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Berkeley city employees deny citizens' right to petition by blocking entry to civic center building

Nanci Armstrong-Temple
Friday July 29, 2016 - 03:31:00 PM

Last week some concerned citizens in Berkeley decided to petition the council to have a special meeting to put the issue of the police commission, by-right development, and the minimum wage on the agenda to be heard before the council went on vacation. We understood that by the time the council returned from vacation it would be too late to meet the deadline for the ballot.

We were incensed at the callous disregard that the council showed in putting off the police review commission issue for the fourth time. In order to highlight the injustices perpetrated by the Berkeley police department, as well as to participate in the national call for actions in support of the Movement for Black Lives, we called on other community members to join us.

As it turned out, three of our elected representatives agreed with our proposal and believed we could get additional signatures.

A hearty group of 10 folks came to the Martin Luther King, Jr. building and expected to have a meeting with those representatives as well as interns from the CORO project.

There was no covert or dangerous behavior.

We talked with two additional council members outside of city hall who indicated their willingness to talk with us about our petition.

When we arrived at the city administration building it was clear that the police were waiting for a demonstration. The gate that is usually open was closed; people were told that they had to have an appointment to enter the building.

But despite our appointment, despite our constitutional rights to gather to petition our elected officials for a redress of grievances, the City Managers office refused to let us enter into the building. Despite the fact that it was obvious that there was no threat and that the people present were there in good faith, we were blocked from entering the building.  

I was physically barred from entering the building, despite my request to talk with the police and with the City Manager. Personally, I was infuriated at being treated in the manner that I was. As a candidate for office, I was incensed that citizens and elected officials were ignored by city employees. And, as an activist, I was again shown why it is so important to continue to organize nonviolent direct action in the face of suppression and oppression.  

The City is currently under investigation for the actions of the Berkeley Police department during the 2014 protests; the last City Manager resigned from the city. Many believe it was due to their incompetent handling of that situation and their inability to side with the people of Berkeley in the face of injustices committed against them.  

This is not the way to treat your citizens. The people are the legal determinants of what happens here. The manager is supposed to uphold the values of the city and make sure that its affairs are managed properly, not prevent its citizens from having access to due process.  

There seems to be an idea in our country and in Berkeley that compliance to authority is the preeminent value. Those who disrupt business as usual are treated as dangerous or even criminal.  

I object to this characterization on two fronts.  

First of all, we disrupters of business as usual in the face of widespread and terrible violence and injustice help to push our country, and our city, ever toward the values that we espouse in our constitution. As a candidate for office, I am required to make an oath that I will uphold the Constitution of the United States. Is it not reasonable to expect that city employees would also be beholden to those values, even if not required to make such an oath? 

Secondly, the people of Berkeley are the ultimate authority and those in power are representatives who are accountable to the people. It is the job of the people to call city council to accountability, and for the officials and employees to answer that call.  

Not only did the City Manager's office not respond to that call for accountability, but they also blocked the council members who were willing to hear that call.  

This is out of line and cannot go unchallenged. I demand an apology from the city manager’s office, and a letter to the people of Berkeley that makes it clear that our rights will be respected by the current city manager.  

My hope is that the city of Berkeley can learn from this incident and move forward with better practices. The current City Manager has executed excellent judgement with a number of issues and seems, before this point, to be of good intention and action.