Osha Neumann turns 83 on Valentine’s Day, and the eminent local civil rights lawyer is celebrating his latest lap around the sun by transitioning out of his longtime role at the East Bay Community Law Center, continuing his lifelong advocacy work and renewing his focus on family and art.
He has spent 35 years in Berkeley fighting legal battles at every scale, including hundreds of citation defense cases for people who can’t afford to pay their tickets, and major victories like a class-action lawsuit settlement in early 2020 that required Caltrans to reimburse homeless residents for unfairly taking their possessions between 2014 and 2019.
Neumann is sharp, curious and friendly — a force in the trial room and a familiar face to nearly everyone on the streets.
He was born in New York to German Jewish parents who fled the Nazi regime and settled in the U.S., and began his fight for social justice in the 1960s surrounded by the influential Black Power, anti-war and feminist movements. He was an un-indicted co-conspirator in the Trial of the Chicago Seven, took part in historic local protests against South African apartheid (was among 29 arrested during a protest at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall in 1985), advocated for Palestinian liberation and served on the Berkeley Police Commission to demand law enforcement accountability for nearly a decade.
He brought his first legal case on behalf of homeless people in 1990 in response to residents who had their belongings taken by the University of California in People’s Park. He later continued his art and activism advocating for the “beautiful anarchy” of the Albany Bulb, which was a homeless encampment for nearly a decade in the 90s, and defending well-known locals like “Hate Man.”
Neumann is active as ever in the courts, but the lawyer — who is tall in stature even as he hunches down to a cane for support — says he no longer has the physical strength to stand up on rafters and paint large murals like his “A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue,” on Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street.
But his age hasn’t kept him from being a mainstay at encampment closures and community protests — when he’s not in his office working behind the scenes to represent his clients.
“As I’m approaching 83, I’m in crisis,” Neumann said on a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon at People’s Park, observing the transformation of the green space into an encampment throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “My wife keeps telling me, ‘you can’t keep doing it the way you’ve been doing it,’ and yet, I’ve been clinging to the life I’ve been living.”
His relentless energy comes from an urgency to address social ills in the face of the climate crisis, as well as the hope from small, bright moments that have made his efforts worth it over the last three decades.
Rare moments when “system cedes to collective power” have kept him going
Neumann is dismissive of offering advice to young people.
“They don’t need my advice; they’re going to continue the struggle,” he said, remarking on the disastrous condition his generation has left the Earth in, societally and environmentally.
But to continue that fight in the face of fascism, systemic racism and increasingly short timelines in the climate crisis, he points to small victories in his life that have kept him going, and the inspiration of people who are directly impacted by the system and have no choice but to continue the struggle.
Shortly before the pandemic took hold in 2020, Neumann and his longtime “partner-in-crime,” Andrea Henson, also an attorney and homeless advocate, were working with people who lived under the Interstate 80 overpass at University Avenue and Frontage Road, formerly known as “downstairs” to the Frontage encampment.
Caltrans had for many years conducted frequent cleanups of encampments and displaced residents several times a year. But, one particular day, following the recent deaths of two encampment residents at nearby railroad tracks, Henson, Neumann, homeless people and several advocates stood their ground during a sweep.
“They had never encountered anything like that,” Neumann said, recalling that Henson sat down in front of a large group of Caltrans workers and law enforcement. The officials deliberated, left the area and returned twice before ultimately calling off the sweep. “The moment when all the cops left — that was incredible.”
“This is the kind of power we could have,” Neumann said of collective action. “It’s rare, but when it happens — it’s emblematic of what is possible.”
Henson, who is taking over Neumann’s extensive caseload at the East Bay Community Law Center, described him as a fierce advocate “legend on the streets.”
“At 83, he wakes up every day to serve the world as he focuses on righting the wrongs done to the most vulnerable in our community,” Henson said. “We have an unspoken understanding of what it means to dedicate your entire life to fighting for justice for those living on the streets.”
The two have ongoing cases in court right now, including one against Caltrans and the city of Emeryville to protect residents at the Ashby-Shellmound encampment who cannot stay at city shelters due to disabilities and other factors.
“Continuing his work means that when I am 83, Berkeleyside will be writing a story about me and how I am still in court, still litigating, still visiting clients under bridges, and still driven to do what’s right,” Henson added.
Neumann fights for justice because “there’s no other way to live worth living”
A scroll through the archives of Neumann’s life, both extensively chronicled in local newspapers and his memoirs, depicts his tireless pursuit of justice in every iteration of his life.
In 1981, he galvanized parents at Berkeley schools to condemn white teenagers who vandalized the home of a Black family in Contra Costa County near Pinole, writing that their own childrens’ social life and influences “are not circumscribed by the county line.” Throughout the 90s and 2000s, local papers have documented his activism and advocacy for homeless residents.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who occasionally butted heads with Neumann but always picks up calls from the “incredible and dedicated” lawyer, spoke of his doggedness and on-the-ground knowledge.
Neumann strongly advocated for increasing resources for Berkeley residents who live in their vehicles when Arreguín took office as mayor in 2016, and the mayor said his advocacy was crucial in putting the issue front and center, eventually leading to the city’s plans to create a safe parking site.
“There are so many people who are homeless, tenants, working families, who have really relied on his generosity and his tireless work,” Arreguín said, “I have an incredible amount of admiration for his energy, his persistence, he’s not afraid to speak truth to power and really push the envelope for his clients.”
Neumann also looks back at parts of his past with a critical eye, including his participation in the “Up Against the Wall Motherf—–” anarchist group in New York in the 1960s. Looking back, he said, “I was not a tough guy, and I never have been.”
He also grew to learn and reform his internalized misogyny and “blinding ignorance” about racism and credits important relationships with women of color in his life, like Henson and his wife, for furthering important daily conversations about race.
“I’m aware of the power that I have because of my whiteness, my class, and because I’m a lawyer,” Neumann said, explaining that his identity colors every room he walks into, and every interaction he has with people on the street. “If I’m not aware of that all the time, it’s a problem.”
The people he works with also remind him of his privilege and push him forward in moments when wins are rare and the system feels stacked.
“In some ways — and I don’t want to say this to people — I think it’s hopeless,” Neumann said. “But I can say that without giving up. To me, I can continue the struggle with that understanding, because we have no choice, and there’s no other way to live worth living.”