The Play’s the Thing … (aka Capoeira Politics)

Steve Martinot
Wednesday December 28, 2016 - 02:18:00 PM

A mirror for the new council, if you please

Mirrors are important. For a city council to see what actually happens in its meetings, more than “instant replay” is needed. One needs a mirror to at least see where one’s lipstick is smeared, and how visible one’s facial tics might be. One needs a longer-term replay, or re-presentation. To fabricate such a mirror for the Berkeley City Council meeting of Dec. 13, 2016, we shall have to make it out of dramatic performance.

The dramatic setting

The setting for this drama is the problem of homelessness in Berkeley. The city has made endless attempts to resolve it, including a Task Force, millions of dollars in services, and contracted with shelter providers. Yet all this has produced mainly resolve rather than resolution, and a continued paucity of shelters. Alternatively, the city has spent reportedly over $300,000 for police raids on a specific community of homeless people calling itself “First they Came For The Homeless” (FTCFTH). As an intentional community, organized and able to take care of itself and its members, FTCFTH exists as a political protest, placing itself (the collection of tents by which it withstands the elements) where it will call attention the fact that homelessness exists.

Though it is a form of protest, a political statement demanding a “redress of grievances,” this community has been assaulted by the police, and stamped out 12 times in the past year – its possessions seized and its members left by the city to lose their lives to exposure. Several constitutional rights have been trampled in the process.

Their demands are [1] housing (the long-term solution), [2] humane and respectful short-term solutions, such as shelters and toilets and showers, and [3] an immediate cessation to the police raids because their community is what is keeping them alive while the city develops and funds short-term solutions. 

First Act

Scene one – the soliloquy

The agenda item on the homeless on Dec. 13, 2016, was Item 39. The new mayor wrote it, and opened the council discussion on it with an introduction explaining how it will initiate a resolution of the homeless crisis. [2:10:09 – these time markers refer to the city’s video of the meeting] And he reiterates that resolving the homeless crisis in a humane manner, aimed at getting everyone housed, is his first priority. 

However, in his introduction, he makes two assertions that simply ignore the depth of the crisis. He withdraws two clauses from the original language of the measure, clauses that would have recognized and honored the political statement of FTCFTH. One would have directed the city manager to designate an area in which this homeless community could be emplaced while the city develops and funds short-term solutions. The other would have imposed a limited moratorium on police raids. Both could have been justified by the First Amendment, or humanitarian, or financial, or democratic, or even sociological grounds. Instead, he retreats from calling off the repression. “I want to clarify that this item [Item 39] does not allow a blanket moratorium on enforcement of lodging on public property throughout the city of Berkeley.” (2:11:48) 

He doesn’t explain why he changed his mind, nor does he identify who convinced him to change it. Thus, he acts against his own heart-felt "priority." And we (the audience) become aware that this drama will be a tragedy in the classical sense. Though dedicated to preserving the health and safety of people, the mayor acts to leave unleashed the major threat to health and safety for the homeless community, viz. the police who seize possessions needed to survive, and who thus become the source of non-safety themselves (calling it “law enforcement”). In truly tragic fashion, the mayor acts against himself. 

And he reduces the three steps that the homeless know are necessary, an immediate means of survival, short-term solutions, and long-term solutions, to only two steps, short-term and long-term, substituting “short-term” eventuality for the immediacy of survival. 

Scene two – the dualities of language

The drama begins. The mayor’s right-hand man, the honorable Kriss, steps forward and makes a proposal. (2:18:18) He is seizing the time out of turn, since public comment is supposed to come first. But he cannot hold himself back. 

He proposes a series of amendments to Item 39, though no motion has been made yet on the item, nor has it been discussed. He seems to act on the assumption that the homeless community wants a place to "camp" permanently, and he will not allow that. Instead of substituting a short-term solution for immediacy (as had the mayor), the honorable Kriss goes "long," and accuses the homeless demand for immediate surcease as being their long-term desire (to camp endlessly), which no one on the street had suggested. 

Thus, he shows that those who do not live on the street speak a different and inept language. For them, a tent represents "camping," as an instrument for living away from home, and enjoying nature. For a homeless person, a tent is an item of clothing essential for surviving the elements. 

But why has the mayor’s right-hand man preempted the floor? Is it to obfuscate the language of debate? Is it to create confusion by offering a second motion where there was not yet a first one? Is he about to play Iago to the mayor as Othello, with Item 39 itself the innocent Desdemona? 

Only Sophie, the fair maiden of the north, wants to know what Kriss is doing. (30:06) 

And only the soft-spoken and keen-eyed Cheryl, with the soul of Minerva, asks for regulations that would assist people in retrieving what the police seize from them. (2:29:40) 

Second Act – the animus of contradiction

When the mayor finally opens the floor to public comment, the play erupts in conflict, as the room rises in anticipation, and then outrage. (34:13) Concerned citizens come forward with eloquent statements, making strong arguments for calling off the harassment, and for listening more intently to the political statements of the homeless. They understand the contradiction between “health and safety” and the actions of the police. Indeed, Mike Zint went into the hospital shortly thereafter because he had lost so much of his clothing to past raids. 

The mayor, bound by a tradition he does not know how to contest, is blind to the role of political structure in the conflict that ensues. Time itself becomes a repression, and thus an arena for revolt. The more people line up to speak, the less time they get. Speaking against the clock, they become aggressive, antagonistic, thrashing against restrictions on their freedom of speech. Against this, the council sinks into defensiveness, bombarded by monologues, and barred by that tradition from opening a conversation that would transform the heat of commentary into the fertility of broad participation. 

As if to add insult to the repressiveness of time and distance, when “public comment” is closed, five people in suits take their seats before the council dais, and enter into discussion on Item 39. (4:03:42) Who are these people? They are not introduced. They don’t introduce themselves. The city manager had simply said, “Our staff will be coming in shortly.” (4:02:49) Yet they enter into dialogue with the council. One of them explains: “The city has a contract with Dorothy Day House, a $30,000 contract that covers about 45 days or nights every winter … currently we have several different locations that we can use. … [they will be opened] if the weather is 40 degrees or below or has a 30% chance of rain in the forecast.” (4:04:18) 

Then why are the police seizing property rather than transporting people on the street to these shelters? Something is rotten in Denmark. 

What the audience has witnessed is that those who have a stake in solutions to the problem have no dialogic participation in arriving at them, while those who have no stake participate through real dialogue in arriving at their own solutions. 

Scene two – “Cry havoc”

Now the actors move into position. It opens with the honorable Kriss stepping forward to explain what he has done with his proposal, which he has read into the record. He abjures the camping, and bespeaks his desire for indoor beds for everyone. And with a subdued flourish, he makes his motion. Susan of the hills seconds it. 

The fair Sophie turns her gentle frown into words, and speaks of the virtue of the original Item 39. Without ado, she proposes it whole and wholeheartedly, and makes it her own, though perforce a substitute motion, since there is one already on the floor. The soft-spoken and keen-eyed Cheryl seconds this one. 

And thus dramatic chaos rolls onto the stage and begins its flowery dance. Two motions there are, vying for attention. The first one presents itself as an amendment to the second one, though the second one had not yet been made. And the second one presents itself as a substitute for the first one, though the second one is the original. Each one is thus procedurally subordinate to the other. 

One is reminded one of that famous paradox, created by two written statements divided by a vertical line. The statement on the left side says “the statement on the right is a lie.” And the statement on the right says “the statement on the left is true.” If the left-side statement is true, then the right-side statement is lying when it says that the left side statement is true. Which means the left side statement is false. If the left-side statement is false, then it means that the right-side statement is true (not a lie), which means that the left-side statement is true (not false). In short, the left-side is false if it is true, and true if it is false. 

If the honorable Kriss is only amending the mayor’s proposal, then the mayor’s proposal (as made into a motion by the fair Sophie) cannot be a substitute, and must be the main motion. If Sophie’s motion is a substitute, then Kriss’s motion is the main motion, and not an amendment. 

Either Kriss, the veritable right-hand man, is trying to steal the mayor’s thunder by preempting him with the mayor’s own invention, or he and the mayor are in cahoots to create as situation of paradox. We discern the probable tragic outcome wherein nothing can get done by the council as it chases itself through substance and substitution. And the police campaign to destroy those who protest their poverty will then proceed unhindered. Again. 

In the next act, all that is foreseen will indeed be seen. 

Third Act

Scene one – the Capoeira Circle

The council grinds on under the power of paradox, trudging through its structure-generated conflicts, though they be time-honored procedures. And things only get worse, as the paradox transforms itself into a circle, thanks to the morose genius of the City Manager. 

But first, the brave Ben enters the fray, armed as he is with a new concept. (4:29:01) Ben wants a quick solution to the problem. He opts for the autocratic, a tsar, a knight in shining armor who can control all and fix everything. 

The manager responds positively, offering to set up an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to expeditiously handle both immediate needs and enforcement. (4:31:30) As she puts it, it “puts us into an emergency situation where all hands on deck come into a process where we are all day working on this particular item and we can find resources both internally and externally.” 

Ben likes it. He wishes to make a motion to accept this executive solution. But with two motions on the floor, he must offer a friendly amendment to one of them. He chooses the original item moved by the fair Sophie as a substitute to that of the honorable Kriss. And someone whispers in the audience, “hang onto your hats, folks; we’re in for a wild ride.” There are now five characters on stage, all moving in their own way – like five bodies fighting in Capoeira fashion, making motions toward each other without ever making physical contact. 

The manager asks if Ben’s motion is to focus on shelters. Ben says yes. Kriss steps forward and offers to facilitate Ben’s proposal by removing his own. (4:33:12) Quite taken by it, he finds the EOC marks a better strategy than Item 39, one that seems somehow closer to his own (that is, to getting people off the street). He doesn’t explain why his and the mayor’s might be at odds, but Ben’s and Item 39 certainly are. They move by different rules. 

When the honorable Kriss withdraws his motion, the mayor asks the others if they would accept Ben’s as "friendly." And they agree. But it is short-lived friendship. Ben’s motion is to be a friendly amendment to motions that are to be withdrawn. (4:34:42) The manager then pronounces the need for a direct council decision on outcome, wishing to know what the EOC is to accomplish. The mayor turns it back and asks her what she would envision. She names storm and warming shelters, and refers to Kriss’s motion. 

They are all just spinning the wheel. (4:38:24) Kriss has deferred to Ben, Ben has deferred to the manager, and the manager has deferred to Kriss. They all circle each other. And the mayor has deferred to the circle. 

Scene two – centrifugal tearing of the fabric

The circle explodes when the soft-spoken and keen-eyed Cheryl brings up the critical issue that no one had wanted to hear about or address, namely, the cessation of the constant police raids. (4:38:38) 

In her quiet way, she was the only one listening. But when she makes her own friendly amendment concerning the raids, the whole house of cards falls to the ground. Which motion is she to befriend with her forbidden idea? Struck by the possibility (or impossibility) of such friendliness, the mayor suggests that all motions be withdrawn. 

To do so, the seconds must agree along with the motion-makers. Kriss agrees, and Susan of the hills agrees. Sophie withdraws hers. And everyone holds their breath. But the major moves on to consider passing the EOC. He thus fails to ask the keen-eyed Cheryl if she too agrees. Thus, they proceed to the business that the manager directs, leaving Item 39 open yet dead on the table, unwithdrawn yet discarded and disregarded, a victim of the whispered war between would-be suitors. Sophie tries to revive it, but to no avail. (4:47:40) Thus, all the mayor’s desire for Item 39, stated in his introduction, comes to its tragic ending. 


Council passes the EOC. Some of the short term issues ride along with it, because the manager has included them. In other words, it is she, the staff, who makes the EOC motion for the elected. And most of the veritable “short-term solutions” are then shunted to an ad hoc subcommittee which will report back a month later. So much for the immediate problem. 

On the winter solstice, the police raid the FTCFTH site and destroy it, taking most of the people’s possessions. For the police, though, once wasn’t enough. They raid the same people again that same afternoon over near city hall where they went after the first raid. In this second instance, the police even went so far as to grab possessions out of people’s hands. 

The police of course report that they had received many complaints about the "encampment." And of course, they do not divulge who complained. Whoever it was, it wasn’t the neighbors who lived nearby, and who had been seen supporting the encampment, bringing it food and other things. 

A post-mortem

Thus government officials end up playing with their constituent’s lives, as if they were children playing cowboys and Indians, making up rules as they go along – or rather, making up roles. And ignoring the sadism that spices up the raids. 

The city council clearly misconceived of itself. It has inherited a structure whose purpose is to prevent it from forthrightly dealing with critical issues, nor with public participation. That old structure is based on a hierarchy of discourse between public comment and council debate, and on the prevention of dialogue between the public and the council. Yet this council was elected through the influence of popular movements, not just by “getting out the vote.” By substituting pragmatics for democracy, the rules of “public comment” guarantee insularity from those movements. Thus, the council wallows in paradox, sorely needing a different relation between itself and the people. And having only insular executive solutions to the need.