About 200 people attended a special Berkeley City Council meeting on Jan. 17, 2015 to talk about police and community issues. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
About 200 people attended a special Berkeley City Council meeting on Jan. 17, 2015 to talk about police and community issues. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

More than five weeks after Berkeley police used tear gas, smoke bombs, and over the shoulder baton strikes to control a crowd protesting the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the City Council held a meeting Saturday to examine community relations with police.

More than 200 people gathered in the atrium of the Ed Roberts campus for a five-hour town hall meeting, some holding up signs with “Black Lives Matter,” and “Stop racial profiling! BPD come clean.” While some of the public testimony concerned police actions Dec. 6, the first night of a weeklong series of demonstrations in Berkeley, much of the talk touched on the broader societal ills that have affected African-Americans.

From a panel of experts that included professors from UC Berkeley to Sheila Quintana, the principal of Berkeley Technical Academy, to a host of politicians including Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, to long-time residents of Berkeley, those in attendance focused on issues of race, jobs, affordable housing, and equitable education as pressing issues that must be addressed immediately.

“Police brutality and the killing of black bodies is horrific, however it is only a part of the problem that affects the relationship between the police and the black community,” Barbara White, a member of the Berkeley chapter of the NAACP testified in front of the council. “Structural and institutionalized racism and white privilege is at the root of the dehumanization of black people.”

“If we want to be serious about making black lives matter, we’re going to get serious about changing the social-economic injustices that have impacted African-Americans,” said Thurmond.

The meeting was divided into five parts. For the first hour, city council members listened to public comment. (See two videos below to hear the testimony of Moni Law and Becky O’Malley.)

YouTube video

YouTube video

Then a panel of academics, including UC Berkeley Professor John A. Powell and Professor Jack Glaser, put racism and social injustice into a historical, economic, and sociological context. Sheila Quintana, the principal of Berkeley Technical Academy and and Jinho “Piper” Ferreira, an actor, rapper, and sheriff’s deputy then discussed their individual histories and what they consider the impact of institutionalized racism on young people.

Then a stream of politicians spoke about their own experiences and legislative efforts at the local, state, and federal level to bring changes to society.

Carson mesmerized the crowd when he traced the history of racism against blacks from 1492 to today. He reminded those in the room that racism once flourished in Berkeley: housing covenants excluded blacks from certain neighborhoods, companies would not employ African-Americans, black families were broken apart, their men jailed, he said.

“The Berkeley City Council is not responsible, but it is on our watch to change it going forward,” said Carson. “We have to figure out a way going forward to start the healing.”

The Berkeley City Council at a special town hall meeting on Jan. 17, 2015. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The Berkeley City Council at a special town hall meeting on Jan. 17, 2015. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Then Berkeley City Council members expressed their views. Then, once again, the public was given another chance to talk.

The speakers and panelists proposed numerous ideas and laws on how to improves the lives of African-Americans and how to ensure that police do not use excessive force.  These ranged from strengthening civil control over police, requiring Berkeley cops to wear body cameras, prohibiting the use of tear gas, and more.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee said there are three bills pending in Congress that she said would “address the systemic structural and rampant racial biases endemic in our institutions.” These include HR 5831, which would give the Department of Justice “greater authority to investigate incidents of law enforcement wrongdoing”; HR 2851, which would outlaw racial profiling by law enforcement; and HR 5478, which would prohibit police from using weapons from the Defense Department against civilians.

Lee said she is also encouraging President Obama to appoint a federal police czar who has the authority to investigate “egregious law enforcement activities.”

State Senator Loni Hancock told the crowd that there are six bills in the senate on body cameras for police. As chair of the Public Safety Commission, she has been working on a number of issues, including trying to reduce the recidivism rate in prison by funding more community college classes and drug treatment education.

“It’s about opportunity in the long run,” said Hancock.

Tony Thurmond
Tony Thurmond

Thurmond, who has been in the Assembly for less than two months, said he plans to convene a meeting in Richmond of all of his district’s police chiefs, mayors, and city managers to discuss ways to keep communities safe and minimize the use of deadly force.

The Berkeley City Council is poised to address legislatively what happened on Dec. 6 in the next few weeks. The city council will discuss suggestions put forward by the Peace and Justice Commission at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The recommendations include an immediate moratorium on the use of tear gas and baton strikes until the Police Review Commission has a chance to review what happened on Dec. 6. To do that effectively, the Peace and Justice Commission is recommending that the City Council grant the PRC the ability to subpoena records.

As part of the consent calendar, Councilman Darryl Moore, along with council members Jesse Arreguín and Linda Maio, has asked for a report within three months from the city manager about the implications of requiring Berkeley Police officers to use dashboard and body cameras.

YouTube video

In addition, Arreguín has placed three items on the action agenda related to policing. The first item is a proposed motion for council to support national demands from the group “Ferguson Action”; push for changes in the Alameda County district attorney’s office related to the investigations of in-custody deaths; and to “Issue a statement of concern and support for people of color and their families who have been affected by injury or death by law enforcement agencies.”

The second item suggests changes to the Berkeley Police Department’s General Orders related to crowd control, mutual aid and use of force.

In the third, Arreguín calls for an independent investigation into the police response Dec. 6, when crowds were teargassed by officers, struck with police batons and hit by “less-lethal” police projectiles on Telegraph Avenue. Arreguín and Councilman Kriss Worthington previously called publicly for an investigation to be launched, but this is the first time that request appears on a council agenda.

Council meeting Black Lives Matter

While more than 50 people from the community did speak at the town hall meeting, only one UC Berkeley student, Matthew Lewis, the ASUC external affairs vice president’s director of local affairs, testified. He said that while Cal students made up the majority of the protestors at the Dec. 6 demonstration, more were not there to talk about their experiences because they are still away on winter break. Classes do not begin until Tuesday. He also pointed out that many black students and professors were at a long-scheduled conference and could not come to the meeting.

City Councilman Kriss Worthington later criticized Berkeley officials, particularly Mayor Tom Bates, for holding the meeting when so many Cal students were away and on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

There was no formal police presence or presentation at the meeting, although Police Chief Michael Meehan sat through the five hours of testimony. He said he was there “to listen, to get ideas.”

Meehan said that the department had been implementing the Fair and Impartial Policing Policy for four years. He said that the police department had been collecting data on traffic stops for 15 years and would soon start collecting data on pedestrian stops. Meehan said he had recently been in contact with the Center for Policy Equity at UCLA to have it do a data analysis of the material. (Berkeley police crunched the numbers when collection first began, but have not continued to do so.)

“It’s hard for the officers when every societal ill is placed on the back of police officers,” said Meehan.

Read complete Berkeleyside coverage of the protests.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...