About 100 people, mostly UC Berkeley students, gathered to protest the closure and removal of community chess tables on Telegraph Avenue after the city cited the owner over city code violations. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Dozens of students sat cross-legged on the floor during the Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday night, shuffling around chess pieces in silent protest of the closure of the Telegraph Avenue chess corner last week.

Joining them were community members and homeless advocates who came out in droves to clamor against the shutdown, which stemmed from a code violation notice from the city in February.

After months of stacking up fines, property owner Ken Sarachan, who owns Rasputin Records, ultimately removed the card tables, chess boards and other furniture from his shuttered Mad Monk property that he also owns early on the morning of Sept. 29.

In a letter Sarachan wrote to Councilmember Rigel Robinson, which Sarachan provided to Berkeleyside, he said the chess club was not permitted on the Mad Monk property.

“The Chess club is not ‘ours.’ We have no relationship whatsoever with them. They pay no rent, and have never even suggested to us that they might do so,” Sarachan wrote. “If we wanted them as tenants we would have a lease and benefit from them in some way. But we do not. We have no lease with them or any other agreement.”

He told Berkeleyside that he considers chess club organizer Jesse Sheehan a friend, and wasn’t interested in calling police enforcement to shut down the club, but he was forced to follow the city’s requirements after he was served a violation notice.

Sarachan called for the fines to be dropped against his property, and though “the long-term solution is not to have a chess club in front of my front door,” the games could easily be moved to sidewalk areas not occupied by vendors.

“It’s a positive fit for the Avenue, it’s a positive thing for a college community, and that should be what we strive for,” Sarachan said.

According to the city’s Feb. 28 violation notice, an inspection in December 2022 found the chess club was obstructing the public right of way at 2454 Telegraph Ave., with outdoor seating and tables, and violating Sarachan’s use permit for the address, which only allows people to congregate in the area if food service is present.

“The property has been vacant for one year and the permit holder has not made a good faith effort to re-occupy the property with the use allowed by the approved permit,” the violation notice added.

According to Sarachan, fines had reached about $45,000 by the middle of August. Though he removed the tables on Sept. 29, the club has returned in a smaller capacity. The city hasn’t yet responded with another fine notice.

Josh McCann, 28, a UC Berkeley political science undergraduate student, dressed as a pawn to attend the chess sit-in at the Berkeley City Council meeting. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Public records provided to Berkeleyside show that the city received complaints about the chess corner from at least one nearby business owner in the months before the city sent permit violation notices to Sarachan. The business owner claimed it was an illegal use of space and took issue with the patrons, calling them “a group of people that have mental health issues and drug addiction.”

Rasputin Music representatives ultimately posted no trespassing signs at the chess corner in early spring and contacted Berkeley police for a non-emergency response. Officers did not remove the chessplayers from the area as the club claimed they were not blocking public right-of-way, according to a Rasputin Music representative’s emails to the city. The situation was then left alone until the end of September.

The free community initiative popped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. As People’s Park became a crowded encampment for homeless residents under a shelter-in-place order, chess matches that happened at the park’s picnic tables for decades shifted onto Telegraph Avenue.

Many of the park’s housed and unhoused regulars also shifted to Telegraph.

Sheehan halted the games in February 2022 after he was arrested. He said he was traumatized following an altercation near the tables unrelated to the chess matches, but the games soon returned due to overwhelming community support.

On Monday, three days after the chess equipment was removed, Sheehan and others set up a few more tables at the property. Sheehan was again arrested on suspicion of two misdemeanors after an altercation with a Downtown Business District Ambassador. Sheehan said he is recovering at a friend’s home after suffering injuries during the arrest; he maintains the ambassador threatened him, leading to a fight with a third person.

Sheehan and others have been outspoken about “defending People’s Park” against a pending UC Berkeley student housing development, pushing back against gentrification on Telegraph Avenue and advocating for homeless residents with limited resources, including public bathrooms and recreational space.

