Kicking the Encampment Around Again

On Jan. 31 of this year, the city did what it had been doing for years to no effect; it had again raided the encampment called “First They Came for the Homeless.” It had been situated on Adeline St. at 64th for years. But not because of city largess. It was only because of external circumstances, like a federal suit (the Boise decision), and the pandemic. The fact that it represented the main principled and ethical response to homelessness would not have mattered. That encampment had been raided and torn apart more times than this city knew how to count. For some reason, even a liberal city like Berkeley could not bring itself to live with the effects of its own corporate structure, not with the autonomy of those dealing with that structure.

They (the encampment) had set themselves up at city hall first, way back in 2016; it was at the old one, the one right under the noses of the police, whose HQ was 100 feet away. They had signs set up, saying why they were there, and what they hoped to accomplish by this protest. After about a week or so, the cops got tired of looking at them, and kicked them out of there. That was not what they wanted, but it what they expected — a level of dehumanization that matched the fact that the entire society seemed unable to live with its growing number of “unhoused” people.

Some people would say that “housing is a human right;” but for most people, even in Berkeley, that didn’t mean anything. Human rights? What the hell are they?

So the encampment qua protest set itself up at the new city hall, one block away. They were both protesting their ability to survive and protecting their ability to live. They were, after all, residents of this society and its city. They were protesting their inability to get acceptance as residents. This time, the city lied about them, and called the police to deal with them. The lies were ugly. But what do you expect when even human rights are kicked to the curb. They moved again; to the Adeline median, to the North Shattuck median, to Ohlone Way, to the foot of Ashby, and on and on (not in that order). In each of these spots, they got support from people in the area, who would bring them things, like food, or water, or heat, or just materials to write on. They got good at moving, but not good at dealing with the crimes the cops kept committing.

You know, when the cops violate the Constitution of the US, they are committing crimes against human rights. It says right there, in the Constitution, no one shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. “Due process” means that it occurs first, before the deprivation. It is an opportunity for the one the state wishes to deprive to argue against the state, and its cops, and its other institutions. A chance for an individual to have a moment of equalization with corporate governance. That has to come first, before the deprivation, otherwise all the individual has is “appeal.” That’s not the same thing.

Interestingly enough, an advocacy group for the homeless (the Coalition on Homelessness), has taken property claims against the city to Small Claims Court, and won – thousands of dollars. More cases have followed, and a movement has formed. [Mission Local, Feb. 22, 2023]

That doesn’t help those who died because they were deprived of things they needed to defend themselves against the elements. But at least it recognizes the principle.

When the cops take the property of a person that the person needs to survive, they are condemning that person to possible death. That is a felony. It is a felony to threaten someone with death. The cops have just committed that felony again, by raiding this encampment, and taking people’s property without due process of law.

Well, they are good at killing people. Since 2015, they have averaged about 1000 a year, nationwide. And they have used live ammunition in Berkeley, shooting a man for eating sandwich. Someone has said that 2022 was a bumper year because the cops killed 1176 people that year. The encampment called itself “First They Came for the Homeless,” in honor of the anti-Nazi poem written by Niemoller. The Nazis killed thousands a day, the US government kills a thousand a year. When the cops kill, it is the government killing its own people.

The encampment was later called Here/There because of two sculptures put up in the area. And it was easier (and more polite) to say. But “First They Came for the Homeless” should not be forgotten.

Also, the majority of the cop’s victims are black or brown, even though those groups are not the majority of the people. Yes, it’s a human rights issue again, as well as one of despotism. We have dealt with the militarism of the police. When they give an order, they are putting the person so ordered into a military situation (against his/her will, and without consent). There are no human rights in the military. That is something the Dept. of Defense knows full well, when they agree to give military equipment to the local police.

The cops would say that they were getting complaints about the encampment. And they use that to rationalize busting it up. They don’t say they got complaints about the fact that this city produces homeless people in the first place. They didn’t say that they got complaints about the cops dehumanizing and criminalizing the homeless. The cops spoke only of complaints about the existence of the homeless. And they use that to raid the encampment. Barbara Brust used to read the names of the homeless who had died on the streets that month in City Council. The Mayor would look on with a placid face, and not hold her to his time limits. But he would send the police to clear out another encampment.

How the homeless held off the cops for a while

The members of the homeless community decided that they would camp out on BART land on Adeline St. and 64th. What made that work was that, as BART land, it was outside the jurisdiction of the Berkeley PD. So a number of years went by during which the encampment was safe from police raids.

This was the flagship community of the homeless. The homeless had no addresses, and so had problems getting services – like trash pick-ups, and porto-potties – not to mention mail, and health care, just like other residents got – they had only themselves to fall back upon. Survival on the street is not easy. One needs help and support and friendship, as well as community. And “First They Came” (FTCFTH) became the center of all the encampments because it was the best organized. It would send people out to other encampments to help organize them. In that, they were participating in the survival of people that this society wished to sweep away.

The principles of the encampment were formed around policies discussed by the members. They were passed by them by a vote. Their policies were simple; no drugs (except by prescription), no alcohol, no violence, nor rowdy behavior; members were expected to be self-sufficient but with an attitude of mutual aid, clean up after themselves, and maintain a “Good Neighbor” policy. And there were regulations for joining. Those who violated these standards could be kicked out by the rest of the membership (by modified consensus). And if policy had to be made concerning events, such as police raids, or new rulings by the City Council, or where the encampment should move to when it was raided by the cops, those would be discussed, and decided. No one could bring other people into the encampment as a member without it being discussed by all the other members first. A member could spend some time with a friend, but if it looked like the friend was moving in, that would have to be discussed by the whole membership. Before the pandemic, admission to the encampment was rarely a problem.

