The recent crackdown on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue is largely an election year wedge issue ploy by conservative Mayor Shirley Dean and her minions to win the election by playing the homeless card. In national politics, the Republicans attack immigrants, welfare mothers and drug users to win the election; in Berkeley, it’s problematic street behavior, a code word for the homeless.
Wedge issues work because politicians address real concerns that people have with what appears to be an easy solution. If a politician can split enough people off from the other candidate by raising an emotionally charged issue, they win. And if they don’t really have any solution, well, too bad. That’s politics.
Using police against the homeless, the poor, or even problematic street behavior has never worked, can’t work, and won’t work. For six months, the police have been busy enforcing laws that don’t exist (against sitting on the sidewalks) and issuing tickets for non-crimes. Littering, having an unlicensed dog, jaywalking Ð they may be annoying (or maybe not), but they hardly rise to the level of crime. When most people think about reducing crime, they’re thinking about stopping muggings, car break-ins, assault. Using police to attack non-crimes is a misuse of resources and isn’t intended to do anything but harass people to get votes for a particular candidate. Police harassment for non-crimes may drive poor and homeless people somewhere else for a while, but unless the crackdown continues indefinitely, nothing is solved.
There have been campaigns against freaks on the Avenue since there have been freaks on the Avenue. The reason these campaigns are good election year issues is that the left, such as it is, usually has no good response to problematic street behavior other than to advocate the status quo. Arguing to stop the police crackdown, and maybe provide a few services, doesn’t provide an alternative solution for the perceived problem.
Yes, these attacks on freaks, the homeless and the poor do violate their rights. Yes, everyone has a right to live without harassment from the police. But the reason the homeless card works in local politics is because real people, good people, are annoyed by rude freaks, litter, the perception of danger. The people who feel like this probably don’t hate the poor. They probably aren’t evil. They probably don’t realize they are playing into the hands of gentrifiers, big land owners, conservatives. Their feelings are genuine.
The left must have a program for addressing the reality that people get harassed and annoyed in public spaces, especially Telegraph Avenue. We need to paint a vision for how public space can get more public and nicer for everyone to be in (including the freaks), not just sanitized by millions of cops. The right wing has their vision for public space: the shopping mall. Enclosed, climate controlled, under constant surveillance. The right wing wants to make the whole world a shopping mall.
The left needs to fight back. We envision public space like a public square that works. Different kinds of people mix and interact. If there are annoying people, they get diluted by many interesting people. A community with certain standards of interaction develops. Small businesses thrive, but you don’t have to go there just to shop. There are other non-commercial options: chess tables, games, old people having deep conversations, free live music, grass to sit on, lovers holding hands, benches.
Try to find a good bench anywhere in any modern, mallified downtown. Someone Ð conservatives, merchants, developers? Ð has used the fact that homeless people sleep on benches as an excuse to get rid of benches for everyone. Maybe benches don’t earn money for merchants. Maybe shoppers sitting on benches stay longer, taking up parking and room, and don’t spend as much.
In the leftist vision of public space, there are so many benches in public spaces that if 30 or 40 homeless people are sleeping on them, there are still hundreds more for other people to sit on and enjoy. The way the left will defeat the conservative, police crackdown-based solution for problematic street behavior is to demand that the public realm expand and improve so that everyone will want to go there. Ideas like the car free Telegraph, closed to traffic from Dwight to Bancroft, with lots of public space, are the left’s answer to police crackdowns and cleaning up the Avenue.
Police crackdowns ultimately don’t bring more shoppers out to Telegraph Avenue Ð they further brutalize and privatize public space. People learn to stay at home or go to police controlled malls.
The reason why Telegraph Avenue is worth struggling for is that Telegraph Avenue is still a public space where everyone can go, more so than most sanitized shopping areas around. It should be nurtured, not disinfected and destroyed.