Councilmember Rigel Robinson listens to a packed public comment period about the Telegraph chess tables on Oct. 3. He and other council members pushed for a community compromise that could bring the chess tables back or cease continued closure but did not immediately present a single solution. He was jeered multiple times while speaking. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Often, this ire has been directed toward Robinson, who represents the Southside and is running for mayor next year, the Telegraph Business Improvement District Association, whose executive Alex Knox maintains he did not push for the club’s closure and TBID ambassadors.

At Tuesday’s meeting, speakers bound by the council’s rules of not directly addressing a council member made veiled jabs at Robinson and demanded to know why he hadn’t been openly supportive of the chess tables if he claims to champion public spaces and community resources in the Southside.

“The community chess club is coming under attack due to the unjust criminalization of the unhoused community,” said Margot, a UC Berkeley student and member of the Suitcase Clinic, suggesting the club would be left alone if it was a student initiative. “Instead of going after a group that has actually improved Berkeley, we ask you to focus your energy on doing the same — like bringing a grocery store to the Southside or creating more affordable housing units.”

Alecia Harger, 23, a UC Berkeley student who had lived in Berkeley all her life, said they moved out of the city three months ago because “this city just isn’t what it used to be.” Harger said removing the chess tables is emblematic of policing and enforcement happening throughout Berkeley so that “gentrifiers can feel more comfortable when they walk down the street,” including actions by DBA ambassadors.

“I have watched as culture and community have leeched out of this city,” Harger said. “I have watched as Black people have been forced out of this city. Chess club was one of the few places where I could regularly see Black people as a UC Berkeley student.”

Harger challenged Robinson to respond adequately, saying it could be a “nail in the coffin” for his mayoral run.

Emma Hamilton, Evelyn George and Alex Layton, fourth-year students at UC Berkeley, listen to testimonies in favor of the chess club during the public comment period at the Berkeley City Council meeting. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Robinson said in an interview he has never personally pushed for the closure of the chess club, but he was aware of violation notices sent to the property owner. He said he’s currently working on possible alternatives for the chess club, including making another area of Telegraph Avenue available for matches but isn’t yet ready to share them on the record.

He said the chess club can’t remain where it is now because it’s trespassing on private property. He added that the closure is not “selective enforcement,” as public speakers claimed, but “complaint based” — “though I know that to many it seems hard to imagine that anyone could have complained.”

Councilmember Kate Harrison called for an expedient solution that wouldn’t create a bloated city response and kept the chess tables behind red tape forever.

Councilmember Sophie Hahn also raised the issue of the controversial IKE kiosks, which blocked the chess club’s original location further down Telegraph near Dwight Way. Speakers pointed to the kiosks as yet another example of the corporatization of public space in the area, ultimately greenlit by the City Council.

Robinson acknowledged that much of Berkeley’s spirit is being lost to forces of gentrification, which he hopes to address with a future policy on public space in Southside.

“The folks that make up so much of the core and the spirit of the chess club are refugees, people who depended on People’s Park as a space to gather and as a space for community. That is, and will continue to be, lost as the project continues to move forward there,” said Robinson, affirming his support for the UC student housing development.

“I don’t think the chess club would be as successful as it has been if it was something sanitized and manufactured by city government, and I don’t think that’s the direction we should be going in,” he said. “But I do think there is an important role that the city and the state — if you will — can have in creating public space that can become what people want it to be.”

Sheehan also called the chess players “refugees” of People’s Park while casting doubt on how willing the city is to support a group that doesn’t align with their political values. He hasn’t returned to the chess corner after his latest arrest but said the most immediate solution would be to allow chess tables on the sidewalk in a way that doesn’t block public right of way.

“We are refugees of People’s Park,” Sheehan said. “This would be a moot point if there was a green space with public restrooms in our neighborhood.”

He said the chess club and its supporters plan to protest every City Council meeting until space is made for chess in Southside.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...