SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The city of Berkeley, California, targeted homeless campers because they settled in disruptive locations, smeared feces on City Hall and wrote suicide messages on sidewalks – not because they were protesting City Hall policies, a city attorney told jurors Monday.
Berkeley Deputy City Attorney Lynne Bourgault shared the city’s narrative in an opening statement on the first day of trial in a lawsuit claiming the city selectively targeted homeless campers for evictions and destroyed their property because of their speech.
Bourgault told the eight-member jury that homeless campers chose to pitch tents in troublesome places to “pick a fight with the city.”
Founded in 2015, a group called First They Came for the Homeless organized multiple drug-free encampments in prominent spots around Berkeley to raise awareness about homelessness and affordable housing issues.
Berkeley police cleared the group’s encampments 12 times in three months between October 2016 and January 2017 while leaving other camps in place. A Berkeley police operations plan also established a goal of “deter[ing]” the group “from establishing an illegal encampment on city property.”
Despite that evidence, Bourgault told jurors the group tried to provoke the city by camping in “the most inappropriate locations,” including on sidewalks, street medians, across from a public high school and on the steps of City Hall.
“They picked these locations so they could turn around and accuse the city of targeting them, to create a narrative that the city of Berkeley treats homeless people like trash,” Bourgault said.
The Berkeley city lawyer said members of the group scribbled suicide messages on sidewalks near a public high school. One message, she said, dared a parent, “Give me $5,000, and I’ll stop writing about suicide on the sidewalks.”
According to Bourgault, the homeless campers also smeared feces on the entry doors to City Hall more than once.
“Was the city really expected to do nothing about that kind of behavior?” she asked.
But three named plaintiffs – Clark Sullivan, Adam Bredenberg and Benjamin Royer – tell a different story.
Civil rights attorney Dan Siegel, of Siegel Yee Brunner & Mehta in Oakland, said the city declined to give homeless campers sanitary facilities, hand-washing stations, showers or garbage pickup.
Siegel said his clients were singled out for “special strong enforcement” after they spoke at City Council meetings and called attention to what they view as inadequate services for the homeless.
Bourgault questioned the motives for organizing “protest camps,” saying it enabled the group to exploit the term “protest” as a “get out of jail free card” for illegal camping.
“Where does the shelter end and the expression begin?” Bourgault asked.
Berkeley also denies it seized and dumped homeless people’s possessions during encampment sweeps. The city promised to keep valuable unattended property in storage for up to 90 days.
But the plaintiffs say they lost essential equipment like tents, sleeping bags, cellphones and cooking equipment, despite trying to retrieve their property from the city.
“It’s a failure by the city to safely take custody of, store and return to homeless people property that was taken during these raids,” Siegel said.
Taking the stand as the first witness Monday, former Berkeley Police Lt. Andrew Rateaver said he was involved with hundreds of homeless encampment sweeps during his 30-year career with the Berkeley Police Department from 1988 to 2018.
After failing to directly answer the same question posed in different ways, Rateaver begrudgingly acknowledged homeless people are not allowed to camp anywhere in the city.
Siegel asked the former police lieutenant if he ever told homeless campers where they could go after he forced them to pack up their stuff and leave a location.
“No, we did not,” Rateaver said, adding police did ask if people needed help and sometimes referred them to a shelter.
The trial is expected to continue through May 30.