As the People’s Park 30th Anniversary celebration approaches, the substantive issues and conflicts concerning the Park and the surrounding community are no less relevant now than they were in the past. Who controls the land, and how and by whom the streets are used, are issues still played out in the Southside political theater and elsewhere. They are issues that strike at heart of the kind of society we live in.
On one side of the conflict are the forces of repression, homogeneity and capitalist property relations. On the other you have utopian elements of personal freedom, universal community, and disregard for the dictates of outside authority and the rule of law. Merchants, the University, and the political machinations of the City of Berkeley are united in their constant quest for a definition of social order that defines away certain people and the legitimacy of the uses they have found for the streets and the Park.
Merchants vs. The People
1998 witnessed three waves of crackdown on Telegraph Avenue. The first in February at the height of El Nino, the second last summer–Operation Ave Watch which resembled more of a military occupation, and the third, also known as the November Round-up, a post-election wave of arrests mostly for marijuana. All three periods shared a common goal of ridding the area of people who merchants and the powers that be deem a detriment to economic viability. The police’s job is to do whatever they need to to harass–through arrest, intimidation, and selective enforcement of petty infractions–those people into leaving the area. The November Round-up in particular saw the issuance of many court ordered “stay away orders” for youths on the Avenue. People were also told privately by police officers that they should go to Oakland or San Francisco. Many went to downtown Berkeley.
While the first two crackdowns of ’98 saw the police acting largely on their own, though with the tacit support of City administrators and the Telegraph Area Association, the November Crackdown was unique in that it elicited almost universal institutional support. Even local Councilman Kris Worthington signed on to the use of police repression, moving two motions on the council floor (seconded by Maio) which authorized a larger police presence–in effect legislating the crackdown. Cody’s Books went beyond the call of duty and turned their third floor over to the Berkeley Police to use as a virtual substation for the month of November. It was there that numerous officers would gather in a kind of spy nest for one part of the crackdown, a buy-bust trap in front of Amoeba Records that netted over 50 young people, almost all for marijuana sales.
Berkeley’s Marijuana Initiative, passed in 1973, instructs Berkeley Police to make “no arrests and issue no citations for violations of marijuana laws.” Spending vast amounts of police resources on marijuana enforcement, as the Berkeley Police did in November, is a clear violation of this Initiative. It amounted to a ‘war on marijuana’ campaign by a “progressive majority” run City of Berkeley and the renowned ‘independent’ Cody’s Books.
Allies and Enemies
In January, the People’s Park free box was threatened with removal by the University of California responding to pressure from an allegedly new group on the Southside scene called ‘Safe Streets Now.’ This group of drug war/crime war boosters got neighbors to threaten UC with a lawsuit if they didn’t clean up People’s Park. In actuality, though, it was a convenient excuse to attack a certain class and race of people who hang out in the park and by the box and fits in perfectly with a UC supported master plan for economic cleansing of the area.
Another prong of attack coming from the establishment is the soon to be released Southside Plan. Judging by what has come out of two other recent City Plans–the West Berkeley Plan, which led to 4th Street’s redevelopment, and the Downtown Berkeley Plan which facilitated Shirley Dean’s revitalized (read chainstored) downtown–there is reason to fear a Southside Plan. The Southside Plan differs from the others, though, in that it is billed as a joint effort between the City and the University: the University being a big landowner in the area. In actuality though, the Plan is a joint venture between the University, who dominates the Plan’s process, and the Telegraph Merchants Association whose interests dominate the central theme of the Plan–profit.
Noteworthy in draft papers for the Plan is sentiment against young people and the homeless. An excerpt reads that “the area has periodically attracted large numbers of young non-students, accompanied by increases in drug trafficking and street crime…” as though all non-student youth can be equated with drug dealing and crime. Later it talks of the need to “address problems of crime, drugs, homelessness, noise and trash” as if homelessness is a problem like the others, not of people not having a home.
In an ‘Economic Development Issues Paper’ the “owners and managers of the largest businesses on Telegraph…say they need an older clientele who largely come from outside the Southside. Working adults have money to spend on their products while the younger people by and large don’t.” This sentiment may help some to explain the attacks on street youths that has been a major component of this year’s crackdown. From the merchants’ perspective, youth without a lot of money are useless and might as well be driven out of the area so that older people with money can be attracted. The entire Southside Plan and its process is dominated by commercial interests and the unspoken, though underlying, theme is how to make more money for Avenue merchants.
The powers that be have persisted for more than a year now with their most recent efforts to rid Southside of that plague of humanity that was installed here by the political and countercultural movement of the 60s. But attempts to rid the area of the unwanted and unwashed are misguided, not only in terms of the immorality of wanting to exclude and discriminate against people based on class, race, or lifestyle, but also because it is not the way to a better society.
one of resources or knowledge. It is a problem of political power, of who makes decisions in this society and who doesn’t. The problem is with the owners of this capitalist state who run society as a workfarm for the rest–the working class.
The people in power who own and operate corporate America don’t care to cloth, feed and house the poor. It is in their interest that people be ground into so desperate a state they will be happy to work a dehumanizing job in order to buy back survival. Others are left to fester at a substandard level of existence as an example to the wage slave to keep working or else. The owning class need to attack, demonize, and criminalize the potential resisters to their scheme, for the denial of their humanity helps keep wages low. It is an intentionally disfunctional system perpetuated by the profiting class.
The Federal Problem
The ‘war on crime’ is thus a conscious, federally orchestrated war program that has been deliberately grafted onto this society because it serves a purpose for those in power. It’s a domestic war launched by the government whose target is not just a few bad apples, but really society itself. It is repression of and a clampdown on the entire population. When some people’s freedom is taken away, everyone is less free. When the standards for acceptable treatment of some people in society are lowered, the standards for all people are lowered. If they can come for you in the morning, they can come for me at night.
Crime hysteria now rules American society. Employing a war-level amount of media propaganda about drugs and crime as an ideological battering ram, the population has been successfully inculcated with the belief that the current or an even greater level of domestic security apparatus is necessary to ‘take back our streets.’ A police state consciousness has consumed us.
The 90′s will be remembered historically as the decade that saw the rise of the “criminal justice” system to the level of the preeminence in domestic social policy–the criminalization and confinement of American society, or a segment of that society. ‘Safe Streets Now,’ ‘Zero Tolerance for Crime,’ ‘War on Drugs’–these have become the dominant themes and programs of our time, to the exclusion of all others. The criminal justice system has silenced discussion and has defined the realm of the possible as so narrow that the only debates that can take place are between “more repression soon” and “way more repression immediately.” Anyone who disagrees is accused of being ‘soft on crime.’