Op-ed: A night in Berkeley’s Liberty City

I wanted to camp at least once at Liberty City when I learned how it had formed, partly because I wanted to see what was really up, and partly because I wanted to meet the participants I had heard so much about, and partly because I had been hidden homeless two years, myself, and the things bound up in protest resonated strongly with my own sentiments while I was without permanent housing in Berkeley. So I borrowed a sleeping bag and mat from a friend, and I headed over to check things out after letting a few people know I was coming.

When I arrived I was warmly welcomed. A couple people toured me around the demonstration and explained its boundaries: there was a set of people directly affiliated with the protest, and then there were others who were not for a variety of reasons. A speed dealer and his junkies had been moved on. Word had been put out about that to make it clear that the protest itself was to remain within legal bounds. There was a table with food where the community’s meals were served, and various members routinely made sweeps for trash. Decisions were being made by consensus through a general assembly Liberty City had itself set up.

Not long after I arrived, one of the protesters who had oriented me offered me a tarp for the ground, and then after some thought, my own tent for the night. He said he’d feel better about my safety in a tent. I told him I appreciated the offer, but then after some conversation and thought, that I used to sleep in a bivouac when camping and so felt content on the ground. After that, someone put on a documentary film and it began to get colder, so I decided to go to bed. Others were turning in as well. I think it might have been 8 or 9 pm. I had left my cell phone at home.

I went to bed and someone else joined me on the lawn. It took me a while to get warm and fall asleep, but I did. Apart from the faint sound of the film in the background and my neighbors’ conversations, it was quiet. No louder than you might hear at a campsite from neighboring campers. Certainly no louder than any nighttime gatherings at Cal.

It got very quiet until I woke up around 2 a.m. to two people arguing. Not terribly loudly, but clearly conflicting over the way one person was treating his dog. A woman was telling a man to stop mistreating his pet. The man was objecting, insisting he could treat the dog as he liked. After a few minutes, others had woken up as well and also became frustrated. They all told the pet’s owner to knock it off. He did, and we all went back to sleep. I thought that was pretty run-of-the-mill community accountability. I didn’t wake up again after that until dawn, and then I stayed in bed until a few others were up as well to head down to Trader Joe’s to use their restroom. I had a conversation on the way out with a clerk, who was curious about the protest. She said, “As long as they keep things organized and legal, what they’re requesting makes perfect sense to me. They’re welcome to the restroom as far as I’m concerned.”

By the time I got back with some gingerbread cookies, several things had changed. There had been a morning trash sweep. People were discussing what to do about breakfast. And the bike chop shop that had been on the opposite side of the lawn had been 95% cleaned up – all by about 8:15 am. I thought, “That’s more productive than a lot of folks I know first thing in the morning.” For the duration of time I was there, I never once witnessed illegal drug use. To my knowledge, no addicts stumbled through in the middle of the night. I gave some thanks, made a few farewells, and heard a few last stories before promising I’d visit again. But I didn’t make it back before Liberty Village was raided. There was a stabbing just prior to the raid which I’m sure raised valid concerns about safety. But to be clear here, I would like to make the point that the perpetrator was an outsider and not part of the demonstration.

I spent the day of the raid in tears reckoning with our community’s reality because Liberty City was a demonstration with two clear requests:

  1. Participants asked that a set of proposed city ordinances effectively targeting the homeless be stricken entirely (Consent Item #4 on this Dec. 1, 2015, Council Meeting Agenda). The reasons for this request were that in addition to their punitive nature, it became clear that in all likelihood their passage would adversely affect Berkeley’s future affordable housing applications with HUD. Applying with HUD will be more competitive than ever this year: five million dollars in affordable housing monies as well as 130 Shelter Plus Care vouchers for Alameda County may be jeopardized now that the Berkeley City Council has voted to adopt this set of ordinances. Council was asked at the December 1st meeting to consider waiting to make any decision until HUD could be contacted about these concerns, but Council refused.
  2. Liberty City also asked the City of Berkeley to discuss establishing a permanent tent village, as some other cities have successfully done. They would like this to be done with their help in planning, and it is a request that has been made repeatedly over many years. But as with the first request, it remains unaddressed by the City. And so the protesters that formed Liberty City continue to find ways to make their voices heard. I think they plan to hold out hope. Discussing alternative housing solutions is also part of the Homeless Task Force’s Tier 2 Recommendations to City Council.

I feel grateful for their perseverance, even with health issues and amidst an El Niño year. Because I fear we’ve fallen prey to the kind of undiscerning intolerance that robs communities of their diversity. I’ve seen them steel themselves against that right up until this past week with such heavy rain. I hope that sooner, rather than later, we will find the courage to listen to what they have been saying to us. I believe that they and those who continue to support them have the greatest good in mind.

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Genevieve Wilson chairs the steering committee for Berkeley's Homeless Task Force and works at the Acme Bread Company in West Berkeley.