Updated: Berkeley Launches New Witch Hunt

Becky O'Malley
Thursday November 19, 2015 - 07:54:00 AM

UPDATE: This piece appeared last Thursday. On last Sunday my Chronicle had a big scary front page article, another one of those single source stories which the Chron seems to be specializing in lately, which gave the impression that Ohlone Park was still full of homeless people. It appeared that reporter Rachel Swan had talked only to Councilmember Linda Maio, not to any homeless people or even their advocates. It was accompanied by great big photos of homeless people in Ohlone Park taken by Michael Macor. Since I was pretty sure that by the previous Wednesday the park had already been cleared, I emailed Macor asking when the picture had been taken. His answer: Tuesday. Q.E.D. Get your stone cold news from your Sunday Chronicle!

What’s going on here, anyhow? On Tuesday night I witnessed a performance by the majority of members of the Berkeley City Council which seemed so irrational, so devoid of logic, that I’ve spent the better part of the last two days trying to figure out what they thought they were doing.

In the first place, there was a lot of hand-wringing by councilmembers over the dire state of affairs in Ohlone Park, the strip which runs along Cedar from Martin Luther King to Sacramento that was left over from undergrounding BART. A couple of people who described themselves as parents from the Ohlone neighborhood recited cautionary tales of their kids’ encounters with possibly deranged street people, not clear where, but seemingly in the park. Unpleasant experiences with human excrement and/or needles were mentioned. Not good, I get that.

A much larger number of people either self-identified as homeless or as providers of service to the homeless or simply as compassionate advocates for the homeless offered ideas for solutions for some of these problems. They generally opposed a set of proposals in Council Agenda Item #28 as criminalization of homelessness, and suggested that passing these could lead to, among other things, loss of federal funds for housing. They pointed out that the more extreme bad behaviors cited were already illegal, and asked why new laws were necessary. 

For a good report of the meeting, see Tom Lochner’s story in the Bay Area News Group’s papers, and Frances Dinkelspiel on berkeleyside.com isn’t bad either. 

I knew that the Berkeley police and the Ambassadors (amateur enforcers hired by the Business Improvement Districts which now run downtown Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue) have been chasing out the homeless and transient inhabitants who used to sleep in doorways there. I’d seen that Willard Park had become the new refuge for many of those displaced, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that some of them had also ended up at Ohlone Park. It had been a good while since I’d been to Ohlone Park, and the activities described seemed so shocking that I thought I needed to see them for myself. 

Yesterday my partner and I made a quick tour of Ohlone about two o’clock in the afternoon. We saw people tossing balls around, kids on play structures, dog walkers both inside and outside of the big dog park area, a small community garden (though no gardeners present) and bicylists riding across on pedestrian paths (is that legal?). But we saw no campers or campsites clean or dirty, no visible trash on the ground, no needles in the grass, no panhandling, no sleeping bags or blankets—in all, zero evidence of the anti-social activity that had been described on Tuesday night. 

What was going on here? To be sure, we went back at about ten last night in a car, drove completely around the periphery of the park, shone headlights into the park from all the barriered streets that protect its north side, and still there was no one to be seen, except a couple of obviously unworried dog walkers and bicyclists. 

So I called around to figure it out. What I learned, from attorneys and others who knew what had happened, is that a couple of days after Councilmember Linda Maio (who lives very close to the park herself) hosted a meeting to discuss the park problems, Berkeley police and others had completely flushed out whatever undesired people, dogs and appurtenances were there. 

Which proved, for those who are not logic-challenged, that (a) there are already enough laws on the books to deal with the problems identified and (b) Berkeley police can and did enforce such laws. Of course, there’s also Interpretation (c), which is that what the authorities did was illegal, but my attorney friend might have challenged their actions if he’d thought so. 

What we actually have here in Berkeley right now, it appears, is the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party theory of homelessness management. If you’ve forgotten your Alice in Wonderland, what happened at that silly event is that when the Hatter hollered “clean cup”, everyone had to get up and move to a new place at the table. 

