SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – On the second day of a trial over claims that Berkeley, California, targeted homeless campers for their speech, witnesses Tuesday described how police repeatedly raided their camps and seized their property as they grew more vocal in opposing city policies.
"I felt we were being harassed because we were doing political work," said Clark Sullivan, a homeless Berkeley resident and lead plaintiff in the suit against the city.
"We were being singled out to get us to stop," he added.
Sullivan, a 58-year-old man with health problems and limited mobility, said he was livestreaming a police raid when city workers snatched his purple suitcase and threw it in the back of a truck. When he retrieved the luggage from a city storage unit months later, he said the clothing inside was ruined and covered in mildew.
Sullivan is one of four former and current homeless campers who testified Tuesday about the city's aggressive crackdown on homeless activists' encampments between October 2016 and January 2017. The city says the camps were targeted for health and safety reasons, not to retaliate against the group's political activism.
Also testifying Tuesday was Mike Zint, co-founder of First They Came For The Homeless, a group that organized multiple drug-free encampments in prominent spots around Berkeley to raise awareness about homelessness and affordable housing issues.
Zint, who is not a plaintiff in the case, told jurors he "lost everything" he owned in a November 2016 raid outside of Berkeley City Hall. Zint said he was arrested because police decided he wasn't moving fast enough after they woke him up at 4:30 a.m. and ordered him to start packing.
"The police were trying to force me to move before my medication had an opportunity to take effect," Zint said.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup told the jury to disregard testimony about Zint's lost possessions because he is not one of three plaintiffs with claims of lost or damaged property against the city.
Plaintiffs Benjamin Royer and Adam Bredenberg also described losing property in camp sweeps or finding other people's tents discarded in dumpsters after police raids.
On cross-examination, Berkeley Deputy City Attorney Lynne Bourgault challenged the notion that police acted as villains when clearing encampments. She noted that police officers offered to help campers move their stuff and sometimes brought them coffee and donuts.
Bourgault asked the four witnesses if they ever heard city officials say why they were clearing their camps. The reasons given were in written notices stating that the camps were unsanitary or in violation of laws that prohibit lodging on public property, according to the witnesses.
The city attorney also questioned whether the homeless plaintiffs made good-faith efforts to retrieve their belongings from the city following camp evictions.
"Did you ever think, 'Gee, that property is really important to me, I better go figure out how to get it back,'" Bourgault asked.
Royer, a 33-year-old homeless man with severe back pain and limited mobility, said he relied on other members in his group to help him retrieve a sleeping bag, tarp and tools he used for his wheelchair, which were lost in a raid.
"I don't remember if I was told or not why they could not find my property," Royer said. "I believe I asked on numerous occasions."
Bourgault also asked about claims that the group smeared feces on the entrance of City Hall and scribbled suicide messages on a sidewalk near Berkeley High School.
Zint said the city has no evidence that his group splattered poop on the entry doors of City Hall. However, Sullivan admitted the group poured red paint on the steps of the building.
Zint said the suicidal chalk writings were written by a group member suffering from mental health problems. The disturbing messages were not endorsed by the group, he added.
When asked why that person was not ejected from camp, Zint said he would never abandon a person with mental health problems who needed help.
"I'm not going to kick a suicidal man out of his support network," Zint said.
According to Zint, the group organized protest camps with a goal of persuading the city to establish a sanctioned camp on a piece of public property with toilets, trash pickup and other city services.
All four witnesses testified Tuesday that they believe police targeted them for protesting in prominent places, speaking out at city council meetings and writing opinion pieces critical of the city government.
"All too often people who are homeless are dehumanized because their whole existence is seen as against the law," Sullivan told jurors. "We wanted to show that we have rights and we are the same as anybody else."
Though his calendar indicates the trial may go through May 30, Alsup said Tuesday that he expects both sides to finish presenting evidence by Friday.
Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, who started testifying at the end of the day Tuesday, is expected to continue her testimony Wednesday.
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