Charges of racism, as Berkeley officials approve new city welcome signs

Councilwoman Cheryl Davila (on the right): “I’ve tolerated a lot of disrespect on this dais” (September 2018). Photo: Emilie Raguso

A recent Berkeley City Council discussion prompted allegations of racism on the dais during a debate over the look of new welcome signage at the city borders.

It was the third council meeting since mid-September where West Berkeley Councilwoman Cheryl Davila has said she’s been disrespected by her colleagues.

Last week Tuesday, Oct. 16, council voted in favor of the new signs after making some changes to the messaging Davila had suggested. She originally put forward the proposal in January. At the time, her peers said it was a strong idea, and referred it to the city’s Transportation Commission for recommendations.

At last week’s meeting, council finally made time to review the commission report. After some discussion, North Berkeley Councilwoman Sophie Hahn made a motion for staff to post the signs quickly. The item would be a “short-term referral” to the city manager, Hahn said. (That type of referral requires results from staff within three months.) But Davila expressed frustration.


“[I] actually feel like it is a racist move,” she said after the Hahn motion, which Mayor Jesse Arreguín had seconded. “Because this is the second time it’s being referred somewhere else for a longer period of time. That means it’s going to be a year, or who knows how long, before anything changes.”

“This is annoying but, you know, you guys will do what you want to do and that’s how it will be,” Davila said.

The Berkeley City Council, September 2018 (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

Hahn said her motion had not been to delay action on the signage but, rather, “for it to get done.” She said racism played no role and apologized if she had been unclear.

“I do not think that it is appropriate for there to be an insinuation that I would make a racist motion,” Hahn said. “I’m shocked to have that kind of accusation leveled. Especially, quite frankly, when it’s based on a misunderstanding of the motion that I made. So I personally would like an apology for that.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Davila said.

“I’m not going to apologize because I’ve been disrespected on so many occasions in this council,” she said. “The mayor apologized to me a few times. But there’s been numerous times where I haven’t gotten an apology from many people on this dais.”

Davila has wanted Berkeley’s new signs to include Oakland’s city motto “LOVE LIFE!” as well as the phrases “Sanctuary City” and “Ohlone Territory.” That would be in conjunction with a welcome message and several other pieces of information.


Hahn agreed the signs should say “Welcome to Berkeley” and feature the city logo and population. She said there could also be a blank area for more messaging, in the form of a sticker or decal, after additional community outreach. That message could be rotated to reflect city priorities.

Southside Councilman Kriss Worthington said the new signs should include a reference to “Ohlone Territory.” The Transportation Commission had recommended the term, too, saying it was simply a “statement of fact.” Hahn said she supported the sentiment but wasn’t totally comfortable with the phrase because she didn’t know if the word “territory” would be seen by everyone, particularly the Ohlone, as appropriate. Council members decided staff could consult with Ohlone people to confirm the wording was right, then move ahead with including it.

Councilwoman Cheryl Davila (right) has spoken out at several council meetings about racism by her colleagues. Also pictured: Councilwoman Susan Wengraf (left) and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn (September 2018). Photo: Emilie Raguso

Davila said it was “another level of disrespect” for her peers to ask staff to consult with Ohlone people when she had already discussed the matter at length with Corinna Gould, a leader in that community.

“She is totally in support,” Davila said, of Gould. “She also refers to it as Ohlone territory all the time. You could look her up on the internet and figure that one out.”

South Berkeley Councilman Ben Bartlett tried to bring his colleagues together after the rupture by offering his advice. He said the days where the City Council had been known for its “vitriol” were gone, and requested kindness on the dais.

“I’m going to ask us all to please commit to turning over a new leaf and bringing our affinity back towards each other again, and to not disrespect each other,” Bartlett said. “It’s not good.”


“An embarrassment when people come into our city”

Many council members agreed with the need for more public input. Staff estimated only six people had been at the Transportation Commission when it discussed the proposal.

“I really feel like this is a citywide issue,” said Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who represents northeast Berkeley. “I don’t feel that a broad enough element of our community even knows about it.”

