Public Comment

Amazin’ Disgrace: Racial Profiling and Clear Cutting

Steve Martinot
Saturday November 03, 2018 - 01:49:00 PM

Got democracy?

On Tuesday, October 30, 2018, we went shopping for some at City Council. They didn’t have any in stock. We went down to the corner store looking for some. But they were fresh out as well. There ain’t none left.

And here we have election day coming up. Yet all we have is a vote and the naivete to think that this machinic act is the real thing. What do we become when technology gets substituted for dealing with issues?

There were two issues on the Council agenda that day. Both had been the subject of huge special meetings in the recent past. They were serious controversial issues – you know, people against institutions. One was about abating fire danger in the hills. The other was about police bias and racial profiling.

On that Tuesday, the first issue was railroaded through by a show of council’s autocratic power. It was put on the Consent Calendar, as if controversy didn’t exist, and the people’s voice was smothered under procedure and a corrupt unanimity.

The second issue was blown off by the Berkeley PD by simply failing to provide a promised report on how they were dealing with their racism. The Police Chief, however, did exhibit some racial profiling, right there in the council meeting, for the edification of all present. Let’s look at that one first. 


The police non-report  

The report (called a “mid-year crime report for 2018”) was given by this top cop and his assistant. They spoke about how crime was down, and complaints were down, and recruiting was down, and staffing was down, and bike cops were down, etc. It all bottomed out in his apology for failing to produce the racial profiling report. But they give a detailed account of how they used technology to catch a man charged with two separate sexual assaults on women. And it brought to mind the fact that there is still ten year’s backlog in processing rape kit evidence from such assaults the Bay Area. No one mentioned how much of that backlog is from Berkeley. Racial profiling isn’t the only thing the cops drag their feet on. 

But they do drag their feet. In public comment (50% black, 50% white) on the PD failure to produce its promised report, several speaker criticized the PD for not fulfilling the task given them by council. “We have been waiting a long time,” said one speaker, for implementation of a “fair and impartial policing policy.” The NAACP and the ACLU both have records of racial disparities in traffic stops, and handcuffing people on the street. 

And half the speakers brought up the fact that complaints may be down because people hesitate to complain, fearing reprisals or harassment or other forms of violence. 

Indeed, one councilmember brought that up again after “public comment.” She reported that people in her district have told her that they are afraid to call the police. “People don’t feel they will be respected or honored,” she said. She heard that a lot from constituents, she added, by way of giving feedback to the police. And she called for a “performance audit,” to get some sense of how the police are spending their time because, when people call the police, they don’t alwas get a good outcome. 

The cop responded that if people were dissatisfied with the service, they should call [wasn’t he listening? That was precisely what they were dissatisfied about]. 

All calls are recorded, he said, retreating into technology. Give me some specifics, he added, something I can track down. [When he says this, he is shrugging off what the councilmember is saying.] 

The councilmember repeats, some people are afraid to give specifics. They were afraid to complain to the police out of fear that they would then get harassed, with traffic stops or unnecessary questioning on the street. They don’t want to call attention to themselves because they don’t know when the police will turn on them. And the cop bristles defensively – what would you like me to do when there are no specifics? 

One wonders why that is a relevant question in a City Council meeting. It might be relevant on the street, but the councilmember is giving feedback, which the cop had asked for. She was speaking of people who don’t complain becauses the police don’t take complaints seriously, and here she is, confronting a cop who refuses to take what she was saying seriously. 

The councilmember persists: “I’m just saying …”. [Translation: this is feedback I’m giving you from my constituents]. But this time, the cop interrupts, and says, in a tone of annoyance, don’t give me stories or anecdotes or “I heard.” He reiterates his request for specifics. Yet in saying that, he couldn’t hear himself saying, “I don’t want to hear (such and such)…” – which is why people don’t want to deal with the police. 

Then he goes into a long disquisition about what it means that the cops will have lapel cameras, and that people can come into the station and go over the evidence of what happened by looking at the footage. In other words, he changes the subject. One way the government doesn’t listen is by changing the subject. Yet he appears miffed. Whatever preconception he is acting on, he doesn’t recognize the problem that the councilmember is naming, which the police had created. 

He ends up lecturing her, which is disrespectful, right after she has said that people are afraid they will not be treated with respect. They think it will make things worse for them, she has said, which is what has just happened to her, right there, as a case in point. 

Is this racial profiling? This councilmember is black. Does this cop evince the same attitude toward other councilmembers? Perhaps they are more careful to show obeisance – giving praise, and deferrance, and making very carefully worded statements. 

It is more subtle than that. Ironically, this cop had proudly mentioned that the Berkeley PD was starting a program of “implicit bias” training. Did he notice the “implicit bias” in the failure to produce the report on racial profiling? 

These two people are speaking disparate languages, so what the councilmember was saying got lost. The implication is that PD’s records of compaints about police activities are not valid because of the fear that people have. PD data is wrong because it is not complete, and for that reason, cannot be trusted. 

