Two Square Feet and a Whole Lot of Shaking Going On: Berkeley Council Goes After the Homeless Again (News Analysis)

Carol Denney
Wednesday December 02, 2015 - 03:19:00 PM

The only guy, just one, who spoke in favor of the new two square feet law at the Berkeley City Council on December 1st, gave an unexpected compliment to the ongoing protest withstanding the freezing weather in front of old City Hall in Berkeley on Martin Luther King Jr. Way for having strict behavioral standards.

“This town needs to have standards,” insisted Eric Panzer of Livable Berkeley, a booster group for all things developer-friendly. His compliment to the protest group which began its demonstration with a sleep-in on November 16th and included local activists, city workers, and clergy, did not go unnoticed by the wide-eyed council or by attorney Osha Neumann, who was next in line to speak and invited him to endorse the newly named Liberty City protest more formally.

Many of the Berkeley community have done just that. Around 75 people gathered in front of the old City Hall building to share stories, music, food, and march together for just over a mile to the Longfellow Middle School being used for the Berkeley City Council meeting, a larger hall than the tight 123 seat capacity of the usual council chambers. 

Liberty City has a large “No Drugs or Alcohol” sign prominently displayed by their circle of colorful tents and has now received its third warning from the Berkeley Police Department recommending that it take advantage of local shelters, etc. Their supporters spoke for hours at the Council meeting trying to stop the second reading of what most already knew could perhaps be delayed but certainly had the votes it needed to become another layer of Berkeley’s anti-homeless laws. 

The best quote of the night heard over an auditorium reverberating with chants and stomping was Vice Mayor and Council Chair Linda Maio’s plaintive defense that the two square foot law would not be used until storage was made available, and that “they are really big bins.” 

Really big bins. The photographs of rows of ugly plastic garbage bins used in San Diego and elsewhere in lieu of honestly providing low income housing never has quite the desired effect on people who wish to convince themselves that criminalizing having more than two square feet of possessions (shopping carts and blankets excepted, or so Maio claims) among other idiocies is somehow okay. Mayor Tom Bates, recovering from a fracture at home, was present over a phone system and sounded like he was gargling. 

The city councilmembers who opposed the measures tried valiantly to craft substitute motions – Councilmember Arreguin tried to add a directive making currently locked bathrooms open all night and expand the possessions footprint to four square feet while Councilmember Worthington kept getting shut down by Maio who seemed terrified of letting him speak at all. The vote apparently took place while the room rocked, at least three members of the City Council were locked in various arguments, and the clock ran out. 

That’s how democracy happens in Berkeley. The last time anti-homeless laws passed in Berkeley with this same cast of characters the ordinance was overturned by a people’s referendum and then put before voters who turned it down. So who does the Berkeley City Council majority represent? At least one guy, the Downtown Berkeley Association’s CEO John Caner who wrote the initial law (with Maio and Arreguin) in a back room, felt represented in all the madness. And he didn’t have to say a word.