Opinion: The violence in Berkeley is a sign of deep economic distress

Too much wealth generated over the past 40 years has gone to a small percentage of people at the top, causing distress. That must change to make the U.S. sustainable and equitable.

Since the recent protests in Berkeley, I have been contacted by journalists asking me to label people who have come to speak, protest and counter-protest, some of whom have engaged in violent acts. Are Trump supporters the “alt-right?” Are they racists, Nazis or white supremacists? And what about counter-protesters? Are they the “alt-left,” “antifa,” anarchists or communists? Are any of them gangs?

Our society’s focus on labeling people and groups – heightened by the apparent need to laud or savage them in cryptic “tweets” and posts – obscures the diversity of motivations and intentions of individuals. If we can put people in a box and label them, we think we know who they are. We do not.

It’s not for me to decide who fits these definitions. My job as a city leader is to keep our community safe and functioning and to ensure that the programs and values I was elected to implement are carried out. Protecting Free Speech is a strong Berkeley value. Violence is not. It’s painful and damaging to those who are victims; it shuts down dialogue and further polarizes our country.

What I do see played out in Berkeley’s parks and streets – like a microcosm of what ails America – are a lot of people in deep distress. So distressed that they come to rallies with sticks, chains, knives and other weapons, looking for a fight.

Over the last 40 years, while groups that have long been subjected to discrimination have been fighting for their rightful share of the American Dream, those who supposedly “had it made” were losing it. Losing jobs, losing a sense of purpose and worth, losing income and buying power, losing opportunities to fully develop their potential, and losing the ability to contribute meaningfully to support their families. It hurts not to have a fair shake, and it hurts to have had one and lost it. That is what I see playing out on the streets of Berkeley.

Too much of the wealth generated in the United States over the past 40 years has gone to a small percentage of people at the top. Corporate CEOs are stepping forward to fill some of the vacuum of leadership in America, touting their solar arrays and other gestures. That’s all wonderful, but if they want a truly sustainable United States they need to share the wealth. Create good jobs, support unions as partners in a shared national prosperity, and give up some of their margins to pay their taxes in full – not hide profits in offshore corporations and accounts. Pay for the public schools, colleges, and universities that educate their workforce. Pay for the streets and ports that transport their goods, the courts that adjudicate their disputes, and all the public goods that are essential to a stable and sustainable society.

In Berkeley, we are implementing major initiatives to address the homeless crisis. People are living on our streets in desperate conditions – refugees from low wages and high housing prices, from the school to prison pipeline, and from a broken health care system. Berkeley welcomes affordable and workforce housing, but we don’t have the money to build it. We would love help from wealthy corporations and CEOs to solve real problems in our community, and across the United States.

I don’t need to label folks. But I do see commonalities among the people who have come to Berkeley, some to engage in violent acts. I condemn all of the violence. I also hear the frustration and rage. The solution is a future where every individual has a place at the table, and the wealth of our nation is widely and equitably shared.

Sophie Hahn is a member of the Berkeley City Council, representing District 5 in North Berkeley.