At a special meeting Friday afternoon, Berkeley City Council passed an “urgency ordinance” allowing the city manager to issue temporary rules for large public events due to take place without city permits.
The intention is to let the city ban items that could be used as weapons at rallies, such as the upcoming far-right protest slated for Aug. 27 in Civic Center Park. The city can already make rules for the public park, but the new policy would let the city manager implement new regulations in a designated area outside the park, for that day only.
Also on Friday, Mayor Jesse Arreguín urged citizens, in a blog post, to avoid both the rally planned for the downtown park, as well as a “non-violent” rally being organized in a different downtown location on the same day. He said his office was working with community groups to organize alternative events for that day, details of which would be forthcoming.
A staff report shared at the special meeting stated: “Because the city has been experiencing regular and repeated occurrences of unpermitted events that have turned violent and unlawful, and migrated into city streets and sidewalks, it is imperative that an urgency ordinance be adopted and become effective as soon as possible for the immediate preservation of public health and safety and preservation of property.”
On April 15, the date of the bloodiest of several political clashes in Berkeley this year, the city did temporarily prohibit several items that could be used as weapons, such as wooden sticks, glass bottles, bricks and knives, in the bounds of the park.
“Many were confiscated as a result,” said Arreguín at the meeting, but several fights broke out on the nearby sidewalks and streets, where police did not have the same authority.
Two people charged in connection with violence at previous Berkeley rallies allegedly used typically legal items to harm others. Eric Clanton was charged with assaulting four people with a bicycle lock on April 15, and Kyle Chapman was charged with possession of a leaded stick with an American flag attached to it.
City staff clarified during the meeting that confiscating objects could violate protesters’ Fourth Amendment rights — which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Under the ordinance, staff said, people would be told to leave and take their sticks or bottles with them.
The proposed urgency ordinance was also amended during the meeting to apply only to events where at least 100 participants are expected, and to be in effect only until the end of the year, pending further discussion. The council directed the city manager to provide a report after any event where the temporary regulations are implemented. The council also tweaked some of the language to prevent unconstitutional uses of the ordinance.
Many residents who spoke during the public comment period, and booed after the vote, were not convinced. Several people argued the ordinance gave City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley too much unchecked authority, and some said it could set a risky precedent, encouraging the city to regulate other lawful protests.
“She should not be able to make these rulings on the spot with 24-hour notice. You guys are giving up your power,” one member of the public said.
“Please don’t try to police the way the citizens of Berkeley respond to white supremacy in our midst,” said another, who was among several people who thought the council should take a stronger stand against the rally organizers instead of banning anybody from carrying certain objects.
Another commenter told the council it should have started thinking about how to better respond to violent rallies months ago: “I don’t understand why this decision is being made in an emergency meeting.”
Some council members explained that the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, which ended with one counter-protester getting killed and many others being injured, was a reality check about what could be possible on the streets of Berkeley.
“It ramped us all up in terms of what we might be facing,” said Councilwoman Linda Maio.
During previous rallies, Berkeley police have “done an amazing job where they’re putting themselves at risk to keep people safe,” Arreguín said. “But Charlottesville has changed the whole dynamic. I’m losing sleep, to be honest.”
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she thought the city should go further than banning makeshift handheld weapons. She noted that the attackers in Charlottesville and in Barcelona, Spain, this week used cars as weapons, and suggested the city think about closing streets all the way up through Oxford.
Only Councilwoman Cheryl Davila voted against the ordinance, saying the council should not give so much power away to the city manager. Councilman Kriss Worthington was absent, and Councilwomen Wengraf and Lori Droste called into the meeting.
The Aug. 27 rally is billed as a “No to Marxism” protest, and some of those who have attended previous far-right rallies in the city say they plan to come back. Anti-fascist and other counter-protesters on the left have also made it known they plan to be there.
Although no previous rally organizers have sought permits from the city, the organizer of the Aug. 27 rally, Amber Cummings, posted a Facebook video Thursday showing what looked like her entering Berkeley City Hall. She said she had applied for a permit. The city did not respond to requests for confirmation Friday.
Other progressive groups plan to hold a non-violent rally on Crescent Lawn on Oxford Street before the far-right rally, and another group is organizing a “Pledge Against Hate,” where participants can vow to donate a specified amount of money per right-wing protester who shows up on Aug. 27. Some choral groups are also organizing to hold musical counter-demonstrations during the rally.
The city of Berkeley put out a statement Wednesday asking residents not to hold alternative protests in the area, even if they are peaceful, because they would take police officers away from the park.
Mayor Arreguín’s Friday blog post, which was also posted to his Facebook page, said his office will hold alternative events against racism and bigotry elsewhere in Berkeley that day. “These events will be held further from downtown and will include teach-ins, performances, and speeches where Bay Area residents can be together in a safe, powerful and positive way,” it read.
At the special council meeting, Councilwoman Kate Harrison said the city is also purchasing 20,000 signs that say, “Berkeley United Against Hate.” Residents will be able to put the signs in their windows.
This story has been updated to include additional comments made during the meeting.