A town hall meeting organized by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) on Sunday, Dec. 8 in Berkeley examined progress on proposals intended to address a range of issues concerning Berkeley’s African-Americans, low-income families and other marginalized communities.
The three most vigorous discussions at the meeting concerned housing, the police and employment. Attendees also expressed concerns about Berkeley’s shrinking black population.
Berkeley police chief Michael Meehan, deputy city manager William Rogers, and Berkeley Housing Authority (BHA) executive director Tia Ingram were among the officials who spoke on Sunday — and weathered a barrage of comment and criticism from questioners. In addition, councilmembers Max Anderson, Daryl Moore and Kriss Worthington attended, as did city manager Christine Daniel.
The town hall was a follow-up to a July meeting held by the NAACP, which produced a 10-page report containing numerous recommendations for action. Among the many actions urged by the report were a City Council oversight body to monitor employment practices, mandatory cultural competency training for all city and BUSD staff, a new demolition ordinance requiring the replacement of all affordable housing that is demolished, reform of BUSD disciplinary procedures including expulsions and suspensions, eliminating home visits as part of the BUSD registration process, re-creation of a distinct health services department in the city, abolition of the Berkeley Police Department’s Drug Task Force, and implementing a policy of police non-involvement with mental health services.
In terms of demographics, in the 2010 census, blacks made up just under 10% of the city’s 112,000 residents. In 2000, blacks were nearly 14% of the city. Councilmember Anderson said on Sunday that blacks once were 30% of Berkeley, and that today’s numbers were hovering around 8%.
“What would it take to stop the decline in the black population?” asked George Lippman, vice-chair of Berkeley’s Peace & Justice Commission. “The community has to say that’s not the community I want to live in. We don’t want to be Piedmont.”
Addressing the housing issue, Ingram said the BHA served about 2,000 low-income families in Berkeley. Demand remains incredibly high for the limited amount of affordable and Section 8 housing in the city. According to Ingram, the last time the BHA opened the Section 8 list, it received 30,000 applications.
Brendan Darrow, a lawyer from the East Bay Community Law Center, raised the issue of discrimination in housing in Berkeley.
“Anyone who tells you there’s no discrimination in Berkeley is kidding themselves,” Darrow said. “We’d like guidance from the community as to which units or landlords we should check.”
Chief Meehan opened the presentation on criminal justice pointing out that Berkeley’s crime rate is at a 50-year low. But, he cautioned, the black community is disproportionately the victim of crime.
“When the crime rate goes down, the black community benefits disproportionately,” he said.
Meehan said the police force is 14% African American, higher than the city’s population. The BPD works hard, he said, to ensure its actions aren’t biased.
But Meehan faced a stream of questions on specific incidents where racism was alleged. He said, in each case, that he’d be happy to look into the details and get back to the individuals.
“Until words are put into action, it’s just PR,” said Joseph Anderson, to loud applause. “If you are black and you have a problem for which you call the police, you will likely end up with two problems!”
Rogers, talking about the city’s actions on employment, said that 57% of the city workforce is persons of color, and 51% of 2013 hires have been persons of color.
“The numbers say something about our commitment to diversity,” Rogers said. “But the numbers don’t tell us about the employee’s experience in the workplace.”
“It’s a serious thing with the City of Berkeley. We can’t get promoted,” said Jimmy Smith, who said he’d been terminated by the city in 2009. “We know that 90% of the makeup of the staff is African American, but we don’t have any power in the City of Berkeley.”
The city had hired Oakland-based research firm Mason Tillman Associates, Rogers said, to interview 20 people who had raised issues of discrimination with the NAACP. He expects the research to be completed in 2014.