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Debating the Mayor on People’s Park

One of the more interesting and insightful statements I have read about homelessness in the US was a caption to a picture of a tent city in Venice Beach, California. It stated that the “national epidemic of homelessness [has resulted] from the underfunding of human welfare initiatives and overfunding of the military.” – Lauren Lyster and Nouran Salahieh, May 24, 2021.

A year and a half ago, the Mayor of Berkeley wrote an article in the SF Chronicle (dated February 3, 2020) entitled, “It’s time for a new People’s Park.” The title announces, in Mayoral tactfulness, “Okay, people, it’s time to throw away that piece of historiography and move on.” Since the article is over a year old, we can look back and compare it to that announced future.

The most obvious response has been the growth of the “tent city” in the Park. With over 100 people living in it, it sports tents and lean-tos saying no to both the city and the University. In his article, the Mayor speaks glowingly of cooperation between the city and the university, but not between the city and those who live there. The University does not live in a tent on the Park, real people do. Apparently “cooperation” means excluding them, while giving the University the green light to do what it will. Student and faculty housing fall under the scope of such cooperation. But housing for the homeless? The Mayor fails to mention those for whom it is a “People’s” Park.

The actual development plans have not been made yet, so we can still hope the park will not be Manhattanized.

Nevertheless, the city is moving against its RV dwellers again. They have been given the choice between living behind fences that can be locked at the command of unknown persons or being driven out of town. Of course, those with command authority are not unknown. Indeed, the police are skilled at impoverishing RV dwellers. When their home (vehicle) gets ticketed, and they skip court because they cannot pay the fine, a warrant gets issued. After a few accumulate, the person faces jail time, during which the home (vehicle) gets trashed.

On top of that, the police are again demanding heightened surveillance technology – in this case, license plate readers and carefully secreted cameras. This was a police department that recently requested the right to use tear gas against demonstration crowds.

Thus, we confront our own little piece of the “epidemic of homelessness,” and find this Mayor floating in the space between the underfunded (human concerns) and the overfunded (militarism). Let us take the opportunity to debate him on this to a small extent.

The “issue” is People’s Park. The park is home to the birth of Berkeley’s radical community, a community that actually tried to democratize everything from local policing and transit authorities to automation of the (Oakland) port and the McCarthyite parentage of the “surveillance state” itself. It is a historical landmark, a sanctified signifier for the rights of people everywhere, even Vietnam, and even South Berkeley, to live in autonomy, free from the corrosion and corruption of corporate interest. It is a landmark about governance.

Today, that landmark is guarded by a homeless community of over a hundred members, who pitch tents to protect themselves from the elements, and from the ever-threatening bulldozers. (If you think bulldozers aren’t military, give a thought to the memory of Rachel Corrie.) It is a landmark that speaks through its tents and proclaims to the world that the people in them have nowhere else to go.

In the article, the Mayor speaks about them, but not with them. Indeed, it is signed by three people, the Mayor and two sidekicks from the City Council – a council that signed off on the university deal. Usually this Mayor likes to spring things on his councilmembers unilaterally at the last moment, as he did recently by condemning the TOPA proposal to premature obsolescence (more on which below). To embed himself in a triumvirate actually looks coy. It could be an attempt at resurrecting a reputation, but it is certainly not for the purposes of anonymity.

To debate him, we give him the floor in the form of quoted sentences from the article. And we shall respond from the archives of recent Berkeley history.

MAYOR: “For many years, People’s Park has been a sanctuary for the unhoused, but it can be more.”

Sanctuary? Sanctuary from whom, pray tell? From whom do the homeless, the very lowest economic layer of this society, need protection and refuge rather than succor, or banal “services,” or mere recognition as human?

Well, clearly they need sanctuary from the Mayor and his police department. Only a month ago (October 2021), those living in tents along South Shattuck Ave., were “evicted.” They had been living on public land, not blocking anyone else’s “right” to a sidewalk, and fulfilling the conditions required by the Boise Decision (Ninth Circuit). They had “lived” there for years. Now, the police have reduced them to statistical proof of the need for “sanctuary.” One of those South Shattuck dwellers was a most gracious bicycle mechanic, an asset to the anti-GhG community. Now he is gone.

But tell us, Mr. Mayor, what does that teasing term “more” mean at the tail end of your sentence? Whose “more”? The developers? The university’s? The radical community’s? We remember how, during this Mayor’s first campaign for that office, he gave mention to the many homeless RV dwellers, ecstatic that they had autonomously found ways to shelter themselves, for which they should be honored. After the election, they found themselves kicked from parking lot to parking lot to city street, seeking to escape police harassment and ordinances designed to run them out of town.

MAYOR: “The park has played various symbolic roles in the last 50 years, and today, it is time for it to play yet another — one that includes housing and support for the homeless.”

