Faces of Berkeley: Osha Neumann, activist lawyer

Neumann dedicates life to social justice and advocates for homeless

Gracie Malley/Staff

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Berkeley resident Osha Neumann has braved war zones, incurred several arrests, organized protests and voluntarily lived on the streets — all in an effort to dedicate his life to social justice.

Currently a consulting attorney for the East Bay Community Law Center, Neumann has spent his whole life advocating for underrepresented groups, specifically the homeless community.

Discovering his place in the world in conjunction with attaining social justice was not always easy, and Neumann found himself making several life and career changes.

“In the 1960s, I emerged out of a cocoon of introspection and masochism into … anarchist street politics, where I lived on the street, fought on the street and suffered on the street,” Neumann said.

Neumann dropped out of Yale University, where he was studying history to become an artist, and he eventually joined a group known as “Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers,” whose goal was to initiate a cultural revolution.

“We saw ourselves at war with the system, with all the conventions that kept people tied to commodities,” Neumann said. “We lived the revolution 24 hours a day and we were willing to give up our lives for our beliefs and through our actions we wanted to show the possibility of overcoming fear and directly challenging the institutions.”

Neumann wrote a memoir detailing his time in the group, and he stressed that living that kind of life was not glamorous.

“We lived crazily, intensely, and burnt out pretty quickly, and there was a lot screwed up about it,” Neumann said. “We imagined a profoundly ‘other society’—a genuinely liberated world where we were really free, politically, economically and sexually. In reality, it was just the rampant male imagination, and in some ways we were kind of a cult.”

After leaving the group and living in a commune in Northern California, to his surprise, Neumann decided to become a lawyer as a platform for carrying out his political activism.

“When you know the master’s tools, you can use them against him,” Neumann said. “You can use law on behalf of people who are otherwise powerless against those forces of the state that would take advantage of them.”

Neumann said his commitment to the homeless is innate to his very being because he identifies with the homeless.

Another dimension to his life-long activism to homelessness is the deeper, personal connection he feels to the transient community.

“Although I myself have never been homeless, I identify with that level of alienation and desperation,” Neumann said. “My own private suffering finds an objective correlative in their condition, and I feel more at ease in some way among people who have nothing to lose than among my professional peers.”

As a result, Neumann is “deeply and profoundly opposed” to the recently approved Berkeley civil sidewalks ballot measure, which would prohibit sitting on the city sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. The issue will be decided upon by voters in the November 2012 election. The measure has created controversy because of its potential effects to the homeless community, which inhabits the sidewalks.

Claiming the measure treats homeless people as “human garbage,” Neumann has fought the idea since its introduction to Berkeley in 1994.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who proposed the measure for the upcoming election, said the measure addresses growing concerns from the community about the homeless population and that the intention behind the measure is not to criminalize homelessness, but rather to help get homeless people into programs.

“Right now, Telegraph and Downtown Berkeley seem unfriendly and unwelcome because of people who sit on sidewalks and act out,” said Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. “I’ve seen it hundreds, even thousands of times, where large groups block sidewalks with dogs and call out and harass people—it happens almost everyday.”

Neumann, however, wholeheartedly disagrees with proponents’ claims that the sit-lie measure would improve business.

“Business does not suddenly become profitable in a way that it wasn’t before,” Neumann said. “Homeless people do not disappear from the streets, and they certainly don’t get moved from the street into housing or any place where their condition is bettered.”

As a lawyer, Neumann has represented several homeless people and has personally interacted with several of them, encouraging them into programs. However, advocating for the homeless is not the only act of social justice Neumann has fought for.

Neumann also participated in the anti-nuclear protests at Lawrence Livermore National Lab and the anti-apartheid protests at UC Berkeley in the 1980s, and he was arrested at both protests. He spent eight years on the Berkeley Police Review Commission dealing with issues of police misconduct and traveled in solidarity to Palestine three times during the intifada and El Salvador during times of guerrilla warfare.

Barbara Epstein, a professor at UC Santa Cruz and long-time friend of Neumann, said that he has more honesty and integrity of anyone she knows.

“I’m impressed by Osha because he always does what he thinks is right, regardless of the consequences,” said Epstein, a former activist herself. “He doesn’t think about the implications to himself — he thinks about other people and what society is like and how to improve it.”

