Opinion: A social justice agenda requires more than rhetoric and gestures

While Councilwoman Cheryl Davila says she was elected “to carry out a social-justice platform,” some of her appointments are divisive, which works against the city’s interests.

In a recent op-ed defending why she chose to replace a long-serving member of the Transportation Commission, Councilwoman Davila explained that she “was elected to carry out a social-justice platform and I have made – and will continue to make – changes in commission appointments where I see the need for change.” And such is her right.

So let’s review some of the new commissioners Councilwoman Davila has appointed to enact her social-justice platform.

Councilwoman Davila appointed Thomas Lord to the Housing Advisory Commission, the body that advises council on all things housing. His “social justice” bona fides include being banned from the Berkeleyside comments section for not adhering to the site’s comments policy. His Twitter profile is also filled with derision towards those he disagrees with and accusations that Mayor Arreguín, and indeed the entire Democratic Party, are fascist:

Councilwoman Davila’s appointee to the Planning Commission, the body that makes recommendations to council on land use and zoning, Steve Martinot, seems equally quick to label others “fascists.” During public comment at the City Council meeting on Dec. 19, 2017, he claimed the use of pepper spray, a standard-issue non-lethal law enforcement tool, was a form of torture, and that those that use torture are fascists (comments start just after 3:10 in the linked video).

We live in a time when our national political climate is dominated by vitriol and division and yet Councilwoman Davila has appointed commissioners who espouse this same divisive conduct right here at home. Berkeley should strive to do better by demanding that those involved with our local government communicate with civility, regardless of divergent opinions or perspectives.

Councilwoman Davila also appointed Andrea Pritchett, the controversial founder of Berkeley Copwatch, to the Berkeley Police Review Commission, the body that adjudicates reports of police misconduct and advises council on law enforcement policy. Pritchett is another divisive figure who advocates citizens to “create their own truth” via citizen-led investigations of police conduct. She has expressed a desire to “win some victories against police.” While such a perspective may be informed by very real past failures by the Berkeley Police Department, this rhetoric creates an “us vs. them” attitude that prevents the establishment of the trust and mutual respect between the police and the community that is essential for the type of community-centric policing needed to equitably promote public safety. Cultivating undue hostility towards the police is not costless. Such rhetoric harms the Berkeley Police Department’s retainment and recruitment efforts as they try to recover from historically low staffing levels that threaten public safety.

Unfortunately, this is not the only way in which Councilwoman Davila has attempted to undermine public safety. She was one of only two councilmembers to vote against the purchase of a bullet-proof transport vehicle (pictured below) for use by police and first responders in situations requiring protection from gunfire. Her reasoning was that such a vehicle would lead to “militarization” of the police. The purchased vehicle, however, is strikingly civilian in appearance — to the point where it’s nearly indistinguishable from an airport shuttle van. While it’s important to make public safety decisions consistent with our city’s values and acknowledge the real dangers associated with an overly militarized police force, Councilwoman Davila’s rejection of this benign defensive tool threatens the safety of Berkeley’s emergency responders and citizenry.

Armored van that Berkeley Police requested to buy. File photo

Councilwoman Davila may very well be attempting to pursue a social-justice agenda, a worthy goal, but she has instead managed to make us more divided and less safe.

Beyond this failure, it seems that the pursuit of her narrow definition of social justice has distracted Councilwoman Davila from dealing with the very real problems facing southwest Berkeley and the city at large: gun violence, a housing affordability crisis, homelessness and crumbling infrastructure, just to name a few. These problems will not solve themselves and will in fact only be solved with strong and effective leadership capable of bringing people together.

Instead of working towards real solutions to these problems, Councilwoman Davila has proposed legislation to replace all the signs one reads as they enter Berkeley for the sole purpose of changing their text to (among other things) “LOVE LIFE!” at the cost of thousands of taxpayer dollars. A real commitment to social justice requires actual policy solutions to the fundamental issues facing our community as the low-income and vulnerable will always bear the greatest burden of society’s failings. Symbolic gestures aren’t good enough.

I think it’s fair for Councilwoman Davila to speculate that the voters of southwest Berkeley wanted a change in the 2016 election, but I’m not at all confident this is the change they had in mind. And I can personally say as one of her constituents that her representation and work to solve our city’s problems has been woefully inadequate. District 2, and Berkeley deserve better.

Alex Sharenko is a Berkeley District 2 resident and works at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab as a research scientist.