As usual, the homeless appear as an afterthought. Building houses is far from symbolic. Those who are moved off the land in order to build them face the need to survive having been moved. Death is not symbolic, though it may be allegorical for the many promises made the “unhoused” that were never kept. Even meager services recognizing the constant mammalian “calls of nature” are routinely withheld. Why? So that their absence can be held against all the homeless for those few who nevertheless soil the streets. It is like the cop who commands a person to do something humiliating, and then arrests him for disobedience when he refuses.

Is that what you mean by housing and support? Years ago, a community group in South Berkeley, hearing the plea of the Adeline encampment community, rented Portapotties for them, thus shaming the city. Is that what it takes?

MAYOR: “We do not take our decision to step forward and voice our support [for the Park] lightly.”

But we remember how you tiptoed into the room and thwarted real support for low income renters (through TOPA) by pulling new secret amendments out of your pocket that no one had seen before. To withdraw support for low income renters, in this economy, is to condemn them to eventually become homeless. TOPA would have been a gingerly “step forward” by protecting tenants from inevitable displacement should their landlord decide to sell his property. Without that ability to purchase in response to his decision, they would undoubtedly face the inability to find housing they could afford. Nevertheless, you amended the TOPA measure by postponing its implementation to 2023, giving real estate speculators two years to buy up enough housing to make the idea of “tenant protections” moot.

When dozens of pro-developer voices arose in opposition to TOPA, telling outrageous lies about the proposal, neither you nor City Council said a word in its defense, nor to correct the misinformation disseminated. Is “silence” what you mean by “not taking things lightly”? Every time your police have raided or evicted some homeless people from public areas, residence on which is protected by the 8th Amendment, you have not noticed. Taking that “lightly” would have been an improvement.

MAYOR: “The current plan that the campus is developing [for the Park] is a balanced one — one that meets the most critical needs of our community while simultaneously affirming the important legacy of People’s Park.“

How big a bronze plaque to the Park’s history would it take to “balance” the hundreds of low income affordable housing units that are the “critical need” of this city’s communities?

You refer to the University’s “three-pronged approach” to the Park. Whose pitchfork would that be? Who will be the “hay” it will toss? The gleaning of that land will not leave much space for “park-ness.” One would think that the possessive case used in “People’s” Park, that is, its grammatical reference to possession, would obviate the need for the people to fight at every turn for remaining there. Committees have been formed to obstruct the designs of the profit-makers. Are the continual marches and celebrations and rallies to “defend” the park, even now, to be simply archived as an alleged legacy?

MAYOR: “The housing crisis is our greatest challenge, and a new facility with as many as 125 beds [in the park] would represent a dramatic expansion of our supportive services capacity.”

Challenge? Really? There are a half dozen huge new developments within a half-mile radius of the Park, and none of them will have more than a few affordable housing units. If that is how you meet the challenge – that is, by giving in to the for-profit developers – then you are the source of the crisis. You undermine TOPA, you sweep the unfortunate off unused land, and you impoverish RV dwellers by allowing ticketing that leads to eventual arrest. It would seem that the greatest challenge this city faces is how to act in a humane way. Is this Berkeley’s message to the world, that those who claim “housing is a human right” actually live on a different planet?

So many opportunities to “expand supportive services capacity,” and you simply put them off a couple of years. You imagine that the “new” People’s Park will be full of challenges. But you must surely know that each of those challenges will have to stand up to a bulldozer.

MAYOR: “Over the next several months, the campus is hosting a series of open houses to collect public input on the proposed project.”

We do not buy the hype! “Input” does not mean participation. Input means the powerless get to run their mouths, and those with decision-making power get to distract themselves by pecking at their phones.

Do the city’s elite (those elected to do what is planned for them) plan ahead with respect to what they will do even in the face of “input”? Surely that would violate the Brown Act. To take seriously what is said would turn “comment” into dialogue. The refusal of dialogue means the actions in question are already decided.

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In a democracy, those who will be affected by a policy would be the ones to create and decide on the policy that will affect them. Were any RV dwellers involved in deciding their recent harassment? Have any homeless encampment members been involved in making policy about the homeless? When was the last policy-making assembly of those who live in People’s Park, and those who use People’s Park without living there, and those who revere People’s Park as their tradition and history, and those who acclaim People’s Park as their own because it is part of their identity? Never.

Those who despise the park, those who despise the people who use the park, those who have designs on its land and those who oppose the politics for which it stands do not go there; they do not use the park. They stay away because they do not like any aspect of it. Fine. But for those who use the park, any policy about the park will affect them.

Never have those who use the park been brought together to make policy about the park. They bring themselves together, and make their own self-governing policy. Insofar as it is policy in resistance against the “elite” and the “owners,” it is democracy against the status quo. And you know what that means about the “status quo.”