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Democracy vs. Begging at City Council

One organization teaches homeless kids art, community, survival, and self-respect. Some 40 of them showed up at the council meeting to beg that its funds not be cut. What does it mean that one has to beg one’s representatives for recognition?

Steve Martinot

Happy happy Berkeley, California. There was a city council meeting on June 28, 2016, during which several people ran weeping from the room. They didn’t do it in unison; they left separately, but they were weeping nevertheless. After what city council did with its budget, they must have confronted a horrendous realization. Not that they had nowhere to turn; people are resourceful, and generally know how to fight back. What they realized, in their anguish, was that something they had counted on had turned away from them. That something was the government of the city of Berkeley.

Here’s the picture in a nutshell. Berkeley has a reserve of $25 million. It will allocate $400,000 for more police. But it will cut $40,000 from funds it had previously provided for a non-profit organization that services homeless youth. Teenagers and high school kids that are homeless, can you imagine that? This organization teaches these kids art, community, survival, and self-respect. Some 40 of them showed up at the council meeting to beg that its funds not be cut. What does it mean that one has to beg one’s representatives for recognition?

I will not give the name of this organization. It would pain me too greatly to associate its name with the need and the act of begging. Indeed, its derogation at the hands of council in effect renders it nameless. Instead I will call it Once-Upon-a-Time, or OUT. It wasn’t the only organization helping those in need that got cut. There were more. If you want to know their names, I invite you to watch the video of this sad city council meeting.

The cops don’t show up at these meetings to beg. They know their money is in the bag. Arts institutions don’t show up. They know their money is in the bag. A director or two might come to say thanks for being put on the map. Once upon a time, Berkeley was a land whose legacy, its reputation, was one of advancing the interests of the people, a.k.a. democracy. Now, forty homeless youth from OUT show up, and get turned away.

What are they begging for? They are begging for recognition as the people the representatives are supposed to represent. They are begging for representation. And not getting it.

One of them turned from the dias in tears, a young black woman who said the most plaintive and accusatory thing I have heard in years. She whispered, because it was too hard to say out loud, “I don’t qualify for anything.” The only thing she had going for her were the open doors of OUT, and the other services that were being cut.

“I don’t qualify for anything.” How is it possible that a human being, in these modern times, can say something like that?

How is it possible that, in the richest country in the world, a country so powerful it can kill people 7000 miles away with the push of a button, that in its own cities, someone can say such a thing, and no one has to account for it?

Well, its not true. She qualifies for being arrested for sleeping on the street. She qualifies for being shot by a cop; in 2015, the average was more than 3three a day, people shot and killed by police in the US. She qualifies to go “on the market”, the expression that scholars use to signify that they are looking for a job in the academic field, but which in her case would mean renting out that young body of hers to dehumanized men who like their sex commodified. There is a mystical fundamentalism in the idea that something is more meaningful when bought and sold than when it exists as part of a dialogue between equals.

At this city council meeting, money was the issue, though the issue was not about money. The issue was also about recognition, though the meeting was so lop-sided that even recognition of the humanity of people was reduced to a silent scream. Procedure was an issue, yet procedure cannot be an issue when procedure is more important than people. Representation wasn’t the issue. There wasn’t any. The city is fresh out.

The lop-sidedness stands out. Dozens of people, many of whom are involved in the services in question, many of whom were young, and had only these services to keep them off the street, came and begged for the right to have this one thing continue to help them out. It took a couple of hours to hear them all out. But then, having heard the people, the council agreed to curtail its own discussion to just a few cursory minutes. To expedite matters, the mayor said, and to get on to other institutional items. Limiting discussion to 20 minutes on what would spell the future for many people, nobody on that governing body said anything at all about what the people had said. There was no evidence of recognition that the people had been there, except the passage of time. One person deigned to notice that, for some reason, the arts organizations and the cops didn’t come to beg, as if to ask, what was wrong with those who did? Two hours to hear the testimony of dozens of people, and 20 minutes to show that those two hours could be totally ignored. Afterwards, a woman who has put her life into one of those non-profits ran weeping from the room and the building.