To use technological language as a response is to sweep things under the rug. 

The other irony (somewhat more disgraceful) was that our gavel-banging Mayor, who brooks no interruptions from the people in the gallery, and lectures people about not being disrespectful, just sat there throughout this exchange, like a bump on a log, while the cop disrespects what this councilmember is trying to say. That might mean that the cop was higher on the totem pole than the mayor. Something for the residents of Berkeley to think on. 


The great chain-saw solution  

“Be it resolved that the people shall have nothing to say about the agenda.” 

When council decides not to discuss an issue in open session, it can put it on the Consent Calendar. A rule-change a couple of months ago insulated the Consent Calendar from "galerista" influence ["galerista" refers to those in the gallery, the audience, who come to speak]. Under the old rules, we had the ability to countermand unified council decisions (made prior to the meeting, which might violate the Brown Act) about keeping something off the Action Calendar. In losing that power, we have become the victims of councilmembers’ prior off-the-record decisions. A decidedly anti-democratic move, the new rule gives the council autocratic control over the agenda. 

We went to council and got up to speak anyway. But powerlessly, so council didn’t have to listen. 

The item in question was a council endorsement of Proposition FF on the ballot. Prop FF is about anvironmental protection. It will raise money, through a miniscule tax, for abating erosion, maintaiing shorelines, and maintaining park trails and facilities. All that is wonderful, and simply positive maintenance of our urban environment. That wasn’t the issue. The real issue was wildfires, and the negative technological means that a newly created district over park maintenance could use to deal with it. Positive maintenance is not an issue. Destruction of an environment in the name of false fire prevention is. 

The issue had been raised years ago by FEMA, proposing that Oakland, Berkeley, and UC collaborate in clear-cutting the trees on the hills. At that time, it fostered that technological solution with associated use of Roundup, that is, yearly application of carcinogenic herbicides to curtail low vegetation growth. Of course, and herbicide would leach into the ground and the water. Hundreds of people showed up to speak against FEMA’s solutions. They were roundly rejected. Now it was back, hiding in an environmental maintenance measure. Forgotten was that the 1991 fire was started by grass and spread by houses burning, and the clear-cutting allows greater grass growth. Prop FF does not mention technology, however. For that reason, its antecdent Prop CC allowed these extremely destructive methods to be deployed in the hills. They are on the table. Prop FF would open the door to implementing the discredited FEMA strategy. 

A couple of dozen people showed up at council with signs and data and ecological and chemical and sociological arguments, trying to get this council, which had its mind made up in advnace, to take the item off Consent and actually discuss it and make policy about it. Not a chance. It was on Consent and it stayed there. Thus, the council ignored the information given by the environomental movement about what aids and what retards wildfires. It didn’t even have the temerity to look at this information, and incorporate into its endorsement. If this endorsement had been shifted to Action, it could have been amended to endorse the shoreline provisions, and parks maintenance provisions, while opposing the use of clear cutting and carcinogenic herbicides. But the council could not bring itself to do that. 

There was insufficient imagination to countenance such a procedure. So Berkeley City Council ended up endorsing the possible use of carcinogenic herbicides and clear-cutting trees. Disgraceful. 

Instead, a few councilmembers chose to change the subject. They weren’t listening because their minds had been made up. They were enamoured of the maintenance provisions that clothed the discredited strategy of chainsaws and Roundup. They endorsed it because of all the “wonderful things” the measure contained. 

An elected body ceases to be representative when it abrogates its responsibility to take what people bring to it, and not only consider it, but disseminate it among the people that body allegedly represents. Did the council not think it had such a respnsibility? Did it not think it important that trees block wind, and tree-coverage reduce the growth of ground fuel for fires? Date was given on all this. Is the chainsaw technology so appealing?. Was the council just more concerned with getting throug its agenda? 

What the galeristas were bringing to public attention is critical information concerning our environmental fate and future. We have to deal with the threat of fire from global warming (aka climate change), and also how to protect our environment from our own rampant use of technology, which is the cause of climate change (aka global warming) in the first place. 

By refusing to take the item off Consent and discuss it in light of the information given by the galeristas, the council has widened the chasm between itself and the people. It is now the case that the people have no structural means of influencing or participating in policy-making. There is a machinic aspect to how this council has brought this about that suggests a profound level of political corruption, one that gives procedure priority over people and their ideas and needs. 

That means that structural change and transformation have to occur in City Council proceedings if this city is once again to become democratic. Right now, we are saddled with an elite. And that is the real problem we face, why democracy is “off the shelf.” Procedure has been substituted for people. We see this in the loss of influence over the Consent Calendar. We see that in the reduction of time for speakers when there are more than ten. We see it in the fact that public comment goes first, so people speak into a vacuum, instead of having public comment follow some form of council discussion. And we have seen it in how the council traditionally sets controversial issues last on the agenda. 

You know what technology is? It is procedure. When you respond to people with technology, you are substituting procedure for discussion of issues with them as people.