A modestly sized rally of about 60 to 70 individuals gathered at the steps of City Hall on the evening of April 26, 2011 to express support for the demolition and rebuilding of the South and West branches of the Berkeley Public Library.
The future of the branches is at issue in a lawsuit filed by Concerned Library Users against the City of Berkeley, seeking to block the demolition of the branches and promoting a partial renovation / partial new construction approach instead.
A key issue in the lawsuit is whether the Library can legally spend money from the 2008 library bond, Measure FF, on demolition and rebuilding of the South and West branches. The bond measure referred to renovation, expansion, accessibility and seismic improvements at the branches, but did not propose or identify demolition as something the funds could be spent on.
All the speakers at the rally, organized by a new group calling itself New Libraries Now, favored the demolition and complete rebuilding of the two branches.
New Libraries Now didn’t announce any detailed information about its composition at the rally, but it appears to have at its core Berkeley Public Library Foundation leaders, two or three City Councilmembers, and several African-American community leaders.
An overlapping group gathered privately this past winter in what was promoted as a “community meeting” about the lawsuit that Foundation leader Linda Schacht later described as a strategy meeting to plan a response to the lawsuit. That strategy appeared to be unfolding at this rally.
Speakers included a Berkeley School Board member, a local minister, a Downtown businessman who has organized a petition drive aimed at the lawsuit proponents, the president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and three City Councilmembers.
The speeches were thick with condemnation of the lawsuit, claims that it would delay reconstruction of the branches, generalized statements about, and praise for, the good done by public libraries, calls to protect and educate Berkeley’s children, and a few religious allusions.
The Councilmembers who spoke—Linda Maio, Max Anderson, and Laurie Capitelli— pledging their support for demolition and rebuilding of the South and West branches. A fourth Councilmember, Darryl Moore, stood with them and applauded, but did not speak to the crowd.
At six o’clock, the time publicized for the rally start, I counted about 30 people standing around at the base of the City Hall steps. Two boys poised for photographs with a sign calling for “New Healthy Branch Libraries”, while a girl sat nearby on the steps.
Dave Snyder, the paid Executive Director of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, bustled around organizing speakers to stand on the steps.
At about 6:10, the group—speakers and audience—had grown to close to 60. Protestors from a demonstration against Berkeley’s proposed “sit / lie” ordinance passed by up the steps, on their way into City Hall. Some of the “sit / lie” protestors remained outside on the City Hall steps, propping or holding their signs in view of the crowd.
The largely white, matronly, and middle-aged audience for the library rally looked on in some bemusement and confusion as young homeless men and women, Cal students opposing the sit / lie ordinance, and a few grizzled veteran Berkeley activists filtered through the library rally and into the building.
During and at the end of the library rally the group of those there to support the rally numbered about 60 spectators at the base of the City Hall steps and another dozen or more speakers and those standing with them on the steps.
I counted several times and kept coming up with about 60-70 people, total, who were clearly there for the library demolition / rebuild cause.
I also looked at the apparent composition of the crowd. Among the 60-70, there were about 15-20 African-American and Hispanic faces. Of course I didn’t have a chance to ask everyone there the ethnicity with which they identified, but as you can see from the crowd photo accompanying this article, the majority of those attending were clearly middle aged to elderly Caucasian men and women, including several I recognized from the Library Foundation, the Friends of the Library, and various public hearings on the Library issues.
There were several high-school age attendees (some of whom spoke) and some younger children; after posing for photographs with signs, the latter spent much of the rally playing on the adjacent lawn.
African-American faces were more visible at the top of the steps and the speaker rostrum, including Berkeley’s two African-American Councilmembers , one of whom spoke later.
“I welcome you all for New Libraries Now!” said David Snyder, beginning the event, and restlessly patrolling the top of the steps like a game show host on stage. “Thank you!”
“We have a few individuals who would like to make comments of their support for why we should have new libraries at our West and South branches,” he said. “We were excited here in Berkeley, when Measure FF was passed, we expected to see the community come together.”
He referred to “the 26 million dollars that we as citizens have allocated for this project, and we look forward to seeing this project move forward on time.”
Winston Burton, a member of the Board of Library Trustees, was the first speaker and began to rouse the crowd. “Just getting ready to rock! Are you with me? Fired up! Fired up! Ready to go!” Burton urged. The audience cheered.
The Library construction, Burton said “had led to the first Project Labor Agreement” in Berkeley “to promote local dollars and local business.” “Let’s keep the Berkeley voter’s money and local dollars which support Measure FF in Berkeley! Keep the Berkeley money in Berkeley! Are you with me?”
