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.