While still practicing law, Neumann took up art again and started painting murals in the Berkeley area. Two of his murals are still intact—one of which is named “A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue” located on Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue, and the other is a collaborative piece which can be seen at La Peña Cultural Center on Shattuck Avenue. Neumann has also created sculptures out of recycled materials at a former landfill known as Albany Bulb.

Neumann said he is satisfied with all of the contributions he has made to society. However, he is still unsettled about the world.

“I feel good about a lot of what I’ve done. I came out of a childhood with a lot of suffering,” he said. “I also feel though in some way that none of it has been enough, because the world is not yet a better place. We are now in this incredible place where there is a lot of ground for pessimism but where there is also a rising up, and I have no idea what the world is going to look like, but I believe it is going to be profound.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Neumann is a holocaust survivor. In fact, Neumann’s parents were holocaust survivors — he was born in the United States.

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  • Thomas

    Cf. Comments for churned-out blockheads

  • InDaTruth

    He and his wife had no problem making one of their own tenants homeless.

  • fw sparrow

    Usual repunkrecan comments above delivered by those with no real ties to Berkeley.

    I like to think its a defacement of his mural and not his own comment but on his Telly mural the FSMer holding the flag on the Sproul Hall balcony was painted out long after the mural was completed. The original can be seen at the Free Speeh Cafe wall photo. I noticed it especially since I was the FSM sit-inner painted out. Makes me feel like Leon Trotsky. sparrow

  • Berkeley Business Owner

    Osha Neumann is awesome.

    • reztips

      I think it’s reasonable to say that if you are really a “Berkeley business owner,” your perspective on Neumann is not shared by 99.9% of Berkeley business people who deplore him…

  • Berkeley homeowner

    The venomous tone of the comments attacking Osha Neumann are a tribute to his effectiveness.

    • Another Guest

      Neumann can be extraordinarily venomous himself. I’ve seen him in action, and his words and behavior were truly ugly. Perhaps he’s reaping what he’s sowed.

    • guest

      Yeah, he effectively keeps the open psychiatric ward of People’s Park packed with cracked-out hobos. What a great legacy.

  • Stan De San Diego

    While the usual sheeple are lauding these activist lawyers, keep in mind that it’s the taxpayers paying their salaries. These lawyers aren’t doing anything out of the goodness of their heart, but have simply found a new racket: sue the government and petition for reimbursement. It’s just as bad as public sector unions who elect the bosses who given them raises, if not worse.

  • Guest

    If you want to know why there are so many fucking bums in Berkeley, you need look no further than Osha Neumann.

    • Another Guest

      If he really thinks the businesses on Telegraph aren’t being harmed by the aggressive panhandlers who hang out there, he’s in deep denial. But apparently the people those businesses employ, for princely retail and food service wages, aren’t worthy of compassion — even when some homeless guy is getting in their face and shouting verbal abuse at them, or threatening them, or spitting on them, on their way to and from work. Never mind when their employer decides to flick it in because the bums have driven too many customers away.

    • reztips

      You must be referring to O’Shit Neumann…

    • Aaron Aarons

      Don’t you just love the right-wing scum who go to comment pages to anonymously label others as “bums””

  • reztips

    Neumann dropped out of college where “he was studying history to become an artist, and he eventually joined a group known as “Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers,” whose goal was to initiate a cultural revolution.” Yes, with a name like that Neumann’s group of morons would surely have reached the public with their “cultural revolution.” Not! Indeed, the only “cultural revolution” acceptable to those ideologues was akin to that of Mao–fortunately, Neumann & Co. didn’t have the means to do anything remotely so destructive (although some of them doubtless wanted to do so).

    Osha is the son of a loony lefty prof. He is among the ideological idiots from his generation such as KPFA’s fool Dennis Bernstein, MECA’s Barbara (Cain’t Lubincate) Lubin and Conn (man) Hallinan who have helped make Berkeley a nationwide laughingstock.

    As for Neumann leaving art to become a lawyer, that’s purely and simply because he is such a lousy artist. One look at how he has desecrated the Albany Bulb and you will know the veracity of this evaluation…

  • Arafat

    I wonder if he is a trust fund kid.
    It must not be easy being holier than thou.

    • Aaron Aarons

      If “thou” is any of the right-wing scum who comment here, it is indeed easy to feel AND BE superior to them. (I’ll leave the “holier” question for religious nuts to argue over.)

  • Tim Dwayne

    He must be wondering why the DC keeps writing pieces about him every 18 months

    • reztips

      Because the DC has run out of things to say for another fine contributor to our fine city, Hate Man…