Opinion: Berkeley as sanctuary city – there is more to do!

We live in an age of surveillance. We can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand and hope that benign actors in local, state or alphabet-soup federal agencies will do the right thing.

It is to the immense credit of the Mayor and City Council that Berkeley has taken a number of steps to defend its residents from the Trump administration’s reach, while going on record against what the federal government is doing and is about to do.

Mayor-elect Arreguín stood on the steps of City Hall in November  2016 and proclaimed our deep commitment to maintaining our sanctuary city status and opposing federal efforts to punish us because of it.

The Berkeley City Council has denounced the building of “the wall” (Councilman Ben Bartlett stated as much at the Council’s March 14 meeting) and passed a resolution — that the city will not conduct business with any company involved in its creation.

Berkeley City Council supports the California Religious Freedom Nondisclosure Act (Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, Council’s March 14 meeting), prohibiting any public employee from providing information to any federal agent or entity about a person’s religious affiliation, and is on record opposing religious and ethnic registries (Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, Council’s March 14 meeting).

Now, the Council is taking steps to stop our suspicious activity reporting (SARS) with NCRIC, the local federal “fusion center” that amasses data on each and every one of us, which is then made available to ICE and other federal agencies. (Up for consideration by Council in April.)

The Council may also end Berkeley’s participation in the annual Urban Shield anti-terrorism exercise and weapons trade show funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Urban Shield ultimately targets people of color, immigrants, Arabs and Muslims, and other marginalized communities deemed to be “threats.”

Finally, there is proposed legislation to provide transparent, democratic oversight for all surveillance equipment and software used by the City of Berkeley (Councilman Kriss Worthington, Council’s July 12, 2016 meeting), ensuring that none of Berkeley’s data finds its way into federal databases — unless the Council specifically approves it.

Alas, this latter proposal, quite possibly the most important step Berkeley can take to shield itself against the danger we all now recognize is coming from an out-of-control federal government, is bogged down. There is at this time no date for the Council to consider the surveillance equipment ordinance.

In July 2016, the Berkeley City Council referred the proposed ordinance for consideration to the Peace and Justice and Police Review commissions. The Peace and Justice Commission reviewed the proposed ordinance, recommended it by vote, and forwarded it back to City Council. The Police Review Commission, unfortunately, has not. In fact, at this time, it is not even before the PRC, which has inexplicably chosen to ignore the Council’s instructions, forwarding the ordinance to the Fire Commission. The Fire Commission will review it for the second time on March 22, but it may well continue to be subject to administrative delays there and elsewhere.

We live in an age of surveillance. We can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand and hope that benign actors in local, state or alphabet-soup federal agencies will do the right thing.

Edward Snowden made it clear that “they are watching” — with ever more sophisticated technologies — and now we know that far worse than benign actors are going to act. And they are going to act against the most vulnerable members of our population: immigrants, whistle-blowers, artists, people from low-income communities of color, and voices of resistance.

Unless we put the brakes on now.

The surveillance equipment regulation ordinance that has been proposed

  • Requires City Council approval, after a public hearing, of all acquisitions of surveillance equipment by city agencies, a consideration of civil liberties concerns and a determination that benefits outweigh costs.
  • Requires a use and privacy policy be in place before the equipment is deployed, specifying clearly what it may – and may not – be used for, and for how long data may be kept.
  • Requires any information sharing of data with outside agencies be explicit and approved.
  • Requires yearly reports on how and when the equipment has been used, and continuing evaluation of the efficacy of the equipment or software, resulting in termination of use if it is not effective

Stingrays (cell phone interceptors), Automatic License Plate Readers, Facial Recognition Cameras, Infrared Sensing, Drones, Social Media “analysis”: these are things that are used – and very much abused – by police departments elsewhere, and some are being used and considered for use in Berkeley. Without appropriate safeguards, even proper use can lead to information falling into the wrong hands.

The City of Berkeley needs to take this further step to protect its residents: pass this ordinance now (it’s already been nine months and counting), not later, and put it into effect. ICE agents may prowl Berkeley, and FBI agents may come knocking at our doors, but let’s make sure they don’t do so on our “information dime.”

JP Massar is a local activist fighting against the surveillance state and the power it has bequeathed to the Trump administration.