“Yeah!” the crowd cheered.
Burton recalled that he was one of three campaign chairs for Measure FF in 2008.
“What we consistently heard back from the community was what they wanted in their libraries, and it was consistent. They wanted their libraries to be beautiful—not cute” (derisive laughter came from the crowd). “They wanted accessible. They wanted them to be green, high-tech, comprehensive…and they also wanted a community room that we can hopefully use at night, hopefully.”
“Over the next two years I heard the voices of the community as concerned library users came to numerous meetings at each branch to review plans and proposals.”
“After two years the community said they consistently wanted their libraries to be, guess what?” Burton said. “Beautiful, not cute, accessible, green, high tech, comprehensive…”
“You see now it’s three years later, the message hasn’t changed, it’s the same, the community knows what it wants, it knows what it needs.”
“This opportunity may not come again, and it may not come again for fifty or even a hundred years….Let’s not waste a minute! Let’s not waste a penny!” he concluded.
“We wanted to take the opportunity to have some of our City Council members make their comments,” said Snyder, “so please, Councilmember Susan Wengraf…” as he turned to Councilmember Linda Maio who was standing next to him.
“We’re in session right now so we came down to be with you”, said Maio, quickly recovering from the mistaken introduction. She stood in front of Councilmembers Max Anderson, Darryl Moore, and Laurie Capitelli, all of them holding signs that said “New Libraries Now For South and West Berkeley.”
“We’ve come down to thank you for joining us for new libraries for south and west”, she said. “There’s one word in Measure FF that’s in contention, it’s called the word ‘demolition’. Because of one word we may not have libraries for south and west for our kids, for our families, for our seniors, and for our disabled. It’s simply not fair. It’s simply not right.”
“We have to go ahead with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is the taxpayers, the taxpayers of Berkeley say Yes! we want good quality libraries for all of Berkeley…And so with your help we have to get the word out because once taxpayers hear it, let me tell you, once they hear it, they are angry. They’re angry because we’re stalled. And we’re stalled because of a few people who nitpick.”
“Your presence here means that you have reinforced the commitment that this city expressed on election day in 2008”, Councilmember Max Anderson said. “We want good, quality, modern libraries in all parts of our city. We want a fair and equal distribution of resources in the city.”
“We want our families and our children to have access to the materials and the education and the books they need to have a successful life…no matter whether you live in North Berkeley, whether you live in the Claremont area, or in South or West Berkeley.”
“Yay! Yay!” a woman screamed from the crowd, followed by applause.
Anderson then offered an analogy about his experience with his home kitchen remodel. He said “we had no plans to tear down the wall but what we found during the course of our process compelled us if we were to have a decent kitchen.”
“Now if any of you find dry rot and bad things in the walls of your house and your plan is revitalizing your kitchen, you’re not going to walk away from it because you discovered dry rot, you’re going to fix it to the highest standard you can.”
“What people have to decide is, what side are you going to be on? Are you going to stand in the library door, or are you going to try to facilitate the availability of these resources to all of our community?” Anderson concluded. “You’ve done your job, and we’re going to go in there and do ours.”
Councilmember Laurie Capitelli came forward next, clutching a yellow “New Libraries Now” sign. “I just want to say, number one, the voters said overwhelmingly ‘spend the money, rebuild the libraries, have modern libraries for everyone’,” he said.
“Number two, we’ve spent, all of you, many of you, hundreds of other people, hundreds if not thousands of hours planning these four libraries. NO ONE stepped forward at any of the meetings I went to and said, Stop. NO ONE. It was only after a very small minority didn’t get their way or perceived of some way to stop this project that they’ve moved forward with obstructionist activities. It’s time to move forward, it’s time we as a community said, the overwhelming majority of people have said, move ahead and build these libraries. Thank you!”
“That you Councilmember, we appreciate your support”, Snyder said, calling on the next speaker, Beatriz Leyva-Cutler.
The four Councilmembers disappeared into the building, where they rejoined the Council session, which was scheduled to vote on EIR certification, zoning revisions, and use permits for the South and West branch demolition and rebuild projects.
“We want our libraries now!” Leyva-Cutler called, introducing herself as president of the School Board. “Today I come here to this rally to share my opinion as a private citizen, a homeowner and a childcare director of Berkeley. Because I simply can’t be quiet about something so important to our community of Berkeley. I want you to help me, and whenever I say ‘Libraries’, I want you to shout out, ‘We want our libraries now!’.”
