Homeless rights advocates gathered Friday to protest the treatment of Berkeley’s homeless population after the release of a video clip that appears to show a Berkeley ambassador assaulting a homeless man.
In a video posted to YouTube on Sunday, an ambassador — one of several workers employed by the Downtown Berkeley Association, or DBA, to clean up and patrol the Downtown area — appears to strike a homeless man and shove another after a verbal dispute. The ambassador has since been fired, and the second ambassador involved in the incident has been suspended pending an investigation.
In protest of this incident, the demonstration occurred along Shattuck Avenue on Friday afternoon, and participants wrote slogans in chalk on sidewalks. A group of as many as 15 chanting protesters then marched to Berkeley’s Public Safety Building.
The event’s spokesperson, David Teague — often referred to as Ninja Kitty — said that while the two homeless men in the video clip were being verbally aggressive, they acted within their legal rights. He said the Downtown homeless population has had similar confrontations with ambassadors before, albeit not ones caught on film.
“It doesn’t stem (from) this individual ambassador,” he said at the demonstration. “When it comes to an ambassador’s word against (a) homeless (person’s), the ambassador’s word is gold.”
But John Caner, CEO of the DBA, said the assault — which he called “shocking” — was the product of a single problematic individual. He said the DBA will also be expanding the training program for its ambassadors in response to the incident.
“We understand the community is upset, and they should be,” Caner said. “We’re taking steps to do whatever we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Sarah Menefee — founding member of First They Came for the Homeless, a Berkeley homeless advocacy group — agreed with Teague, calling the filmed incident a “last straw.” She added that homeless people are being targeted in both “the streets and the legislature,” in reference to a plan by City Council to regulate streetside behavior.
George Lippman, vice chair of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, said the ambassador program needs greater accountability. He said that in the video, the ambassadors were “clearly trying to enforce something,” but that what — and on what authority — is less certain. He added that the commission will likely discuss the incident at its next meeting.
“Before business as usual is allowed to continue, we need clarity about (the ambassadors’) role beyond cleaning streets and giving directions,” he said.
The two homeless men involved in the altercation with the ambassadors were arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, threats, brandishing and probation violation, according to Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Jennifer Coats. According to a press release by the demonstration’s organizers, the men were released Monday on a plea bargain.
The DBA and Block by Block, the contractor through which the ambassadors are employed, have both apologized for the incident.