Berkeley's Anti-Sitting Initiative
is Nothing But a Ruse

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 15, 2012 - 08:19:00 AM

In almost every culture gangs of street thieves work this scam:

One gang member approaches the victim and picks a fight with him over some trivial matter. While the victim is busy dealing with this assailant, another gang member sneaks up from behind and lifts his wallet from his back pocket. Happens all the time, all over the world.

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting it suddenly occurred to me that this is what’s going on in Berkeley right now.

There’s an election in November. A number of citizens are incensed about a variety of topics—the list is long and getting longer:

  • the push to rezone West Berkeley for the benefit of big landowners;
  • a chronic shortage of affordable housing
  • the University of California’s increasing colonization of the city’s downtown;
  • diversion of public funds from infrastructure maintenance (pools, streets, sidewalks, sewers) toward extravagant pensions for executives in the city bureaucracy;
  • lack of sunshine in city government;
  • use of bond funds for purposes not revealed in the ballot measures which authorized them;
  • a “downtown plan” which breaches CEQA and makes it easier to destroy historic buildings;
  • and that’s just for starters….

Could there be a better time for Tom Bates and his cronies to pick a fight with civil libertarians and homeless service providers and their clients over sitting on the sidewalk? Those in charge have been picking the public pocket in a variety of ways, but if they raise enough of a ruckus over the annoying behavior of hapless homeless and wayward youth perhaps we citizens won’t notice. 

The “Civil Sidewalks” ploy is a perfect distraction from the cracked and filthy sidewalks all over town which are a visible reminder of misuse of money which was supposed to be allocated to public works. 

Berkeley has a plethora of laws which could be used to control undesired behavior which happens on sidewalks, but they’re irregularly enforced. It’s already illegal to lie down on sidewalks; to block sidewalks in any manner, including sitting; to aggressively demand money or anything else in public places including sidewalks; to smoke on the sidewalk in most outside areas, etc. etc.  

Selective enforcement is the rule of the day—if you make the police mad, they have ways of getting you, but mostly they don’t bother. Adding the act of sitting per se to the list of banned behaviors won’t make a dime’s worth of difference, but the fight over doing it creates a smokescreen which hides the city’s real problems.  

It’s been generally conceded that with the right opponents Mayor Bates and Councilmembers Capitelli and Moore, all incumbents up for re-election, could be defeated in November, because public dissatisfaction with the state of the city has been great. But if the issue focus is shifted to whether or not the voter enjoys being accosted by unseemly street-sitters, these three might have a better chance of winning their races.  

With this in mind, it might be wise for those of us who favor humane treatment of the down-and-out (not to mention supporting our own right to sit down when we need to) to simply ignore the Anti-Sit initiative. It’s clear that the Bates gang has the votes to put the measure on the November ballot, so there’s not much use expending further time and energy to stop them. 

The campaign for Measure R, the essentially meaningless initiative designed to greenwash downtown development, showed that Bates is adept at corralling corporate capital for his own purposes. In that fight he managed to arrange for a big nasty corporation controlled by capitalist thug Sam Zell to pay for a handsome and effective mailer purportedly sponsored by the Sierra Club, no trivial accomplishment.  

Even if opponents of Anti-Sitting put up a credible fight, they’ll probably lose in a November election to the boys with the big bucks. And the more effective the opposition looks, the easier it will be for the Bates candidates to get corporate money, both for their own races, where some restrictions apply, and for the ballot measures, where no holds are barred and there’s a halo effect from the propaganda which spills over onto the council candidates. 

The most effective strategy might just be to flat-out ignore Anti-Sitting: no more public comment at council meetings, no more demonstrations, no mailings. There is still a core constituency of intelligent progressives in Berkeley who can figure out on their own that laws like this violate civil liberties and create more problems than they solve. These people will vote against this one without being prompted. 

As far as the rest of the November electorate is concerned, in presidential elections a lot of people who might be characterized as amateurs show up at the polls. With any luck these infrequent and poorly informed voters won’t find their way down to the bottom of the ballot where the local measures hide out.  

And when voters don’t understand a ballot measure, they most often vote no.  

We can count on the Berkeley city attorney, who has done a brilliant job of hiding the meaning of the Sunshine Ordinance in his proposed ballot language for that initiative, to obfuscate this one too.  

Meanwhile, the temptation to penalize the benighted businesspersons who ostensibly are behind the push for Anti-Sit is strong.  

I’ve been going to the Caffe Mediterraneum for some 40 or more years, though much less often in recent years. It was disappointing to see its current owner plugging Anti-Sit at the council, so I probably will avoid it myself in the future.  

We thought hard about dropping reviews of the productions at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, whose manager spoke in favor of the proposal at the council meeting. Our theater critics successfully argued that we’d be penalizing the writers and actors who depend on publicity for their livelihood, so we won’t do that—but Rep patrons do have the option of telling the company what they think, and they should do so.  

Boycotting all the members of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and the DBA (it’s the Downtown Berkeley Association, not the Business Association as you might think) doesn’t seem quite fair. When the Daily Planet was a commercial enterprise, we belonged to both, but seldom agreed with their political postures, which were frequent and usually retrograde. (The Chamber even had an illegal PAC for a while, until they got caught.)  

A few downtown businesses were at the council meeting to support putting it on the ballot, and, yes, I’ll probably remember which ones they were and take my own business elsewhere. On the other hand, several owner-operated downtown businesses, notably Alko Stationery, were great advertisers and supporters of the commercial Planet, so we’d never desert them. 

I’d like to find out which Berkeley businesses oppose Anti-Sit so I could patronize them. 

But what we should all remember, in the end, is that businesses aren’t really the main force in this endeavor. This ballot initiative, shoved onto the council agenda at the last minute in the guise of a phony “emergency,” is a fake fight, shamelessly fabricated just as petty thieves do on city streets everywhere, to distract us from what’s really wrong with Berkeley. We shouldn’t expend all our time and energy trying to defeat it and miss all the other questionable activities now in progress. 

Hang on to your wallets, folks, they’re coming up behind you. As they say in New York City, ya gotta watch yer’back.