Telegraph Avenue is in the midst of a clean-up effort by the Telegraph Business Improvement District. Orange-jacketed “Telegraph Ambassadors” are doing routine maintenance and cleanup of the area, such as painting utility poles, painting over graffiti, pulling weeds from the concrete and dealing with “unwanted” and “problematic” behavior on the avenue.
The Telegraph Ambassadors are a service of Block by Block, a private company owned by another private company, SMS Holdings. Block by Block is the perfect company to hire for the replacement of once-public services, and the resulting privatization of public space. This “Big Splash” program must be seen in that context.
Local journalist Darwin BondGraham writes in his article "SMS Holdings: The "Faith-Based," Anti-Labor Company Behind Oakland's Private Cops”, "Block By Block and other SMS subsidiaries maintain low-wage, anti-union workplaces, and have been very aggressive over the past decade in lobbying federal legislators to privatize thousands of government jobs. Block By Block in particular has been criticized in several cities for privatizing services and opposing unionization drives among its employees." You can read the full article here:
Ambassadors aren't police officers. They can't write citations. We have, however, seen many instances of ambassadors, and the previous Telegraph Guides, tell houseless people and street musicians that they can't block the sidewalk, demanding that they move. Rarely are these people even actually blocking the sidewalk. Of course, there is the implied, or overt, threat of police action if they don't move. There are already laws against assault, robbery, theft, drug possession, etc. There are already laws against smoking in a commercial zone, illegal lodging, drinking in public, etc. These Ambassadors, through creative interpretation and frequent abuse of existing laws, are effectively criminalizing entire classes of people who lack the sort of options that shoppers on Telegraph possess.
We must return to the notion of “problematic” or “unwanted” behavior.
What exactly, on an avenue which is being primed for shopping, constitutes “problematic” or “unwanted” behavior. No proponent of the “Big Splash” will come out and say it, but they don't want people on the sidewalks not buying things. They'd rather that they get pushed to other neighborhoods and areas so that people with the security of homes and disposable income can spend money on Telegraph avenue without having to see that there are people who are less fortunate than them or who choose alternate lifestyles.
This is the same empty and self-serving rhetoric we heard around the Measure S anti-sitting ballot initiative, which failed to pass in November 2012. Lots of talk about behavioral issues and businesses not making as much money as they would like to. What is the solution?
Scapegoat houseless and poor people and give property owners what they want. This "Big Splash" pilot program is about making Telegraph Avenue a place for people to spend money and leave. If you aren’t conducive to that, get out.
The “Big Splash” program intends to pay private pseudo-security guards for 158 hours per week so that they can harass houseless people, poor people, and people with mental health issues off the sidewalks of Telegraph Ave. We think that is time, energy, and money poorly spent.
Instead of using Block by Block as a means of privatizing public space to the benefit of private interests, perhaps a pilot program involving increased public funding for genuine mental health services and housing should be implemented. That would be a genuine response to conditions in Berkeley and a real step towards increasing the quality of life on Telegraph.