A day after a video that showed a Downtown Ambassador assaulting a homeless man went viral, a group of activists held an action to denounce what they consider an ongoing pattern of harassment against those living on the streets.
The group of about 20 protesters held a press conference March 27 near the offices of the Downtown Berkeley Association, the group that hires the private security detail that roves the downtown, cleans the streets and helps keep sidewalks clear by interacting with the people who live outside. John Caner, the CEO of the DBA, announced Thursday that John D. Bailey, the ambassador filmed hitting a homeless man, James Wilbur Cocklereese, in an alley behind CVS Pharmacy on Shattuck Ave had been fired. He also expressed shock and remorse over the incident.
But some homeless people have said that pattern of behavior is typical.
“John Caner of the DBA says that this is contrary to his organization’s goals,” Ninja Kitty, a homeless man who has lived in Berkeley for over a decade, said in a press release. “But part of ambassadors’ job is to intimidate homeless people off of Shattuck Avenue. People are only intimidated if the violence is sometimes real. This brutality is a part of what the DBA does. This isn’t the first time that ambassadors have assaulted homeless people -- it’s just the first time it’s been caught so well on camera.”
The assault happened around 7 p.m. on March 19 in an alleyway behind the downtown Berkeley CVS, at Shattuck Avenue and Bancroft Way. Two Downtown Ambassadors, Bailey and his partner, Carmen Francios, approached two homeless men, Cocklereese, 30, and Nathan Swor, 23. Cocklereese became upset and shouted invectives at Bailey, who then punched him at least 10 times, forcing him to the ground. Swor pulled out a weapon -- a 6-foot-long pole with a 4-inch blade attached at the end -- and started swinging it to prevent the attack. Bailey was cut in the arm.
Police arrested Cocklereese and Swor, and they entered no contest pleas on March 23 to misdemeanor battery. Authorities said they would be sentenced to two years of probation, but that was before the video became public. The district attorney’s office has said they will take a look at the new evidence. Francios has been suspended pending a DBA investigation into why she did not intervene in the fight, said Caner.
Berkeley resident Bryan Hamilton posted the video on You Tube. It went viral as newspapers and television stations around the country reported on the assault. The video has now been viewed more than 49,000 times.
The altercation came just a few days after the Berkeley City Council asked the city manager to look at new rules that would make it harder for the many people who camp out on Shattuck Avenue to occupy the sidewalk and sleep there. The proposal includes everything from preventing panhandling within 10 feet of parking pay stations to asking for recommendations to curb public urination and defecation. Other items limit the placement of “personal objects” in public space; prohibit lying down on or near planters; restrict the hours people can put out bedding to 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.; and prevent cooking on sidewalks. The new rules were first proposed by the DBA.
Those proposed rules, combined with the video, led activists to hold a protest to highlight their contention that Berkeley seeks to penalize the homeless rather than help them.
“This isn’t a coincidence,” Osha Neumann, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center and a longtime homeless advocate, said in a press release. “When the DBA pushes for criminalization, police and ambassadors feel pressured to use force to push homeless citizens out of public spaces. We don’t want to see just the one guy who got caught fired: We want the DBA to end its campaign of criminalization and brutality against homeless people. If they want to address homelessness, then they need to be good-faith members of the community, and participate in public processes like the Homeless Taskforce.”
Berkeley spends close to $3 million a year on homeless services, but has only one full-time outreach coordinator, and has its youth shelter open only a few months a year, among other issues. Affordable housing is also difficult to find, and many activists have called on the City Council to force developers to build more inclusionary housing. There are currently close to 2,000 apartments in the pipeline or recently built around the downtown. Berkeley law requires developers to make 10 percent of those units below market rate or to pay an in-lieu fee. But few of those below-market-rate apartments have been built yet.
Caner said the DBA will ramp up its training of ambassadors to make sure this type of assault doesn’t happen again.
"The DBA was shocked by this totally unacceptable egregious behavior, that runs completely contrary to the extensive training, protocols, and mission of hospitality and outreach of our Ambassadors, Block-by-Block (our contractor / service partner), and the Downtown Berkeley Association," Caner said in an email.