“Do you have a problem with it?” one man in the room shouted, prompting the mayor to remind the crowd not to interrupt proceedings. During public comment, one woman pointed out that the item had been on the agenda repeatedly but drawn little interest.

Some officials said they were worried about too much “clutter” on the signs, and whether the “sanctuary city” message might be lost on an important audience if it appeared only in English. And they resisted the idea that Berkeley signs should sport Oakland’s city motto.

Hahn suggested the city might want to rethink its “whole identity” to come up with a new logo or mission statement to “get to the heart of how we express ourselves as a community.”

All the officials seemed to agree, however, that the time had come to replace the 16 welcome signs now on display. Downtown Councilwoman Kate Harrison summed it up.

“Some of them are missing. They’re bent. They don’t have the same language. They’re faded. I think that sends a very bad message,” said Harrison, who added that $3,400 seemed a reasonable amount to spend on matching signs throughout Berkeley. “It’s an embarrassment when people come into our city and they’re all faded and horrible. You can’t even see half of them.”

Berkeley borders feature a number of different signs. The city wants to standardize them. Image: City of Berkeley

Most of the City Council voted in favor of the Hahn motion, which included Worthington’s suggestion to add “Ohlone Territory” or a comparable phrase after consultation with leaders in the Ohlone community. The large brown signs would be 36 inches by 24 inches, and feature the city’s logo and a welcome message identifying Berkeley as Ohlone land. The population would appear, and space would be left blank for a message or messages to follow a community process.

Wengraf, who brought up the question of clutter, abstained from the vote.

Elmwood Councilwoman Lori Droste said the city needed to consider the usefulness of the signs. She was the lone no vote. Droste said she was also concerned that presenting Berkeley as a sanctuary city might create a “false promise” because the city cannot control what federal authorities might do within its borders. She said her district has “more pressing issues” related to traffic safety, such as a new signal that has caused some confusion. Droste said the city’s money would be better spent elsewhere.

Several members of the public spoke in support of Davila and her item. They included Davila’s son, Armando. He said the Hahn motion seemed like a “stall tactic” and questioned whether there would actually be a “sincere and robust process” to sort out the messaging on the signs. He urged officials to take his mother’s position into account.

“It has been her experience that she feels marginalized, disrespected. And that takes a toll on her,” he said. “Please respect my mother: her leadership, her experience as a Black woman. Please stop marginalizing her.”

Davila: “It’s a form of racism and … we don’t want to go down that line”

Last week’s meeting was the third time in five weeks that Davila has alleged racism by her colleagues. Twice in September she read statements to rebuke what she said were racist efforts to stop her from appointing Hatem Bazian, Zaytuna College co-founder and UC Berkeley lecturer, as her replacement on council should she be unreachable during an emergency.

Back on Sept. 13, a council majority had voted in favor of a proposal from Wengraf to create standards for those replacements because the existing city criteria are minimal. That night, Droste suggested a moratorium on all new appointments until that work is done. Bartlett and Worthington were absent, while Harrison and Davila voted against the motion.

“I just feel like it’s a form of racism and that we don’t want to go down that line,” Davila told her colleagues Sept. 13. “It’s really disheartening and disappointing and actually disgusting.”

Reading a prepared statement, Davila described the Wengraf proposal as “following the lead of the colonizers that continually attempt to oppress and silence and control people of color and silence Palestinians.”

She said Bazian had passed an FBI fingerprint check, and questioned the timing of the new requirements.

“It hasn’t been a problem in city history,” she said. “And now it’s a problem.
 And I think that’s really a messed up thing to do.”

Wengraf said City Council members receive extensive training to ensure they are familiar with the rules and policies that shape their work. She said other cities have guidelines to ensure emergency officers are prepared. Otherwise, she said, “they’re going to have a steep learning curve at a time when … there’s been some horrendous catastrophe.”

Davila said the moratorium was frustrating because it meant she couldn’t appoint anyone to replace her. And she said her colleagues seem to change the rules when they don’t like how she does things. She said the shift with the standby officer standards seemed racist and “Zionistic,” as well as pathetic and unfair.

