A Village of the Homeless; An Alternate Political Structure

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They call it “liberty village,” and one can see this village in front of old City Hall.

Steve Martinot

The watchword about what is happening today is contained in the organizational name assumed by the homeless in the Bay Area. It is: “First They Came for the Homeless.” If you don’t get the historical allusion in that phrase, please just google “Niemoller” and you will find it.

"They" are coming for the homeless, with new rules the police can carry in their back pocket. Two weeks ago, on  Nov. 17, city council passed a bunch of petty little laws about homeless existence (euphemizing it as about homeless "behavior"). It was the first of two required "readings." The second reading will be today, Tuesday, Dec. 1, at Longfellow School. These laws restrict the space that homeless people can occupy, and where they may keep their survival possessions. Well over 80 people took the time to go down to council and speak against the new rules.

The rules essentially duplicate ordinances already on the books (cf. “Linda’s Laws” at http://tinyurl.com/pbdnezt). That is, their substance is not the reason they were proposed. They were passed to make a different political point about the existence and presence of the homeless. It was to give a different political focus on the issue by boosting police harassment power. Harassment power quickly becomes criminalization through bench warrants issued when people can’t pay the tickets issued, and through obedience statutes that give police commanding officer status. The council did not listen to the multitude that took the time to attend.

The response of the homeless was to form a village. They call it “liberty village.” One can see this village in the area in front of old City Hall. There are around 20 tents, and about 60 people sleeping there. The police ordered them to disperse because they could legally occupy a residence only with the permission of the owner. Their response is that we the people are the owner and we give ourselves permission to live here.

The political position of the village is, “do not criminalize poverty, do not criminalize homelessness.” And the demands of the homeless, which go back decades, are for housing, and failing that (i.e. the city failing in that), public restrooms open 24/7, shelter against weather than can kill, and security against harassment on the streets and sidewalks where they are forced to live. One of the major complaints that the new harassment ordinances are designed to meet is people answering the call of nature in public (as if they wanted to). The city refuses to provide faciliaties for that, and then criminalizes the fact that homeless people have no facilities. It is like saying, “I will break your legs, and then punish you for being unable to walk.”

It takes a village to stand up to autocratic power.

This village has its own laws. “No alcohol, no drugs.” Some people could not abide by that. They were moved out of the village, onto the area north of the bulletin board that forms a fence along the walkway up to city hall steps. Other people who engage in different nefarious or illegal actions are also moved to the north face of the bulletin board. In that location, they are literally in the front yard of the police station. The police see them, and see what they are doing, whenever they come out of the station. They do nothing about it.

For the village, on the other hand, there is a government. It is an autonomous government, whose job is to make decisions for the village, raise money, distribute information and announcements about what is happening to the homeless in Berkeley, and to keep everyone in the village secure. When there is violence in this village, it will have been the police that impose it, when they decide to do so.

Here are some of the rules.

The village is governed by a General Assembly. These are open meetings, and all are invited to attend. Only those inhabiting the village can vote, but anyone can come and speak.

The General Assembly is “self rule with consensus” – a desired 100% consensus, with a graduated scale.

·     70% minimum to approve, but must be revisited monthly to revise and improve consensus percentage.

·     At 80% approval, item gets revisited every two months to revise and improve consensus percentage.

·     At 90% approval, item gets revisited every 6 months to revise and improve consensus.

·     Once 100% approval is reached, the only way to revisit is with 51% approval to revisit.

·     If an item goes from above 70% to below 70%, it is dropped as an item unless resubmitted. To submit, a proposal needs to be made with 10% community backing. Items must be revised before being resubmitted.

Changes in the government can be made following these basic rules.

·     Unpopular items can be revisited and lose consensus.

Lobbying and stacking the meetings for consensus will occur. This is desired. Stacking a meeting will cause more community participation for the next meeting. Unpopular items are easily removed. Lobbying gives the group a sense of whether an item has a chance for consensus or not, before even introducing it.

As the village evolves, these guidelines will allow for the governing community structure to evolve.

In the city council meeting on Nov. 17, at which the the new harassment laws were passed, and against which over 80 people spoke, the people went through the standard process of speaking for two minutes, and sitting down. They also experienced the ignominy of the mayor restricting the last 20 speakers to only one minute, so that the council could get home at a decent hour. In other words, the content of what was being said by those who took time to go to the meeting was secondary to what the council was going to do for itself. It didn’t want to hear what people thought. That is the real meaning of the so-called "hearing" process. Clearly argued position are simply reduced to sound-bytes in a jumbled mass of monologues.

After this happened, someone connected with a council member stated that it was better to write letters rather than come and speak to the council. This, the person suggested, would have greater weight. But why would that be? Who knows but that someone in the council member’s office would read the letter, not the council member. And this suggestion is a direct insult against those who feel strongly enough about the issue that they will take the time to come to council in order to speak to it in person.

Where is our government? If we write letters, who knows if they are read at all. In fact, they are not, and one speaker on the Harold Way building issue at a previous council session referred to a letter he had sent, and discovered that the council had not read it, though it pertained directly to the legality of the building. If they do not read our letters, then we must go to the meetings. If we go to the meetings, we are told we are taking up their time, and should write letters. Bang.

In the US today, democracy and self-determination are alternate political structures.  It takes a village to stand up to autocratic power.


Steve Martinot is a human rights activist and community organizer living in the Bay Area. He has worked as a machinist and truck driver in New York City and Akron, and taught writing and literature in Boulder and San Francisco. He has organized unions, led a wildcat strike, and edited underground community newspapers. He has seven books published on philosophy and historical analysis. Among them are The Rule of Racialization, and The Machinery of Whiteness, both from Temple University Press. His latest is a pamphlet on “The Need to Abolish the Prison System.”

Image credits:

Scott Green, 2013, "Cavalier".
Scott Green, 2013, "La Bajada Bluff".
Scott Green, 2013, "Nature Channel".

Copyright © Steve Martinot. All rights reserved.

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