Public Comment

Support “Liberty City” Homeless Occupation at Old City Hall, Berkeley

George Lippman,, Chair, Peace and Justice Commission (for purposes of identification only)
Sunday November 29, 2015 - 03:18:00 PM

On Tuesday Nov. 24, the City of Berkeley posted a notice declaring the occupation in front of Old City Hall illegal, and the occupiers guilty of misdemeanor disorderly conduct. This warning from the City to the homeless occupation, now proclaimed “Liberty City,” is unfortunate news.

As Peace and Justice Commission chair, I had been calling senior city staff people to urge a stance of communication and collaboration to meet the immediate health and safety needs of the occupiers. Requests such as sufficient bathrooms and garbage cans, first aid equipment and cooperative relations with police and city staff, would also serve the interests of the neighbors and the larger community. 

Late on the 24th I talked with a senior city staffer. He depicted the notice not as a warning or a threat, but as a helpful provision of information about the illegality of the occupation and about the resources available to homeless people in Berkeley. I pointed out to him that the occupiers are there not as a squat, but as a demonstration, which is constitutionally protected free assembly and expression. I also reminded him that the broader community has an interest in the well-being of the occupation, as well as in its message of human rights for the homeless. 

For people who are opposed to criminalizing the homeless, support for the occupation needs to be a key part of the campaign in the weeks and months to come. The occupiers are putting their bodies on the line for our common objective: the primacy of human rights as a governing principle of government. A successful and healthy occupation can serve to refute the negative messaging and outright lies that are told about the homeless. 

At this moment, powerful political and economic interests are pushing for punitive measures that will increase the burdens of daily life for the homeless. On the other side, professionals and activists are arguing for alternatives that promote human rights of the homeless. 

The only people whose voices are not heard are the people at the center of the issue. This is a critical time for the community to hear from them, to see their humanity. These voices must gain a hearing at the court of public opinion. They have much to tell about how they want their lives to change, how the punitive measures affect their ability to survive; even what their condition should reveal about our society and its priorities. Instead the opposite is happening: the homeless are seen not as persons, but as a symbolic target, an obstacle, a problem to be solved. In a cynical calculus, their rights are disposable compared to the imperatives of commerce, and they are made pawns in a political wedge issue. 

Assuming that there is not a heartless post-Thanksgiving eviction, the December 1 city council meeting will be an important moment to protest the eviction threat. Council will take the required second vote on the ordinances criminalizing homelessness. After that point, the City could move quickly to evict, unless a broad show of community support is organized. 

Moments like this one are the reason I became part of the city’s Peace and Justice Commission. I hoped to do more than just solve other people’s problems for them. My goal was to facilitate the access of marginalized communities to the decision-making process of the City. 

Peace and Justice functions as a human relations commission. Part of our role is to “develop ways to resolve conflict which may be applied on a local level…help create citizen awareness around issues of social justice… act as a liaison between community groups organizing around issues of peace and social justice and City government.” 

We who believe in the empowering impact of collective self-determination can help humanize homeless people in the public eye, by facilitating their efforts and their voices. 

We must hear the message of the Liberty City occupiers, who say, “We are asking to be allowed to take care of ourselves in the commons,” as they create a self-managing village with a democratic decision-making process and a code of conduct to ensure a clean and safe environment. As with affirmative action, women’s rights, and same-sex marriage, these are not “special rights,” they are human rights. 

As the homeless community finds its public voice, it should come to be seen as a legitimate constituency and an actor in the life of the city. It has the potential to be a part of civic negotiations for conflict resolution and restorative practices. This process could promote a healing that will benefit all constituencies, on both immediate health and safety issues and longer-term transformational change. To the extent that homeless people become agents for change, the pretext for them to be treated like “aliens” would be reduced. 

No longer can we sweep homeless people from city to city like, in Woody Guthrie’s expression, so many “dry leaves.” Human rights, under the international framework, begin with the right to dignity, which in turn requires self-determination. Up to 3.5 million people in the U.S. are homeless at some time in the year, 100 million are homeless around the world, and an incredible one billion are squatters, refugees, or in temporary shelter. These numbers are likely to explode in years to come, due to climate change and other social dislocations. 

Berkeley is moving to copy the demeaning and historically tragic treatment of the Roma people and the Irish Travelers. We can find better models for how to live side by side with the homeless. Widespread homelessness is a symptom of our troubled civilization. Respect for the dignity and self-determination of marginalized communities is essential to turning around the social and economic polarization that is rapidly growing in our society. 

Here are four ways you can take action to support the homeless and oppose criminalization. 

1. Come to the Council meeting, 7pm Tuesday Dec. 1 at Longfellow Middle School (1500 Derby Street). 

You can join the assembly and march from the “Liberty City” occupation at Old City Hall (2134 MLK Jr. Way) beginning at 4pm. You can also attend the special Council meeting at 5:30 pm, at which important measures to promote affordable housing will be considered. 

The Stop Urban Shield Coalition will hold a press conference at Longfellow at 6:30pm. 

Many critical issues are on the docket for the 7pm meeting, including, among others: 

  • Criminalization of sidewalk behavior (item 4, will probably be moved from Consent to Action agenda)
  • BPD Agreements with external law enforcement agencies including NCRIC and UASI (item 26)
  • Implementation of Tier One Recommendations from Homeless Task Force (item 29)
  • Investigation into BPD Response to December 6 2014 Black Lives Matter Protests (item 32)
2. Meet with city management to press for humane treatment of the Liberty City occupation. The interim city manager has stressed her commitment to equity. Although elected leaders apparently have directed the staff to ban the occupation, staff should be pushed to remember their constitutional and moral responsibilities. Faith leaders, students, legal and other community organizations can play a key role in expressing the moral concerns of Berkeley at its best. If your organization is interested, please contact Peace and Justice at the e-mail address below. 

3. Form a community support coalition, composed of organizations and individuals who want to make a commitment to defending Liberty City. This coalition could have committees working on outreach, material aid, lobbying, action, phone tree, and other activities. 

4. The Peace and Justice Commission will address the homeless emergency at its next meeting, Monday night December 7, 7-10pm at the North Berkeley Senior Center, Hearst and MLK. This meeting will be a supportive place to have a strategic conversation.