Fighting to sit

Time to stand up again for your right to sit down in the city

Ellen Zeng/Staff/File

This November, Berkeley voters will be asked to vote on whether to prohibit all of us who are not in a wheelchair or in the midst of a medical emergency from sitting on commercial sidewalks in Berkeley between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Who sits on sidewalks? At one time or another, almost anyone. But it’s an open secret that the target of Measure S is youth who happen to be homeless.

We’ve been through this before. In 1994, Berkeley voters passed Measure O after a bitter and divisive fight. One of its provisions banned sitting or lying on the sidewalk. The ACLU promptly sued, but while the suit was still pending, a newly elected Berkeley City Council voted to repeal the sit-and-lie ban.

In 2007, the council passed a Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. Commercial real estate interests backed by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce wanted the initiative to include a ban on sitting on the sidewalk. They settled for an ordinance against lying on the sidewalk. They tried again in 2011, encouraged by the passage in San Francisco of a sit- lie ban. When word leaked about what they were proposing, city commissions, the ASUC Senate and The Daily Californian all came out strongly against banning sitting, and the proposal died.

Or so we thought. This year, a resolution was rushed to the council to place Measure S on the November ballot.

Nothing has changed since 2011 to justify this new effort to ban sitting on the sidewalk, so let me quote from the April 25, 2011 Daily Cal editorial:

“Given the problems facing downtown Berkeley — the sagging economy, the many empty storefronts — it’s easy to latch on to proposals and hope they turn out to be panaceas.

Enter the proposed sit-lie ordinance, which would make it illegal to rest on city sidewalks … Proponents argue that in these tough economic times, stores need to do everything they can to make themselves more appealing to customers — and one way to do so is to address the city’s notorious homelessness issue.

However, we vehemently disagree that the passage on a sit-lie ordinance is the appropriate means by which to do this. The ordinance has two major flaws: First, it does nothing to actually lessen homelessness, and second, even if homelessness were no longer an issue, there is little indication that there would be a significant boost to the economy.”

Eight days after the Daily Cal editorial appeared, the ASUC Senate voted 18 to 1 in favor of a “Resolution in Opposition to the Proposed Sit Ordinance in Berkeley.” The resolution is worth reading in its entirety and can be found on the No on S website,

These are tough economic times. There is an ugly strain in American politics that seeks to shift the blame for unemployment and insecurity from those who run the system to those who are being run over by it — labor unions, public employees, teachers, immigrants, and now, in Berkeley and too many other cities, people who are homeless. The Daily Cal and the ASUC Senate got it right. They should be commended. But in a recent op-ed, Roland Peterson described the ASUC resolution as perhaps “the most anti-student resolution in ASUC history — one that could negatively impact thousands.” Huh? Is it anti-student to stand up for civil and human rights and to stand against discrimination and scapegoating? Not in my book.

Peterson is the executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. He justifies calling the ASUC resolution “anti-student” by citing a survey conducted by the UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly and the ASUC, in which a percentage of students said they would frequent Telegraph Avenue more often if there were fewer panhandlers and people sitting on the sidewalk. But respondents also cited the absence of retail shops, restaurants, nightlife and services they liked, the fact that stores, restaurants and bars closing too early, as well as the lack of parking and reliable public transportation as reasons they stay away.
Peterson’s op-ed inadvertently suggests the real answer to Telegraph’s woes, and it’s not kicking people who are homeless off the avenue. It’s giving people a reason to come to the street. “Food trucks are a hot, growing phenomenon,” Peterson wrote, “and they are now here on Telegraph every Thursday evening. Hundreds of people come to socialize on the sidewalks and street while enjoying a tasty meal.” Geeze. Suddenly a few kids sitting on the sidewalk isn’t a problem.

These days, the line between the homeless and the housed is getting mighty thin. A degree from Cal is no longer a guarantee of a job, which will allow you to pay the rent. This is not the time to be pitting the housed against the homeless and students against sitters on the sidewalk. It’s time to reassert, against all odds, our common humanity.
Vote no on Measure S.

Osha Neumann is a consulting attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center’s Neighborhood Justice Clinic. He is also the chair of the Committee Against Measure S.