As the evening of April 11 approached, Mike Zint prepared for the night as he always did — wide awake and stationed in front of the Berkeley Post Office, where he held the night watch shift for a group of protesters who had been camping out in front of the building for over seventeen months. Early the next morning, however, he received an unexpected visit from Berkeley police.
"They raided at 5 a.m. They gave us no time," Zint wrote to the Express in an email. "They dragged me down the sidewalk because I was physically unable to walk. They took all the gear including medicines."
Zint, who said he has since been forced to move to Shattuck Avenue, is no stranger when it comes to the push and pull that the police and many housed community members exert on homeless people. Alongside activists from First They Came for the Homeless and Berkeley Post Office Defenders, Zint had been occupying the space outside the downtown Berkeley Post Office since November 2014, after the United States Postal Service attempted to sell the historic building located at 2000 Allston Way. He was also one of the lead organizers for the occupation protest outside Berkeley's old city hall last year after the city approved a set of strict laws targeting homeless people, including a rule that a person's belongings can't take up more than four square feet of space on the sidewalk.
Zint is a well-known figure in Berkeley due to his outspokenness on issues of homelessness and human rights. He hardly ever shies away from a debate about how to best address the problem of homelessness. But recently, discussions involving him and the broader homeless population in Berkeley have taken to the internet via the powerful and growing community networks hosted by the company Nextdoor. So when Zint heard his name was being dropped on Berkeley Nextdoor neighborhood groups, he decided to make a profile himself to see what people were saying, and to join the conversation.
"I started the Nextdoor account because some of my supporters said a group of people were conspiring against the protest," Zint told the Express in an email, referring to the post office and city hall actions.
Sure enough, after creating an account and logging on, Zint found his name scattered throughout posts made by Nextdoor users from neighborhoods such as McGee-Spaulding and South Berkeley. "I was accused of drug use, theft, and being a criminal," Zint said. "I was mentioned by name, and most of what was being said was lies."
Since its launch four-and-a-half years ago, Nextdoor has surged in popularity as a way for neighbors to connect. It's grown from only 200 neighborhoods to 97,000. Nearly 60 percent of US neighborhoods have a Nextdoor group, and in Berkeley every recognized neighborhood has a Nextdoor group, according to Nextdoor spokesperson Kelsey Grady.
As a one-stop shop for easy, neighborly communication, the website's booming popularity comes as little surprise. It allows people living near one another to connect online for a variety of things, including posting items for sale, organizing a street beautification day, or talking local politics. Nextdoor groups have also become a place for neighbors to report suspicious activity and crime — a feature that critics say has led to many alarming racial profiling incidents (See "Racial Profiling via Nextdoor.com," Feature, 10/07/2015). However, after being approached by activists upset with the way innocent Black neighbors were increasingly targeted on the website's "Crime & Safety" page, Nextdoor staff listened and has since made some major changes to its crime reporting form.
Still, despite its ongoing efforts to prevent racial profiling by its members, Nextdoor has another problem in the East Bay: Some of its users are taking to the website to advocate against homeless people and demand that the police respond when homeless people are seen in their neighborhoods. Like the online allegations made concerning Zint, many other homeless people are targeted by Nextdoor users, often in disturbing and harmful ways.
"Homeless people will be referred to as packs of youth. If they have a bicycle, they are accused of being part of a chop shop, accused of stealing bikes and selling them," said Barbara Brust, founder of Consider The Homeless!, a Berkeley-based human rights group. "I've seen quotes where [Nextdoor users claim] 80 percent of the people have drug and alcohol problems, which is a totally false statistic."
But homeless people face another problem. Homeless people like Zint aren't given the chance to speak up for themselves on the website due to Nextdoor's policy that you must have a home mailing address that isn't a PO Box in order to use their service.
"Nextdoor kicked me off because they found out I'm a homeless man," Zint said.
At first look, Nextdoor's policy requiring that members join using the street address of their home, rather than a PO Box or other mailing address, seems to make sense, as it ensures that only actual residents of a neighborhood can access the group and join the discussion.
"From my point of view, if you're trying to have a neighborhood-based thing and you allow any person come through and say yes, use this PO box, then everyone could sign up and spew their agenda," said Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington. "If it's supposed to be about community neighborhood empowerment, you don't want some political campaign or company sending out advertising to the neighborhood list."