Public Comment

Why Berkeley City Council Measure Perpetuates Racism: Comment to Berkeley City Council Meeting , November 17, 2015

George Lippman, Chair, Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission (for purposes of identification only)
Thursday November 19, 2015 - 08:15:00 PM

I’m going to try to explain why, from a social justice perspective, the proposals in item 28 perpetuate the country’s history of racism, particularly against African Americans and Latinos. 

To begin with, I know some people would like to believe that the ordinances against street behavior will not criminalize the homeless. Let’s be clear: 

Making activities unlawful obviously makes them illegal. Violating these laws is a criminal act. People will be fined for offenses arising from their homeless status. Because they have very little income, they will be unable to pay the fines. Because they do not pay, they will be sentenced eventually to jail time, known historically as debtor’s prison. This is not idle speculation. It is the logical result of the decisions you are making tonight. 

Secondly, the homeless are disproportionately people of color, especially African American. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. 40% of homeless people county-wide are Black. In 2009, the figure for Berkeley was 59%. In San Francisco, even more Latinos than African Americans are homeless. This is a racial justice issue as much as a class issue. 

Thirdly, we ought by now to understand the consequences of introducing African Americans in particular into the mass incarceration system. A simple arrest leads not only to jail time, to time away from family, from earning, from stability and community, it often leads to stigmatization, mental health issues, destruction of education and career plans, a greater dependence on the underground economy, and in the end to a cycle of imprisonment, parole, and re-imprisonment. Already in some American cities, three of four young African American males will serve some time in prison. This is a destruction of the Black community that can be described as genocidal. 

As Joseph, a 68-year-old homeless Black man in San Francisco explained: 

“Asians, Blacks, Latinos and Chicanos—I feel [police] target them the most… if you are any of the people I just named, then you are doing something wrong. They automatically come up with that mindset, thinking, There’s too many of you together, so there’s got to be something going on that’s not right.’” 

2015 is a high tide of consciousness-raising about the value of Black lives. We would like to think we have learned a lot about the prevalence of racism, of the differential impact of law enforcement on Black people; thanks to Kamau Bell, about micro-aggressions; thanks to the Berkeley NAACP, about the destruction of the livability of the city for the Black community; and thanks to the BHS students, about the importance of standing up to even one example of racist activity. 

But tonight I wonder if we have learned anything at all. The impact of these proposals is to further the mass incarceration regime, to destroy Black lives and Black communities. 

This is the hidden reality of the anti-homeless ordinances, and it gives the lie to the liberal Berkeley rhetoric about how we all agree that Black lives matter. They say that Black lives do not in fact matter. This puts us in bed with the trend of racism-denial that is rampant in the Republican debates. Anti-homeless ordinances are part of the ethnic cleansing of American cities, as much as racial profiling and hyper-development are.