We have here in Berkeley a certain number of inhabitants who for various reasons are doing what the British call “sleeping rough”, a small percentage of them deliberately misbehaving. Rather than addressing and eliminating the causes of any undesirable behavior they exhibit, we just move them to a new site when a well-placed organization or official hollers. The hypocrisy of the majority of Berkeley’s councilmembers, each and every one of whom believes him-or-herself to be progressive or at least liberal, is breathtaking. Surely they must know that simply shuffling homeless people around the city will not make the problems disappear. 

Take, for example, the reported problems with human waste. 

Humans, almost all of them on this earth regardless of culture, really don’t like to defecate in public—they virtually never choose to do that if they have a choice, no matter how antisocial they might be. But if they can’t get to a toilet in time, sooner or later they’ll have to go somewhere. 

Anyone up there on the council’s dais with their city-paid laptops know how to Google? It’s already illegal to defecate in public places under state law.  

The Berkeley City Council majority voted on Tuesday to make urination and defecation in public places also illegal by city ordinance, but you know what: Without enough public bathrooms people living outside will still need to go, and eventually they will, law or no law. 

In the current Harper’s there’s an account of how a working class town in France whose government consists of current or former Communists and Socialists rousted a settlement established by Europe’s centuries-old migrants, the Roma (formerly known here as Gypsies). Author Justin E.H. Smith suggests that “ this, perhaps, is what remains of Communism in La Courneuve: the idea that communities do not grow, they are built, and not from the small spontaneous acts of individuals, of families and friends, but from the top down, from large decisions made by those in positions of power.” 

Thursday morning I got an email saying that about a dozen people had camped out on the terrace in front of the Maudelle Shirek Old City Hall Building. I stopped by to see what was going on, and talked to a nice guy named Henry who said he’d been living on the streets for about nine years. He said he’d love to have inside housing if anyone could help him get it. He suggested that he’d love to be sleeping inside the Maudelle Shirek Building, appropriately renamed for Berkeley’s legendary progressive councilwoman. 

It does seem that this spacious building would be an ideal place to adapt as a decent indoor home for many of Berkeley’s homeless residents. It might even be a catalyst for halting the demolition by neglect that the current administration has allowed for this civic treasure, whose elegant Beaux Arts façade adds a lot of grace to Berkeley’s historic city center. But it’s likely that such a practical suggestion would be met with horror by Berkeley’s timid council mothers and fathers, who prefer top down decisions made by those in positions of power. 

Why should this be true? It is perhaps in the nature of humans to be fearful, and to act on fears rather than on facts. 

Mayor Bates once confessed that encountering a Street Spirit vendor near the Berkeley Bowl made him uncomfortable, and he’s an ex-football player. It’s not surprising that other residents cringe when they meet street people who are not even as pleasant as the carefully curated newspaper sellers. 

But a very large percentage of such fears are based on anecdotes about infrequent occurrences, not on data about how often those sleeping outside actually harm anyone else. The council’s discussion on Tuesday was devoid of data, no real information, to the point that there was no mention of the fact that Ohlone Park had already been cleared of the offending humans and their gear by the time the discussion began. 


“We too have been known to prefer plot to truth; to deny the evidence before us in favor of the ideas behind us; to do insane things in the name of reason; to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous; to drown our private guilts in a public well; to indulge in a little delusion.”
That’s a quote from Stacy Schiff’s new book, The Witches: Salem, 1692. The residents of Salem sincerely believed, for a number of years, that they were in real mortal danger from Satan and his minions, but they were wrong. And Councilmembers Capitelli, Maio, Bates, Moore, Wengraf and Droste are wrong about the need for adding even more superfluous laws to further burden the weakest members of our society. 


One interpretation is that they’re doing insane things in the name of reason, just indulging in a little delusion like the Salem witchhunters. But a more cynical interpretation now abroad in the commentariat is that this new uproar came suspiciously close to the day when Laurie Capitelli opened a bank account to begin his campaign to succeed Bates. 

It would be so much easier and more lucrative, wouldn’t it, to run against the homeless than to run against Jesse Arreguin, the other announced candidate? Fear is always good for swelling campaign coffers.