Michael Diehl, whose work with the homeless and poor on Berkeley’s streets earned him the nickname “the Mayor of Berkeley streets,” was killed Sunday when a driver struck him around 8:30 p.m. in Newark, according to authorities.
Diehl was not in a crosswalk when he traversed busy Newark Boulevard just north of Cedar Boulevard, according to Newark Police Capt. Jonathan Arguello. The 36-year-old Pinole driver who struck Diehl is cooperating in the investigation.
“There’s no indication of any wrongdoing,” said Arguello.
Diehl, 64, was one of Berkeley’s most visible activists, having worked on a range of issues the last 40 years including keeping the punk rock club 924 Gilman Street Project open, protesting the placement of volleyball courts and housing in People’s Park, and advocating for better treatment of the poor, the homeless and those with mental illnesses.
Usually dressed in a suit jacket, colorful T-shirt and top hat adorned with a flower or scarf, Diehl could be seen frequently talking before the Berkeley City Council and Alameda County Board of Supervisors or dancing wildly to bands playing in People’s Park.
He was an artist and music lover but his true passion was connecting with and helping those who lived on the streets, according to many of his friends. He worked as a peer counselor for the Berkeley Free Clinic and then spent 14 years at BOSS, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency.
“Michael always had a strong mind of his own and was always brilliant,” said boona cheema, the former executive director of BOSS. “He styled his own life according to his own principles and values.”
Diehl lost his job with BOSS a number of years ago after he suffered some health issues. But even though he no longer had a formal title or got paid, he continued to do his own personal form of outreach on the streets, even during periods in which he was homeless himself, according to his friends.
“His basis of outreach was based on trust,” said Paul Kealoha-Blake, a friend who also served with Diehl on Berkeley’s Mental Health Commission. “He developed relationships far deeper than those of a typical outreach worker. He would spend the time, he would spend the energy building trust. He was outlandishly successful because they trusted him. That is unusual in the streets.”
Kealoha-Blake said Diehl wasn’t the kind of counselor who stood above someone, clipboard in hand, asking questions. Instead, he would kneel or sit down to hear that person’s story.
Lisa Teague, who lives near People’s Park and runs a Facebook page about the park, said Diehl was a master of conflict resolution.
“He had a gift of coming into a tense situation and diffusing it,” she said. “Everybody not only knew him but went to him with problems and questions and saw him as a resource.”
cheema said Berkeley’s street community is shocked at the news of Diehl’s death. Tributes are pouring in on Facebook, people on the streets are talking and emails are flying. cheema, who worked with Diehl for decades, is organizing a memorial for him at BOSS tentatively scheduled for Nov. 3. There will also be a memorial gathering for Diehl on Sunday, Oct. 6 at 3 p.m. in People’s Park.
The Berkeley City Council will also adjourn its Oct. 15 meeting in Diehl’s memory.
Diehl was born and raised on the East Coast
Diehl was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Aug. 28, 1955, according to his younger brother, Daniel. Diehl’s father, Robert, was a chemist for Polaroid. His mother was Joline Langlois Diehl. The family also includes a younger sister, Arlene, now an artist in San Francisco.
The family moved to Windham, New Hampshire, and then to Barnstable, Massachusetts, said Daniel Diehl. Michael Diehl was exceptionally intelligent and read the entire encyclopedia while he was still a young boy, said Daniel.
One time, when Michael Diehl was in Lewiston, Maine, to visit his maternal grandmother, the 8-year-old recited the names of all the American presidents — in order. His grandmother was so impressed she marched him down to the local newspaper and had Diehl perform the narration in front of an editor. While all the adults were praising him, Diehl asked, “Do you want to hear the names of the vice presidents now?” according to his brother.
Diehl’s activism started early
From an early age, Diehl rebelled against the strictures of regimented education. In fourth grade, Diehl refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. He also “organized a boycott of music class because the students were being forced to sing Christmas music,” according to an article in Slingshot, a newspaper put out by the Slingshot Collective. The group awarded Diehl its Wingnut Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2006.
In high school in Massachusetts, Diehl published an alternative newspaper, The Threshold, which was vastly different than the longstanding newspaper, Insight, according to his brother. People could write about whatever they wanted, without editing, which led to some articles that angered the administration. The school tried to shut down the paper, prompting Diehl to seek out the help of the ACLU, according to his brother. The organization successfully helped fight the ban.
Diehl was so fed up with the type of learning going on at his school that he formed an alternative high school within it, a place that emphasized hands-on project-based learning rather than lecturing, according to his brother. The Alternative Learning Project is still flourishing, according to his brother.
“He was a rebel,” said Daniel. “He lived by those principles.”
Diehl moved to Berkeley in 1976
After graduating from Antioch College with a liberal arts degree and an emphasis on elementary and early childhood education, Diehl moved to Berkeley in 1976. He worked at Saint George, a North Berkeley-based residential community that assisted teens and young adults, according to his long-time friend Judith Gips. He went on to obtain a multiple subject teaching credential and taught at a preschool. Diehl told the Slingshot collective that he often lived on the streets in this period, but Gips said he lived at Saint George.
Diehl later got involved with the 924 Gilman Street Project, an all-ages punk rock club where the band Green Day rose to fame. Around 1992, one of the original founders pulled out and the organization had to apply for a new permit, according to an article published in American Studies, “DIY Democracy: The Direct Action Politics of U.S. Punk Collectives,” by Dawson Barrett. The Zoning Adjustments Board threatened to revoke 924 Gilman’s permit if the club didn’t curb underage drinking, vandalism and loitering.
“Michael helped organize 150 punks to show up to the city zoning commission meeting, and the city backed down,” according to Slingshot.
Diehl spent a lot of time counseling young punks, and he eventually got trained as a mental health and peer counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic. He became part of the peer counseling collective, which provided alternative mental health services, according to Slingshot.
“Michael was a true spiritual hero at the deepest place,” said Rev. Sally Hindman of Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA). Diehl served on the editorial advisory board of Street Spirit, housed at YSA, for many years. “He felt compassion for those suffering and hurting on the margins of our community. He worked dawn to dusk seeing justice for those most in need.”
Diehl was homeless on and off much of his life, although he lived on Woolsey Street for a long stretch of time, said Hindman. A few years ago he developed an infection in his arm for which he was hospitalized, she said. Then he developed sepsis and nearly died. He was on disability for a while, and then lost that support, which contributed to a downward spiral, she said. He lost his job and his apartment.
Diehl did find housing in Newark, but did not stay there since it was so far from Berkeley and his community, according to his brother Daniel.
“He was homeless by choice. He was comfortable being with his people to help his people,” he said. “The only way to get their stories was to be there.”
Diehl was also active with Copwatch and Occupy.
This story was updated as additional information came in.