“That’s just some BS if I ever heard it. Honestly! I don’t even know how you guys can live with yourself knowing that you’re being, well OK, I won’t use those… Well, I don’t know,” Davila said. “The act that is being taken I find really problematic.”

Some members of the public have asked council to reject Bazian’s appointment because of concerns about how he sees Jews. Last fall, he retweeted a pair of memes seen as anti-Semitic. He later apologized, undid the retweet, and said he meant only to take aim at Israel and its policies. Critics have said he also made disparaging remarks 15 years ago, as a UC Berkeley graduate student, about campus buildings named after Jewish people.

But Bazian has vigorous supporters too. Local residents, including leaders in the activist community, have urged council to appoint him as Davila’s standby officer and stop the delays. They say Bazian is a well-regarded spiritual leader who should not be excluded from city service because he is Palestinian.

Two Jewish women told council in July that they’ve worked with Bazian and know him to be respectful of Jewish residents.

“It’s been a big surprise to me,” said a member of Jewish Voice for Peace about the controversy around Bazian’s appointment. “There’s a lot of confusion I think, between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and not that sometimes the two of them aren’t mixed, but very often they’re very different.”

“Despicable, disgusting and really appalling”

The Bazian appointment initially had been scheduled for July 24, but council postponed it that night to Sept. 25. Officials bumped the item — a confirmation list of numerous emergency standby officers — because background checks were still underway and elements of the process were under review, the mayor said at the time.

Toward the beginning of the Sept. 25 meeting, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley announced she was removing the standby officer item from the agenda because of the council vote two weeks earlier to halt new appointments while criteria were developed. Council could not take action on the item because of that moratorium, she explained.

Davila then read a prepared statement similar to the one from two weeks prior, saying “the attempt to prevent me from appointing Professor Hatem Bazian” was part of “a well-resourced strategy to change the laws” to prevent Palestinians from holding leadership roles. Many attendees at the meeting applauded her remarks.

Davila urged her colleagues to “be honest” and admit that “a bias” was driving the policy to create standards for emergency appointees: “I still find it despicable, disgusting and really appalling that this is the action being taken.”

From left, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Councilwoman Linda Maio and Councilwoman Susan Wengraf on Sept. 25, 2018. Photo: Emilie Raguso

At both meetings, Mayor Arreguín reminded Davila to respect the city’s decorum rules, which he read from at length on one occasion. He said council members could disagree while maintaining civility. And he said he took issue with Davila “maligning those people that disagree with you,” adding, “to call people disgusting … it’s not appropriate.”

In the first September meeting, Davila agreed to hold back — but protested the mayor’s request.

“I’ve tolerated a lot of disrespect on this dais. It’s been documented, it’s been recorded. And I just think this is just another level of it,” she said.

At the meeting two weeks later, she took a bolder stance, speaking forcefully though it was not her turn.

“You’re not recognized,” the mayor told her, as he tried to restore order and cut her off. “You’re not recognized.”

“I’ll be out of order, because lots of times people have been out of order and go on for 20-30 minutes — and I never get that opportunity,” she told him. “It’s just super, super sad that this has to happen in this way. It is a form of racism. It is a form of oppression. It’s a form of colonization. It’s a form of all of the -isms that we’re supposed to not be having when we’re supposed to be united against hate. How can we be ‘united against hate’ if we’re hating on one professor at UC Berkeley to not be my standby officer.”

On Sept. 18, Davila appointed Bazian to the city’s Peace & Justice Commission.

The item to create guidelines for the city’s emergency standby officers has not been scheduled to return to council.

Davila has said her “commitment to the rights of Palestinians,” along with human rights and equity in general, have been central features of her platform. She drew fire earlier this year, however, after allegations that her political views had driven her appointments to city commissions and committees. She removed one commissioner after he declined to state his position on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel. Other appointees and commission hopefuls told Berkeleyside she asked them about the subject too.

Davila initially responded to that criticism, in a brief written statement, by describing Berkeleyside coverage about the issue as “another reflection of the ongoing suppression campaigns to smear anyone who supports Palestine. The campaign to silence support for Palestinian rights is how I came to be a councilmember in the first place.”