Many of us have already seen the alarming video surveillance footage (complete with audio) of 2 Berkeley ‘Ambassadors’ as they attack 2 homeless men behind a CVS on Shattuck Avenue and Bancroft Way. Footage depicts the 2 members of the DBA (Downtown Berkeley Association) in their easily identifiable lime green shirts as they approach 2 younger homeless men behind the local drugstore. One ‘Ambassador’ can be seen ‘sucker-punching’ one of the men, while another, female, ‘Ambassador’ attempts to keep the second homeless man from helping his friend while several more punches were thrown. Though one of the ‘Ambassadors’ is clearly the first to become physically violent, in the end, it was the 2 homeless men who were charged with various crimes, including charges of misdemeanor battery (CA Penal Code 242). One of the ‘Ambassadors’ was suspended, while the other was fired. This attack seems to be further evidence of the shocking lengths private organizations will go to in order to criminalize homelessness.
You might be wondering what the DBA is, exactly, and why they are patrolling the streets as if they are law enforcement agents. Interestingly, the DBA is a private, and privately funded, independent association that now controls the PBID (Property-Based Business Improvement District) in Berkeley, which extends from Delaware Street to Oxford and Fulton Streets to Dwight Way, to MLK Jr. Way. Within this area, the DBA has been charged, much like its associated group “Block by Block,” with acting as a “proactive safety and security strategy to challenge unwanted activities” (“Block by Block” website). What they really accomplish is questionable, are they interested in privatizing public spaces, in public safety, or in pretending to be members of the police force?
Lest we over-criticize the PBID in Berkeley, however, it is important to note that, since 1990, many cities in California have made various attempts to solve the ‘homeless problem’ by creating new laws that criminalize homelessness, instead of providing better and more readily available services to this population. In the last few decades, at least 58 California cities have passed ordinances and legislation alike to prevent homeless persons from remaining. The city of Manteca, for example, passed 2 ordinances against homeless persons last year, one of which allows the police to throw away or destroy the private property of persons who seem to be without a home without their permission or even their knowledge. San Francisco has at least 23 similarly geared restrictions.
While many folks argue that the homeless population in California, and in the Bay area, is a problem that is nearly unique to the state because such a large percentage of the nation’s homeless have taken up residence in these sunny climes, this would not seem to give private companies the right to attack the homeless population. Certainly, citizens like those employed by the DBA were well out of bounds by greeting the 2 homeless men behind the CVS with physical violence, which a representative of the DBA called a “beating.”
Measures to pass legislation that might protect homeless populations, like the Homeless Rights and Fairness Act (Assembly Bill 5) fail to pass. In Berkeley itself, there was a huge debate just about a week ago in the City Council about this very topic, and though both sides were heavily represented (those arguing for more services versus those arguing for criminalization), the Council voted on the side of more strict legislation.
After the recent assault in Berkeley, for which the homeless men involved might face up to 6 months in county jail and a $2,000 fine (CA Penal Code 242), residents of the Bay area are left with a lot of questions. The first, and perhaps most important of these is: why were the ‘Ambassadors’ not arrested on charges of battery while the homeless gentlemen were?