“Berkeley” meant inclusivity, diversity, progressive politics. It was invoked longingly by New Jersey family members railing against Chris Christie, or by Virginia college classmates deploring the statues of enslavers still dotting our campus. And the town itself was said to be a lush and intellectual utopia — the incubator of great comedians and politicians alike.
Some derided it as a cult in which rainbow was the only fashion statement and people force-fed their dogs tofu. My first night in California, in between descriptions of his dirt bike racing career and which parts of Los Angeles were “the ghetto,” a Lyft driver advised me not to choose UC Berkeley for law school because the people there were too “sensitive.”
That only made me want it more. As it goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend — or perhaps more aptly here, the Hell of my enemy is my Paradise.
On arrival, I saw beautiful Victorian homes, wacky plants and trendy consignment shops. But at the stoplight, three Teslas idled next to a sidewalk dotted with tents. At the farmer’s market, residents bragged about their sustainable purchases while name-dropping “Oakland” in fearful tones.
But the true extent of Berkeley-brand hypocrisy lies in dull municipal records. Our “progressive” government consistently pursues policies that favor the white and wealthy, even as these policies lose the city money, worsen inequality and cause untold human suffering.
Local politicians have promised for years to solve the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis, a persistent blot on our “progressive credentials.” Instead, the government has pursued an “out of sight, out of mind” approach: If it can just confine unhoused people to certain areas, shooing them out of wealthier neighborhoods when necessary, maybe the complainers will quiet.
The state gives criminal citations for behaviors such as standing, sleeping and owning a dog without registration, charging up to $500 for each offense. The state actually loses on these aggressive fees, with more than $10 billion in uncollected infraction debt. But the citations force unhoused people to remove themselves from the sight of housed people, which seems to have always been the point. For those who can’t pay, courts charge a $300 late fee with additional monthly penalties or use notoriously ruthless private collection agencies. This debt quickly escalates, cutting off housing and employment opportunities. People are even jailed for failure to pay. Debtors’ prisons, supposedly abolished in the 1800s, are still with us.
These citations are a key tool in a system of wholesale robbery of Black and Latinx communities. In the Bay Area, Black adults are up to 10 times more likely than white adults to receive such citations, regardless of housing status. Given that Black and Latinx communities are disproportionately stopped, charged, convicted and incarcerated, they shoulder the bulk of all court debt. Families experiencing the effects of incarceration pay $13,607 in average court costs.
Many people think that they could never be unhoused, or that they’d never get into that much debt because they’ve made “good choices” that insulate them. But in reality, something as seemingly neutral as towing can cause you to lose your home.
Each year, California law enforcement tows tens of thousands of vehicles. The police don’t always notify the owner, so it’s up to you to call the police and find out where it is. Owners must then go to the DMV or the police department tow desk — usually only open during work hours — to remove any holds or pay any tickets before they can claim the car. On top of the city’s towing fee, tow yards charge as much as $85 per day for storage. After thirty days, most tow yards sell the car at auction. One man was released from the hospital in Daly City, California, only to discover that his car had been towed and sold, and he now owed more than $9,000.
If you’re thinking here that at least this system brings revenue to local government, studies show that the average sale price for towed vehicles is just $565, at least $2,000 less than the total towing, storage and lien charges that have accrued. Local governments and tow yards actually lose hundreds or thousands of dollars per tow, adding up to millions in wasted resources and funding per year.
If you lose your car, your job is the next casualty. Studies show car ownership plays a bigger role in getting and keeping a job than a high school diploma or citizenship status. In one study, 42% of people with a license suspension lost their jobs. With no car, no job and mounting debt, eviction often follows. And once on the street, the inexorable spiral of debt, police harassment and suffering continues.
Think of it like a horror movie poster: “You Could Be Next.”
In order to enact real change, Berkeley must stop using criminal fines and fees as tools to corral behavior and profit. Wealthy residents must face higher tax rates and greater social responsibility for the devastating inequality here. Until then, Berkeley’s reputation as a progressive haven is nothing but a sham. Its most vulnerable communities will continue to suffer while the wealthiest pat themselves on the back for hanging a Black Lives Matter sign in the window.
Leah Roemer is a first-year student at UC Berkeley School of Law.