Free speech, day laborers and the poor and homeless are under attack in Berkeley. Historically, we are used to standing up and saying no to such attacks from right-wing politicians or corporations. Sadly, this time the attacks come from our very own mayor. It is deeply disappointing and breaks my heart to see someone I helped elect suppressing free speech. Friendship or appreciation for his prior work must not blind us to these travesties of justice. Fear of his political dominance must not silence us.
Mayor Tom Bates forced a vote on the anti-sitting ordinance without debate from the City Council. This vote appears to violate the Brown Act, which is a state law allowing public comment. There were people waiting to speak. Instead, the mayor rushed the vote and denied them their right to speak. There were also three council members on the speakers list whom he refused to let speak, and no member of the council was allowed to discuss the motion or make amendments or compromise proposals. That is a violation of council rules and Robert’s Rules as well. The fact that a few dozen residents sang two protest songs is not a legal reason to take away people’s free speech rights. There were multiple solutions that did not take away people’s right to free speech.
I am proud of the diversity, compassion and intelligence of the residents who spoke. Sixty residents gave their one minute to testify, read poetry and sing in opposition to the anti-sitting law. The public comment reflected an astounding display of the diversity of Berkeley. There were black, white, Asian, Latino, Native American and mixed race speakers. There were senior citizens, reflecting the Gray Panthers’ opposition. There were high school, college and graduate school speakers, including ASUC senators expressing the Cal student government’s 18-1 vote against a sit-lie law. There were attorneys questioning the legality of the proposal, and there was expression of the ACLU’s opposition. There were disabled residents concerned about how this would hurt them. There were homeless residents giving gripping personal stories of their struggles to make ends meet in order to survive. There were experts who are homeless service providers who indicated that giving poor and homeless people an arrest record would be a barrier to care and limit poor people’s chances to get services or jobs. There were gay, straight, lesbian and bisexual speakers, including a gay leader pointing out that a disproportionate number of homeless youth are from foster homes, escaping abusive or violent homes or disowned because of their sexual orientation. There were official city commissioners from the four commissions that have voted to oppose a sit-lie law (Community Health Commission, Housing Commission, Mental Health Commission and Peace and Justice Commission.)
Alternatives were proposed that included enforcing existing laws, keeping the youth shelter open all year long and letting businesses sell stuff like books and CDs on tables in front of their stores. The excessive cost of the ordinance was described. This includes costs for lawsuits, police overtime on protests, costs to the courts and jail and public defenders and probation officers, etc.
Numerous residents attending in regard to other important items on the July 10 agenda experienced or observed mistakes or mistreatment of their issues at the same meeting. West Berkeley residents, small businesses and artists were present to advocate for changes to the West Berkeley Project. South and West Berkeley residents were in attendance to advocate for a fair share of the watershed bond to advocate for the discontinuation of flooding of their homes and businesses. Environmentalists were attempting to reduce the pollution of Aquatic Park and the bay. Taxpayers were concerned about bonds and taxes and how many millions they would have to pay. None of these issues received the amount of attention it deserved. There was much conversation among the public in attendance and seemingly increased recognition that since we are all being mistreated, perhaps we all could work together and possibly get better policy results. Some of the public speakers even made reference to patterns among the issues.
Please keep an open mind. I invite you to watch the entire City Council meeting online or on videotape. Decide for yourself after you see the facts of the meeting. Whatever our different opinions might be on the sit-lie ordinance, these violations of the Brown Act are unwarranted, unreasonable and unacceptable. The City Council should rescind this vote and allow free speech for the public and City Council and save us all the expense of a lawsuit simply to get people their free speech rights.
Kriss Worthington is a Berkeley City Council member.