEIU and paying poverty wages, as well as lobbing for privatization of key government services. According to the East Bay Express, Block by Block management in Pittsburgh “barred employees from wearing union buttons or talking to the media, and according to reports in the Pittsburgh Gazette[5] even conducted surveillance and called the police when some of their ambassadors passed out pro-union literature in front of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership's offices;”[6] and 


WHEREAS, the Berkeley City Council voted on Tuesday, March 17, 2015 to refer several measures proposed by the DBA for consideration by the City Manager, including prohibition of panhandling within ten feet of a parking pay station, placement of personal objects within three feet of a tree well, and deployment of blankets on sidewalks and plazas from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.;[7] and 


WHEREAS, the US Interagency Council on Homelessness called in 2010 for an end to the criminalization of “acts of living”;[8] the Berkeley City Council stated in 2014, referring to the 2007 Public Commons For Everyone Initiative (PCEI), that "while the initiative does not explicitly criminalize the poor or homelessness, it does outlaw actions that are symptomatic of these conditions”;[9] the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley Law School released a report February 19 detailing 500 municipal laws across the state that disproportionately affect the homeless, and a 77% increase in vagrancy arrests since 2000; and in 2015, four Right to Rest bills are pending in the California legislature, with SB 608 stating "Actions by state, county or private organizations shall not impede an individual's ability to maintain access to services essential to survival;"[10] and 

WHEREAS, increased restrictions on behaviors of marginalized persons have historically led to increasingly extreme attitudes in the general population, including a confrontational stance by those placed by society into a front-line role with them; and 

WHEREAS, on the word of the Ambassadors who attacked the homeless men, Berkeley police handcuffed and charged the two homeless men with assault against the Ambassadors, and refused to take as seriously the complaint of the two men against the Ambassadors who actually assaulted them as shown in the video; 

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Council of the City of Berkeley finds that the DBA and Block by-Block have shown themselves unable to conduct the Ambassador program in a way that protects the dignity of all persons, because of the Ambassadors’ role as the eyes and ears of the police and bearing witness against homeless people for nuisance crimes; and 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Council of the City of Berkeley calls for the termination of the DBA’s relationship with Block-by-Block and the current Ambassador program, and will communicate this intent to the DBA and instruct its representative on the DBA Board to vote to terminate the relationship. 


BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Council of the City of Berkeley directs the Homeless Commission, the Mental Health Commission, and the Peace and Justice Commission to propose alternatives to the Ambassador program, drawing on the recommendations to be provided to the Council by the Homeless Task Force on June 23. 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Council of the City of Berkeley directs the Berkeley Police Department to explain why its officers charged the victims in the March 19 case and refused to take their complaint, and what steps it will take to avoid such failures in the future; and 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Council of the City of Berkeley directs the City Clerk to send a copy of this resolution to the Downtown Berkeley Association and Block by Block. 


[2] Berkeleyside, op.cit. 

[3] “Resolution of Intention to Establish the Downtown Berkeley Property and Business Improvement District,” Resolution No. 65,234—N. S., Berkeley City Council, adopted April 26, 2011, page 8. 

[4] Resolution No. 65,234, op.cit., page 18-19 


[8] “Searching out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization,” . See also “Criminalizing Crisis: Advocacy Manual,” November 2011,from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty: