Public Comment

A Sunday Afternoon in Berkeley

Steve Martinot
Thursday July 25, 2019 - 06:05:00 PM

People crowded around the parklet in a Service Road that ran along North Shattuck on a sunny afternoon, trying to get the Mayor’s attention. He and the local councilmember sat facing about 20 people, in a kind of ad hoc townhall called to discuss fire safety and wildfire prevention in Berkeley. The climate crisis had made the issue imperative. Whole towns had been decimated recently. And in 1923, fire had swept from the hills as far down as Shattuck Ave. itself. The important information was to clear away ground level brush, trim low tree branches, and create space between trees and houses.

Then the discussion turned to RV s, and to those now living in RVs, and then it got hot. A fire of bigotry and paranoia swept through the ground level speeches and, for at least half the crowd, it swept away the humanism that had (once upon a time) been built. It was a hot forceful wind that seemed to come from nowhere that got expressed. These, after all, were people who mostly lived in the hills, where RVs don’t generally venture. But the vision of people reduced to sleeping in cars somehow muddied the waters of morality for them. “Get rid of them” was the sentiment that got applause on that lovely Sunday afternoon. 

One man sat there and declaimed against a bunch of guys living in their trucks who go to work every day, and on the weekends go rock-climbing. How dare they, his tone of voice said, live a life like that and add nothing to city revenue? He was outraged – in his calm, practiced, sub-liberal way. Had he spoken to them, that he knew their life-style that well? They were evidently Berkeleyans with jobs. But a few months earlier, they would have been parked in the Marina (from which all RVs were expelled unceremoniously). What had brought them to this pass of living in RVs? Why did he look at them as such outsiders, strangers, freebooters, low-life trespassers on "our" civilized city. 

It is true, many RV dwellers have jobs. Many even have university education and advanced degrees. One would hope that they had high intelligence because, having been priced out of house and home by economic forces not even the state of California can (or will) control, they would need all the smarts they could muster to survive homelessness in this "caring" society. 

It is also true that this society has a history, almost a tradition, of blaming the victim of oppressive and impoverishing structures. It is the poor who are blamed for the stresses and threats that beset “middle-class” existence. It is because of the poor that life is always on the edge of a cliff of some kind. It is never because those that profiteer on the economy, nor because of those who create impoverishment as the necessary concomitant to their own wealth. It is never the rent-gougers who evict people so that they can raise the rents that are at the center of the homeless crisis. It is never the housing developers who capitalize on an economy out of control, and which, through the purely economic mechanisms of flourishing inflation, throws people on the street. 

And no, it is never even those nice middle class white folks who could not see the necessity of repealing the Costa-Hawkins Act, but who can now go to little ad hoc meetings like this one and rail against the homeless. For them, the problem is not those who profit from the misery and stresses of impoverishment. It is the poverty-stricken themselves who are the problem. 

Well, of course, there is nothing that anyone can do about the rich, or the unrouchable corporations. When we need to hit out against someone because we feel threatened, the defenseless are there for us. Right? So denigrating the homeless makes one feel a lot better than offering them friendship would. Community, or a helping hand, would lead people to demand that the city to provide bathrooms for them, rather than deportation. Somehow, it is more satisfying to complain about trash, even though everyone knows that trash would accumulate at all private houses if the city didn’t pick it up. 

Outsiders, people to be denigrated out of hand, low-lifes who don’t deserve what Berkeley has to offer, we hear this from the good bergers of Berkeley. Those who have gotten priced out of the economy become the unwanted, the outcasts and pariahs, the unacceptable for those who haven’t. 

Like Central American children caught between the jaws of corporate low wage control of their home country and the cages made by political capitalizing on their having walked and hichhiked two thousand miles to escape that low wage enslavement, the homeless are caught. The children are herded in to concentration camps in Texas, and the homeless are assaulted by the police if they form community for themselves in Berkeley. It is as if they were all racialized, a new category of race against which nice white people need to defend themselves. 

All the people at this little ad hoc meeting were white (except the Mayor). They wanted the Mayor to rid them of this issue and their fear. Nice white people calling upon their liberal soon-to-be-Trumpist city government to do something about homeless people who have the gall to partially house themselves in a truck. 

Indeed, the Mayor even said that once the city initiated enforcement of its new anti-RV regulations (which would start in the Fall), there would be many RVs that would have to leave town. He actually said that. 

There would be exceptions made for those who had jobs in town, or were enrolled in a school. Permits were going to be issued for RV dwellers who had documentation – documented connections to the city. They would be able to renew their permits. The rest, the "undocumented," would get one permit, and after that, they would be deported, forced to leave, just like those whom ICE is picking up as we speak. We have a national administration whose inhumanity forces the deportation even of people who came here when three years old, and now, decades later, are ripped out of their families. With that as a role model, the Mayor of Berkeley is setting up his own population of undocumented people to throw across a border. That discriminatory thread weaves its way through the city government’s attempt to cater to the national bigotry. 

Whether taken across a border (with Oakland, or El Cerrito), or jailed, or dumped on the sidewalk because their RV is seized, the goal is to place them where no one will see them. Whether they die in the streets or the deserts, the problem will be solved. For the white mind, that would be so much better than talking to them. Anything but that! Anything but discuss the possibility of areas of mutual interest or benefit. Anything but think of them as part of this society, this neighborhood, this block, these people we call our community. Anything but grant them their humanity, as equals. Instead, they must play their role as target for frustration. That way, they can be labelled dangerous, a rot in society to be cleansed by some means (there was a time when VX gas was used as that means). You people who think you are defending your nice peaceful liberal propertied white middle-class life, be careful what you wish for.