On Saturday, a coalition of advocates for Berkeley’s homeless community gathered online to sing, pray and demand justice for the unhoused people and their supporters who died in Berkeley this year.
The memorial came as new shelter-in-place orders and heavy rain underlined the increasing pressures that quarantine and winter have placed on the city’s unsheltered residents.
“Winter’s here. With Covid, where are people going to go this year?” asked boona cheema, the former director of Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) and community activist.
Unlike past memorials, which have been in-person calls to action, Saturday’s Memorial Service and Good Trouble demonstration took place over Zoom, with around 90 virtual participants and two computer stations for residents of the Adeline Here/There encampment and People’s Park.
The memorial was hosted by the Berkeley Community Safety Coalition (BCSC), a new umbrella group comprised of dozens of longtime local activists and organizations. It formed in late June when several local activists, while debriefing after a march calling for the resignation of the Berkeley police chief, decided to join forces.
“We are a new coalition, but we are not new people,” said cheema, who sits on BCSC’s steering committee. “The biggest priority, of course, is reimagining police and public safety.”
The two-hour event centered around demands for more services for unhoused residents and remembrances of the “warriors no longer with us.” Lisa Teague and Russell Bates recited the 20 names from a computer stationed in People’s Park. They included some of Berkeley’s most prominent advocates for the homeless, including Michael Diehl, Mike Zint, Gus “Mike” Lee, Clark Sullivan and Margy Wilkinson, as well as two men, Jason Clary and Jupiter Marley, who were struck and killed by a passing train. Teague and Bates had to pause several times to collect themselves throughout the emotional reading. Others remembered the dead with spoken word poetry, music on guitar and violin, and a dance performance from Elisita Castanon-Hill. cheema built and displayed a brightly-colored altar, candlelit and festooned with flowers, in honor of the people who died.
The demands ranged from sweeping items, like housing for all, more city funds and training for personnel, to specific needs like warming and charging stations in every district, regular refuse pickup and more regularly-maintained toilets and showers for unhoused residents. Speakers also called attention to promises the city council has made but not fulfilled, like creating sanctioned camps, providing water to encampments and giving parking permits to people living in cars and RVs.
“These were promised to us,” Paola Laverde, chair of Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board, said as she listed the demands, but “it’s not enough.”
Several speakers also grieved Cheryl Davila’s loss in the race for the District 2 City Council seat. She provided a direct line from activist circles to the council, they said.
“Cheryl was always the one that any activist could call, and she wouldn’t wait,” housing activist Andrea Henson, who formed Where Do We Go, Berkeley? a few years ago, said at the memorial. “We as a community have to demand that type of attention that Cheryl gave us.”
Davila, who attended the memorial, advised attendees to raise their voices at virtual council meetings and hold their elected officials accountable.
“The shenanigans run deep, and we can’t allow that to happen anymore,” Davila said.
Activists coalesce around safety
The list of BCSC’s members reads like a who’s who in Berkeley activist circles. The coalition includes the Friends of Adeline, First They Came for the Homeless, Berkeley Copwatch, the Berkeley Outreach Coalition, People’s Park Committee and Where Do We Go, Berkeley?, Copwatch co-founder Andrea Prichett told Berkeleyside. Individual members include Mama Ayanna Davis of Healthy Black Families; Corinna Gould of the Sogorea Te Land Trust; Pastor Mike McBride of The Way Christian Center; and housing counselor and community activist Moni Law, who sits on the steering committee with cheema. Around 100 people regularly attend BCSC’s meetings, cheema estimated.
“We’re building a political voice that hasn’t been there for a while that’s really led by Black and brown people,” cheema said.
While the many groups have different missions, the core tenets of safety and racial justice undergird the coalition’s purpose.
“The catalyst was around policing issues, so, that’s the tip of the spear. And everything else flows from: If not police, then what?” Prichett said.
“Many of us believe that police don’t have a role in mental and health, and now they’re like the first responders,” cheema added.”The coalition’s position is, let’s put more services in the community, let’s train more people in the community to respond as things are happening.”
Prichett has been organizing in Berkeley since the 1980s and says this is the first time she’s seen such collaboration from a broad array of groups.
“What’s been lacking in Berkeley, I think, is a powerful, multiracial, people of color-led coalition,” she said. “The need that some of us identified was, we need to coordinate more closely.”
Prichett, who is white, also emphasized the importance of the coalition’s leadership by Black activists and people of color. While Berkeley is full of progressive leaders, it’s important that “well-intentioned white people” take cues from the Black people and people of color who are disproportionately affected by police violence and homelessness, she said.