The couple of years that they were able to avoid Berkeley police by living on BART land enabled them to save quite a few people, and stabilize their community.

Of course, the city of Berkeley hated them for that, just as all bureaucrats hate it when people find living autonomously better than going along with corporate governance. So eventually, the Berkeley City Council got the BART Board of Directors to pay attention, and kick the encampment out of its jurisdiction. Ho-hum. So the encampment moved over to city land, right next to where they had lived on BART land. And it just so happened that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was at that moment dealing with the Boise decision. So the city called the cops off while the court dealt with that issue.

The Boise Decision was based on the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which was interpreted as saying that a person could not be criminalized for sleeping. At last, someone knew something about human life and existence. Can you imagine living in a society in which such an idea could be considered new??? In which such an idea had to be stated in a high court in order to have any existence for that society?

The Boise decision stated that a person could not be removed from public land on which they were sleeping (or camping) if the city had no shelter to give them. Without city shelter, a homeless person could set up a tent on public land, and sleep there.

Well, ever since then, Berkeley City Council has been falling all over itself looking for loopholes to use against the encampments, some detail that they could grab hold of to again criminalize the homeless. They invented details, like setting property in a 3 square foot area, or not holding anything over a sidewalk, etc. Anything to give the cops a way of harassing people.

But the cops were modern. They used the tactics of the surveillance state. It is called “false flag” operations, and is done by corruption, lying, and by underhanded intentional disruption. The cops provide (or allow) disrupters to enter the camp, smoke some dope, and give an excuse to raid. And they did it twice.

They did it first to boot the encampment off the Post Office when there was a movement to save the building. The encampment had become an important element in saving the building (back in 2018). And they (the cops) did it again for the Adeline St. (FTCFTH) encampment.

The first time, when the Trump administration sought to get rid of buildings like the Post Office, as white elephants, there was popular outrage in Berkeley, and many people came together to save the PO, including the FTCFTH encampment. They set up their HQs next to the PO, standing guard against government action to close it. That didn’t happen. But what did happen was worse.

The cops told a bunch of “tweakers” (drug users, as they were called) to set up their tents next to the place where FTCFTH had set up for watching the PO. It was right across the street from the High School. And the cops warned that if the encampment allowed drug use across the street from the HS, they (the cops) were going to bust the encampment. The tweakers were invading the encampment’s space, and could not be separated from it except through possible violence. The campers told the tweakers to move around the corner, and establish some distance from the encampment. But that didn’t work. The cops used the tweakers presence to the encampment as a reason for raiding it, and shutting it down.

It can be summarized as the city saying, if we can’t hold you down to our standards, then we will do what we can to make your standards unlivable. This is the US’s attitude toward nations like Cuba or Venezuela. Both have insisted on their sovereignty, which means not having to ask anyone for permission to exist. The US, on the other hand, as the dominant force in the world, thought it could require any nation to plead, beg, and ask for permission to be who they wanted to be. Otherwise, it would try to starve the recalcitrant into submission. That was how the cops dealt with the homeless in Berkeley. That was why homeless autonomy was, and is, so important.

The city used the same tactic a second time to shut down the encampment on Adeline and 64th St. This second time, other homeless were used to create disruption, setting themselves up in the camp, while refusing to obey camp regulations. They were drinking and doing drugs, and being racist toward some of the other members. They brought in waste food, and created a rat problem (where none had been).

There was a neighborhood organization that had engaged in past dialogues with the encampment, and supported what the homeless people were doing. When trouble started in the encampment, one of the members of the encampment sought to go to that organization and speak to them about what was happening. But the organization turned him down. Though he was known to them, they wouldn’t allow him time in their territory to speak about things. Evidently, it was something the organization didn’t want to hear.

Another member, who knew the source of the trouble-makers, and tried to stand up to them, was attacked. Rather than defend himself, which would have involved some kind of violence, left the encampment for some days in order not to be made a provocation. That was counted against him by some in the neighborhood.

As a result, division in the support that the neighborhood had originally been showing the encampment, became evident. There was a community member who seemed to be unable or unwilling to distinguish between the protest (the encampment) and the counterprotest (those who came to disrupt it). There was a civil rights organizer who got involved. He said that the encampment had to allow the new-comers to become members, otherwise, he would call the cops in to break up the camp. Between the gossip that was forming around the camp, and the unawareness of others in the neighborhood, local support for the encampment became divided, and left space for the police to come in and evict.

You can’t come in from the outside and tell people who are inside a situation how to live in it or with it. Just like, you can’t go into a prison and tell prisoners how to deal with or live with their imprisonment. That is simply impermissible. And especially since one is dealing with an autonomous community, and one that is known to be such, and has a sense of itself already.

To have disrupted the homeless community, and at the same time split the support offered, was all the cops needed. There were people talking about the conditions in the camp without creating a larger dialogue on what was going down. They were doing a disservice to the encampment by ignoring the fact that the cops were ready to raid. And the cops did, trashing the people’s possessions, and put an end to their community’s existence. All the cops had to do was pick the moment to raid it. They gave it three days notice, to a community that had existed in Berkeley for 7 years.

The encampment wasn’t doing anything illegal. They weren’t even blocking a sidewalk, or leaving stuff on it. They simply existed, which apparently is enough to open one to attack.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.