Readers question LA Times story on UC Berkeley student charged with vandalism

This reference to “class warfare” was spotted on Hillside Avenue after a spate of vandalism near campus in June. Photo: Tracey Taylor

A UC Berkeley student charged in a high-profile vandalism case near campus last year has raised nearly $80,000 in donations, aimed to help his struggling family afford Bay Area housing, after the Los Angeles Times published an in-depth profile on him Sunday.

The Los Angeles Times did not initially mention the vandalism charges against Ismael Chamu, and said in a comment added to the story Monday by an editor it had not been aware of his arrest prior to publication. The Berkeley Police Department initially classified the case as a hate crime because the graffiti found near campus on fences, walls and vehicles included the phrase “Fuck White People,” but the Alameda County district attorney’s office declined to charge the case as such. The case is still making its way through the legal system.

Chamu himself was the first to write about his arrest by Berkeley police, which he did on his Facebook page. He said he had been racially profiled. Police said Chamu was found with spraypaint on his hands that matched the paint used in the Southside vandalism, which included 30 instances of graffiti and slashed tires. Police said an officer also saw Chamu hiding a knife just before his arrest.

The LA Times feature focused on the steep challenges Chamu has faced to keep his younger siblings housed, and succeed at UC Berkeley, despite severely limited resources. He’s one of tens of thousands of college students in California who have struggled to afford shelter as a result of the state’s housing crisis, the paper wrote. Chamu told the LA Times his family was living in a small trailer in Hayward “with no heat or sewer hookups,” but was about to be evicted.


Numerous readers wrote to Berkeleyside in recent days wanting to know more about how the LA Times feature came about, and why the lengthy story, which relied primarily on interviews with Chamu, omitted any information about his legal troubles. Berkeleyside then asked the LA Times for comment.

Hillary Manning, spokeswoman for the LA Times, said Chamu’s “arrest was not intentionally left out of the story.” But she did not explain how the story had come to the paper, how the omission had occurred, why the story relied primarily on a single source, or whether the reporter attempted to verify Chamu’s story.

Chamu told the LA Times he and his younger brother had rented the Hayward trailer, where they had lived with their two teenage sisters since January, “after their parents fell on hard times in the Central Valley and were forced to live in their car.” The brothers had moved into the trailer in November, Chamu said. The eviction, slated for Tuesday, was prompted by Hayward laws against living in residential trailers, according to the LA Times.

Chamu also told the LA Times he “had to call the police on his landlord, who has been wanting him out,” and had dealt with stress related to school, family, housing and money in general.

Many commenters on the LA Times website demanded to know why the paper initially included no mention of Chamu’s legal troubles, despite extensive coverage, including on Berkeleyside, which broke that story last year. Readers posted links to Berkeleyside stories below the LA Times story online, and questioned the motivations of the LA Times’s reporting and omissions. They also asked why the profile relied almost entirely on an interview with just one person, which is generally avoided in the industry, particularly in an in-depth profile.

The Times then added a brief reference to the court case against Chamu and a friend, Peter Estrada, into the online version of its story. (The Times did not mention Estrada, however.) Of Chamu, the paper said, “Last year, he was arrested and charged with felony vandalism and possession of tools to commit vandalism or graffiti in an incident involving the spray-painting of several cars, fences and buildings in Berkeley. Local news outlets ran photos of graffiti that included anti-white and anti-police slogans. Ismael denies involvement and has pleaded not guilty.” He also reportedly told the paper he wants to put the case behind him.

Deirdre Edgar, “Readers’ Rep” at the LA Times, wrote in the story’s comments section Monday afternoon that the piece had been updated to address the omission: “The Times did not learn of his arrest until after publication. Chamu denies involvement and has pleaded not guilty; his next court date is next month.”


Some readers were unconvinced, and felt the reporter — who has been at the LA Times since 1989 — should have known enough to research her subject more fully. They made their feelings clear in the comments below the story. There are more than 360 comments as of Tuesday afternoon.

The profile has prompted a few other news outlets to feature Chamu’s situation. Truthdig wrote a brief post citing the Times story, called “Homeless UC Berkeley student takes care of his whole family.”

And KGO Bay Area, ABC7, ran a story Monday featuring an interview with the owners of the Hayward property where Chamu had been staying. That story, however, cast some doubt on what he told the LA Times about his living situation. The homeowners told ABC7 that Chamu had lived on site for nearly three months “and he’s never paid rent.” They said they had invited him to stay for two weeks only as a favor to a church friend.

“And now he’s saying we treat him bad, that he’s given us money,” one homeowner told ABC7. “What money? Trying to do something good, to help someone became a nightmare for us.”

Chamu told ABC7 he had paid $650 a month since answering an advertisement for the trailer. He called the allegations that he hadn’t paid rent “absurd.”

There was no indication the LA Times asked the homeowners for comment or verification regarding the living arrangement in Hayward.


Support wells up for student’s housing woes

Many people have been deeply moved by Chamu’s plight, however. The LA Times Facebook post about the story has been shared more than 2,700 times and prompted nearly 7,000 reactions.

Among the shares of the story on Facebook, one person wrote: “Read this please. This puts a very human face on what inequality and lack of affordable housing really like. And how hard (some) young people have to work to get an education. This young man could teach the class on urban gentrification and much more. UC and other students should not have to live like this; neither should other young people.”

Another person called the article “an important story about the struggles of so many California college students who are homeless. This is the grit of immigrants, the ganas, that has, and will, lift up our country.”

There were more than 300 comments on the LA Times Facebook post as of Tuesday afternoon, though not all were positive. In response to comments about Chamu’s arrest, however, many leapt to his defense. One woman wrote, “No one is perfect everyone has flaws we are no one to judge.” Others responded in the same vein.

And many people have taken action to answer the call to help Chamu and his family. A fundraiser on the YouCaring website, launched by Jonathan Recinos, a friend of Chamu’s, had raised about $77,000 from more than 1,100 donors as of about 4 p.m. Tuesday. And money continued to pour in. Recinos did not respond to several questions from Berkeleyside about his efforts.

(Two other fundraisers on GoFundMe have also raised some money, allegedly to help Chamu, though it was unclear as of publication time whether they were legitimate efforts.)

Chamu wrote on Facebook on Monday, shortly before 11 p.m., that the public campaign had paid off. He said friends, including Recinos, “managed to arrange temporary housing for the next 2 weeks for my family.” He said he was “feeling blessed,” and that his family is now on track to find permanent housing, medical care, work for his father and transportation, along with getting his sisters re-enrolled in school.

“This is the power of the community and the hearts of people. This is not for me, this is for my family. My dream lies with them,” he wrote. “We will continue to get back to everyone the Support and help has been overwhelming and beautiful 💖 we are Hustling!!!!”

Chamu did not respond to a Berkeleyside request for comment.