They did it with respect to the money, too. The city council has a reserve of $25 million, and it begrudges a homeless service $40 thousand because of what it would mean if they “dip into” that reserve. They refuse to dip into that reserve beyond supporting cops, according to staff personnel, because it would somehow diminish the city’s credit rating on the bond markets. There’s that word again.

It is reverse marketing. If you are going to cut out of existence those organizations that keep street people off the street, then you are going to need more cops to control them when they end up back on the street. If you cut $40 thousand, then you create a situation in which $400 thousand is needed. And you do that by claiming that you have to keep a tight hand on the pursestrings. The logic of it is that they cut the funds for the homeless in order to increase expenditures for the police. That’s why both appropriations were in the same budget. It was intentional. Cutting funds to the homeless to create misery is thus foreseen (yes, foreseen) to create a situation of greater criminality, which you preempt by spending ten times as much on cops to deal with it. It is the cynicism and dehumanization of this that is reflected in the need for people to come to council to beg those who should be their "representatives."

Funny how people find it so hard to free themselves from the myth that their representatives actually represent them. Time and again, arguments by the people (and for the people), about the welfare of the people just get tossed aside by those who ostensibly represent the people.

Here’s another one. The police are unaccountable. They are insulated from social accountability by the patrolman’s bill of rights, and by a Police Review Commission that has no teeth, no power, no ability to hold the police accountable. OUT, on the other hand, is accountable. 40 of its people show up and give an accounting of what OUT does. Yet the police get the money, and OUT gets cut out. That means that the city government loves lack of accountability, and refuses to give recognition to those who are able to account for themselves.

Here’s another one. One third of the cases of police attention, and one third of the cases of use of force, have to do with dealing with people with mental illness or emotional crisis. That would suggest to any reasonable city government that one third of the police budget should be shifted over to mental health facilities and personnel, to set up the ability to handle such cases humanely, rather than with batons and handcuffs. (Thanks to Andrea Prichett for this, which is in the meeting’s video, and on the record.) But nothing of the kind has been done. If a person needs assistance with an emotional crisis, and it is off-hours, no therapeutically trained person will show up. Only the police with their handcuffs. This is what city council desires.

Democracy means the people determine their own destiny. Begging means that people do not determine their own destiny, but that their destiny is determined for them. One of the mechanical instruments that city government uses to determine people’s destiny is the budget. There can be no democracy without democratizing the budget, without changing the budgeting process from one of begging to one of people determining their own destiny through it.

This is a city government that has betrayed itself, betrayed its people, betrayed its constituencies, and thus betrayed its right to exist. In showing that it loves lack of accountability, it shows that it has no sense of or need to be accountable to the people who elect it. Does that mean that the individuals on the council don’t care? Or is there something deeper that corrupts the very idea and process of representation itself?

They care to the extent they go through the motions. It is the motions that are empty. The problem is structural.

In the "representationism" system, people elect representatives, and the representatives they elect go somewhere else and talk politics. "Talking politics" means not only discussing issues, but thinking up solutions, and making decisions with respect to both the issues and the solutions.

"Democracy" would be the opposite of this. In democracy, the people would “talk politics,” and make decisions, and then elect someone from their own ranks to represent those decisions. To determine your own destiny in cooperation and conjunction with others means to make decisions in that conjunction and through that cooperation.

In democracy, because there had been discussions and decisions, the elected representative would have something to represent. In "representationism", the representatives have nothing to represent – just some amorphous group of people called an electorate who have had no discussions, and made no decisions.

In "representationism", because the representative has nothing to represent other than his/her own thoughts and interest, the people have to go begging if they want recognition. It is built-in.

We do not have a democracy here in Berkeley, or in the US. For there to be democracy, there would have to be local assemblies in which people “talk politics” and make decisions, and thus have something for a representative to represent in a higher body (not necessarily the council as it exists). We have "representationism" instead. We have a system in which it is possible for a young person to actually say, openly, with tears in her eyes, “I don’t qualify for anything.” When we finally discern that what she really meant was “I just don’t count,” we know that she was actually speaking for all of us.

Steve Martinot is a writer and human rights activist living in the East Bay. 

Images from Wikimedia Commons. Mural by Ohsa Neumann, Trinity Methodist Church, Berkeley.

Copyright © Steve Martinot. All rights reserved.