Sit on it! Problematic politics: cleansing the poor with sit/lie laws

In November, a measure to ban sitting and lying on commercial sidewalks will be on the ballot in Berkeley. This is being posed under the guise of protecting local businesses, and protecting the rights of shoppers to not be intimidated by houseless people. The first time you get cited, it’s an infraction with a $75 fine or community service. Subsequent citations can be charged as a misdemeanor. The proposed ordinance says it should be applied in a way that doesn’t discriminate. Who the hell do they think they are kidding? The whole thing is discriminatory. The measure says that banning sitting and lying is “the only practicable solution,” to Telegraph Avenue’s problems. Horseshit.

The law would allow the police to push the envelope even further than they already do. Berkeley Copwatch has seen increased harassment and violence against houseless people by the police over the last few months, as the police anticipate this measure becoming law.

Some business owners are adamant that this is necessary to protect the city and the economy. Telegraph Avenue is the site of some particularly aggressive business owners. Al Geyer – owner of Annapurna headshop – said that the City of Berkeley looked “like a joke,” when they didn’t have enough police for his taste. Marc Weinstein – owner of Amoeba Records – has been demanding the city pay more attention to the Telegraph area. By this he means doing things that are good for his business, including more police. Craig Becker – owner of Cafe Mediterranean – was the go-between between the Chief of Police and the business community in announcing a new police bike/foot patrol, which started April 30. All this is documented in emails Berkeley Copwatch received from the city via a Public Records Act request.

Curiously, all three of these establishments like to bask in the glow of Berkeley as a place of alternative culture and politics, as long as they get to run the show and make money selling things that people don’t really need. This makes them vulnerable to a well-coordinated, sustained boycott campaign, but Berkeley Copwatch is not calling for a boycott.

There has been much made of “uncivil” and “problematic behavior” on sidewalks. The measure does not talk about crime. In fact, the word “crime” appears only once, and specifically does not refer to street youth. So, what do those words mean? Does it mean houseless people are obstructing sidewalks? Actually, they aren’t, and there is already a law against obstructing sidewalks, which is regularly enforced against people who aren’t obstructing the sidewalk. Does it mean houseless people are on a rampage of murder, rape, robbery, and other crimes of violence? They aren’t, and there are laws against those things too. Are they intimidating business patrons? If they are, it is only because business patrons don’t like seeing poor, underprivileged kids hanging out in the street while they spend money. Businesses claim the kids are bad for business, but is this true? Houseless youth spend money in the areas they hang out in — they are helping keep businesses like the Caffe Mediteranneum afloat. Curious.

So, what is “problematic behavior?” It is a repugnant excuse to keep certain people out of public view. This is really about keeping society clean. This is the sinister aspect of this. The street youth aren’t criminal, they aren’t harming businesses, but they don’t look good. Perhaps they remind us of reality. Perhaps privileged people with money don’t want to recognize the fucked-up nature of society. There are those who want to cleanse the city. There are those who want to move certain people as far away as possible. What’s going to happen when kids can’t hang out on the sidewalk? As veteran homeless attorney / advocate Osha Neumann has pointed out, where will they go? The parks? That will go over great. Then we’ll just push them out of the parks in a program of park cleaning. Aha! Homeless encampments in the park! We must now cleanse the parks! And so on, and so on, until they don’t exist. But poor people will still exist somewhere. It may be primarily behind bars, but the cleansing project can move forward, and more and more groups of people can be eliminated from society because they are “problematic” or “uncivil.”

Berkeley Copwatch is an all-volunteer, non-partisan police accountability organization. Interestingly enough, the impetus for our existence came in 1990 on Telegraph Avenue during a police crackdown on the houseless community. If you are interested in getting involved, contact us at (510) 548-0425, or Check us out at