The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night to ask for criminal charges to be dropped against a 28-year-old black woman who ran into trouble with the law earlier this year while protesting her eviction from the West Berkeley home that had been in her family since 1965.
Councilman Kriss Worthington put forward the item to ask the Alameda County district attorney’s office to drop charges of resisting arrest and failure to obey a court order that were brought against Berkeley native Ayohenia “Ayo” Chaney during the eviction in June.
Many community members and officials have expressed concern about how increasing property values have intensified gentrification and led to significant reductions in the city’s black population. Chaney has said she does not want her family to be another victim of the housing crisis. She thanked council Tuesday night for taking a stand.
“These are pretty ludicrous charges considering this was an illegal eviction,” she told city officials. “I just would like very much to bring the black and brown numbers in Berkeley back up.”
Chaney said, the day before her arrest, she had prequalified to purchase the family home, at 835 Page St., for $450,000. She said she grew up in Berkeley in a single-parent home but now works for a major tech company and would be considered middle-class.
Describing some of the challenges faced by those around her in the community, she noted that many of the friends she grew up with in Berkeley have been killed, and that one had just gotten the death penalty. Chaney has fought for affordable housing in Oakland and said she thinks it’s a critically important effort in Berkeley, too.
On June 1, sheriff’s deputies arrested Chaney at her home at 835 Page St. where they had been sent to perform the eviction.
According to Worthington, Chaney’s grand uncle, Ernest Thornton, an Army veteran and Buffalo Soldier, had owned the home, which he purchased using G.I. Bill money. He lived in the house for more than 50 years, and Chaney had helped care for her uncle there before his death in 2015 at the age of 95. Afterward, his grand nephew and grand niece — Chaney — lived on Page. But challenges arose.
“Mr. Thornton’s estate went into probate, and during the process, the administrator of the estate, who was not a member of the family, initiated an eviction procedure. The administrator initiated this procedure over the objections of the family,” according to the council letter.
Council describes the loss of the home as “exceptionally difficult” for the family, which was “overwhelmed with the process and the lack of resources available” to help them respond.
The letter states that other problems cropped up too, including an agent for the administrator who said he served documents to Thornton’s grand nephew — another resident of the home — while the nephew was out of state.
“As a result, the family was not notified about the unlawful detainer in time to contest it in court, and an eviction was noticed. When presented with the opportunity, Ms. [Chaney] attempted to purchase the home outright but the administrator was not interested in working with her,” the letter continued.
When deputies arrived at 835 Page in June, Chaney was inside.
“She was wrought with emotion but spoke to the officers with sufficient composure to explain her presence in the home and her account of the unjust eviction,” wrote Worthington in his council item. After speaking with the deputies inside for about 45 minutes, she was escorted outside and told by the officers that she could leave the area with a friend. (A video of that incident is posted on Facebook.)
Then the deputies “allowed her to make one final statement” while standing on the sidewalk in front of the house, officials wrote.
At that point, another officer — not previously present — walked up and ordered Chaney’s arrest, according to the letter. The resisting arrest and failure to obey a court order charges followed.
The council letter notes that the charges serve no purpose other than to “add to the pain” of the eviction. Council asks for the charges to be dropped “in the interest of justice.” (The document was edited slightly on the dais; the version here is the draft considered Tuesday night.)
According to the family, Thornton had paid off the house by 1994, and wanted to pass it down to his niece, Fulani Offutt, who is Chaney’s mother: “Uncle Ernest wrote a will with these intentions, but that document was stolen along with the deed to the home in a burglary.”
A petition aimed to help the family stay in Berkeley and fight the eviction has garnered more than 300 signatures. The Save Black Berkeley campaign was created, in part, by Chaney and includes additional details about the family’s fight. There’s also a Facebook page to help organize supporters of the fight.
According to the campaign website, the family is petitioning to stop the home sale and to let the family buy the house at its appraised value; is asking the DA’s office to drop the criminal charges against Chaney; and is “asking Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, Supervisor Keith Carson, and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and City Council to investigate illegal real estate practices and pass laws to protect our families during this displacement crisis.”
Worthington, who said he is familiar with Chaney’s volunteer work with senior citizens and public schools throughout the East Bay, said Tuesday night after the meeting that he couldn’t stand by and let the young woman’s character be assassinated.
“Her intelligent advocacy impressed me,” he said. “She helped found Save Black Berkeley and volunteered with East 12th Coalition to get more affordable housing in Oakland. We are lucky to have her here in Berkeley. Ayo deserves to be rewarded, not arrested.”
Council voted unanimously to ask District Attorney Nancy O’Malley to drop the charges against Chaney. (Council members Darryl Moore and Max Anderson were absent due to illness.) It’s an unusual step and ultimately it will be up to O’Malley to decide how to proceed.
Said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates: “I hope it makes a difference to the district attorney.”
Chaney told Berkeleyside after the meeting that she plans to continue in her efforts to fight displacement.
“All my time and effort has been spent fighting these charges,” said Chaney. “I want to use my time helping others and finding ways to keep this from happening to them.”
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