The small crowd complied a bit too enthusiastically, sometimes drowning out her remarks after each mention of ‘library’.”
She talked about her own children and the children she teaches going to the library. “We take children to promote their reading. Families go to the library.”
“We need libraries in west and south Berkeley.” “Taxpayers voted for new libraries. We voted this in 2008 and now a small group of people are stopping the rebuilding of our libraries,” she said.
“Who will listen to them? Who will listen to them? NOBODY!”
“They just want attention!” yelled a woman from the crowd.
“It is simply unfair, it’s not right, and it’s simply a waste of time and money to stall the renovation of the West and South Berkeley libraries,” Leyva-Cutler continued.
“You do what you have to do to get back into your house, and we want to get back into our libraries.”
“Children and the community deserve to have the beautiful and safe and inviting libraries that we were promised. Libraries are a lifeline for many and we can’t be quiet on this….Please sign the petition that is circulating and those naysayers who would rather take the City to court and pay lawyers than build our libraries, enough is enough..Stop wasting valuable time and build our libraries.”
Reverend M. Peeples was then introduced. “When I think about what has happened to us here in Berkeley it really disturbs me…What I’m saying now is I don’t like what I hear, what I see. I want the City Council to move forward with rebuilding our libraries.”
“We encouraged our people in our community to vote for the bonds for the libraries and for people to step in, and stop, and try to keep our kids from learning, it is not fair. The kids in south and west Berkeley need libraries more than people in other parts of our city.”
“I would hope that you would move forward, Council, in terms of doing what the people have said to do, and move forward and get these libraries rebuilt.”
“Those are the ones that are held up because of the lawsuit. Now, we don’t need any one speaking any more because the people have already spoken.”
“We have to do it. If we need to march again, let’s march. If we need to lay in, let’s lay in. Do what we have to do, because our children need these libraries today.”
“I’m upset because people are messing with my children,” Peeples continued. “We need to move forward and do what we have to do. We cannot be caught in a ‘trick bag’, I hope you hear what I’m saying. It’s just another trick bag that has been played in Berkeley for some many years.”
“We hope that the people who are trying to stop, who have a lawsuit against the process, will reconsider what they are doing and think about the babies. The babies don’t have anything to deal with, they need the libraries to do what they need to do.”
“It breaks my heart because teachers know that libraries are critical to the education of our children”, said Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. She said her organization had supported the campaign for the library bonds.
“Every part of our town deserves high quality, modernized, sufficient, even more than sufficient, libraries.” “We have to have libraries that are excellent in all parts of our town.”
“We need to grow this movement…when do we want our libraries?”
“Now!” the crowd chorused.
Snyder took back the microphone for a moment and gave a plug for a Facebook page promoting the demolition / rebuilding. “Look for New Libraries Now, like it, pass it along, get the communication going…”
He then introduced Ben Bartlett, owner of a downtown Berkeley business and the son of Dale Bartlett(once the aide to former Councilmember Maudelle Shirek) who was in the crowd. “I’d like to take a moment to remind us what’s truly at stake here” Bartlett said, describing beautiful, ideal, library buildings. He was flanked by five teenagers.
“The future I’m talking about here clearly is not an imaginary future. It’s real. You chose it. You planned it and you funded it. And now, due to some misguided lawsuit, you’re defending it.”
“Who knows better how to spend your money than you do? Nobody.” “And who knows how to raise your family better than you do? Nobody.”
“You did the right thing for this community…you passed Measure FF. You are in control,” Bartlett said.
“So right here, we’ve got some young people, who when they learned of this ATTACK on their future, they did something about it. They put together a petition by their own hand…Hundreds, literally hundreds, of their own friends signed it.”
“So please, say hi to my child soldiers,” handing the microphone to the teenagers standing behind him.
“I’m really glad to see that everybody is behind us”, said a boy named Jonah.
“Libraries are wonderful things in this community, and we as a community need to uphold and support them to the best of our ability”, said Noah Hardy.
“Reading is Fundamental”, emphasized a woman described as Bartlett’s relative, who was standing with the Berkeley High School students.
“Indeed”, said Bartlett, taking the microphone back. “The kids said it, let’s not let them down here.”
“As adults we have a duty to create a successful society for the next generation…we are Berkeley.”
“Where would Berkeley be without our libraries?!” a woman called plaintively from the crowd.
“Exactly!” said Bartlett, reciting a litany of Berkeley firsts from free speech to South African divestment, disabled rights, and scientific discoveries. “To do what we do best, which is to make change, we need a library.”
“Now, please, please, don’t be too frustrated with the people who have brought this lawsuit against our children because I really believe that ‘they know not what they do’. But you do”, Bartlett concluded. “You know what you do. And because you know, you have a duty to teach what you know to those who do not know.”
“Let the City Council and the litigants know that Berkeley needs world class libraries,” Bartlett said.
“We’re circulating around a petition,” David Snyder said. “Please, if you can take an opportunity to sign the petition, put your e-mail now, we’ll continue to see “New Libraries Now” communicates with you.”
“We need New Libraries Now!” he ended.
Some from the rally went into City Hall, while others scattered. A few late arrivals chatted with those leaving, and the petition circulated in the crowd. Director of Library Services Donna Corbeil came through the remaining individuals and headed up the steps towards the Council meeting.
I tried to talk to Jim Novosel, nominated as a new member of the Board of Library Trustees, but he turned to speak to others. I then approached former City head of Current Planning, Mark Rhoades, now a for-profit Berkeley developer.
“Where’s the petition?” Rhoades was asking. Eric Panzer, who was sitting on the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board when it approved the EIR and use permits for the South and West Berkeley demolition / rebuild projects, handed him a clipboard.
I asked Panzer if he knew who had originated an anonymous website called “New Libraries Now”, which contains a drawing of the proposed new South Berkeley Library, a graphic apparently taken from the Berkeley Public Library website, which uses the same drawing on its “South Branch / Tool Lending Library Project and Plans.”
Panzer said he didn’t know. I asked Dave Snyder from the Library Foundation the same thing. “I don’t know”.
The website, on weebly.com, contains a gmail address and a link to “Follow New Libraries Now on Facebook” and a call to attend the evening rally.
The website links to the Berkeley Public Library webpage, contains an essay “Literacy Changes Lives” attributed to the “Berkeley Reads” program, presents a brochure produced by the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, and a “Frequently Asked Questions” page, which presents text and two links to the Berkeley Public Library website.
The webpage does not identify who created or maintains it and there’s no “who we are” or “contact us” link, other than the gmail address.
Snyder did tell me that the separate Facebook page he had been promoting at the rally was “connected to Linda, and Max, and Councilmember Moore, and the Reverend and all the folks who have been meeting to pull this together.”
It wasn’t clear whether he meant Linda Maio, the Councilmember, or Linda Schacht, the Berkeley Public Library Foundation fundraiser who had previously been in the forefront of criticism of the library lawsuit. Schacht was at the rally but stayed in the crowd and didn’t speak.
The petition being circulated read simply, “NEW LIBRARIES NOW PETITION IN FAVOR OF DEMOLISHING AND REBUILDING THE WEST AND SOUTH BRANCHES OF THE LIBRARY.” It asked for Name, Email, and asked “Use Your Name?”
Before and after the rally I had the opportunity to talk to a few others in the crowd.
“I’m really pleased at the community attendance and outpouring”, Elizabeth Watson from the Berkeley Public Library Foundation told me after the rally. “It really shows we need to do libraries in south and west Berkeley.”
Bartlett told me he had decided to promote the library demolition / rebuild cause when “I just happened to accidentally attend a Planning Commission meeting.” “They were yelling to stop the Libraries. I said this is ridiculous.”
“I’ve taken the lead in organizing for equity in this community”, he said.
I asked him if he thought the lawsuit was racist? “There’s always the question of intent verses effect”, he said. “I can’t speak on the intent but the result is clear.” He said the lawsuit would “maintain a Jim Crow-style status quo” in Berkeley.
I asked School Board member Karen Hemphill, who was in the crowd, the same question.
“I don’t think their intent is racist. But that doesn’t mean that the result won’t be”, she said. The lawsuit, she said, “Will differentially impact South and West Berkeley, the community with the least access to technology and resources.”
“I think any delay (in rebuilding the branches) will be unfortunate.”
Beatrice Leyva-Cutler told me before the rally, “We’d like to see all our libraries built. It’s important for Berkeley.” I asked her if she felt demolition of the two branches was the right approach. “It makes common sense. They are buildings that have to be rebuilt. They are beyond renovation”, she said.
(Disclosure: the author has written extensively on the library issues, including both news stories and opinion pieces, in the past year. He does not believe Measure FF allowed demolitions. He is not a member of Concerned Library Users.)