The annual gathering of activists at the “State of Black Berkeley” on Saturday looked different in 2021 than in past years. Attendees greeted each other over Zoom and asked questions or sent compliments in the chatbox, rather than raising hands or applauding in person. Still, with rousing music and a dance break to intersperse impassioned speeches and calls to action, the spirit of the event was unchanged.
The 17 speakers covered a wide range of topics, like how to build community as Berkeley’s Black population continues to shrink; education equity and student support at Berkeley High; police reform and mental health services; equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine; celebrating and protecting Black history and culture, including the statue of a local Black legislator which was vandalized this year; and reparations for the economic losses caused by systemic racism.
Health and safety concerns
City Councilmember Ben Bartlett drew a strong connection between racial inequities and community health, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has inordinately hurt Black and brown people who are more likely to work at low-paying, high-risk frontline jobs. Bartlett is developing a reparations item to put before the Council, he said, because eliminating the racial wealth gap is an important step toward ensuring community safety.
“Our recompense is tied to the health of the nation, and this city,” Bartlett said.
Deputy city manager Paul Buddenhagen discussed the city’s effort to vaccinate residents against COVID-19, which has had an impact “disproportionately on our Black and brown lives,” he said. “We’re grateful to have a vaccine finally to help us get through it better.”
Berkeley’s health department is fighting two battles, Buddenhagen said: One to distribute the vaccine equitably to those who need it, and another to win the trust of communities that have suffered from racism in health care. His own mother doesn’t trust the vaccine, he added.
Achieving safety extends beyond social distancing for Black Berkeleyans, as multiple speakers pointed out: Bias in policing is another threat to residents. Alecia Harger, a student at UC Berkeley, pointed to what she characterized as five instances of police violence against Black residents in the past year.
“Black people deserve more than just survival in this city. We deserve to thrive,” she said. “Just because the suffering that happens in Berkeley tends to be quiet doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous.”
Since July, the City Council has been working to reform the way policing operates in Berkeley, including auditing police calls, creating a Specialized Care Unit for mental health calls and removing traffic stops from police duties. Moni Law, an activist and attorney, mentioned those reforms in the broader context of how activists have pushed for change in the Berkeley Police Department.
Building community as population shrinks
Berkeley’s Black residents have found themselves in an ever-shrinking cohort for over 40 years. In 1970, Black residents made up around 23.5 percent of the city’s population, with 27,421 people. By 2010, the population had more than halved, shrinking 10 percent, or 11,241 Black Berkeleyans; and in 2019, just 7.9 percent of Berkeley’s residents — 9,587 people — were Black, according to US Census data.
Berkeley’s contracting Black population doesn’t mean the push for equity is over, Babalwa Kwanele emphasized. She recalled growing up in Berkeley with a broad community and numerous trusted adults who supported her through school and adolescence. She encouraged parents to provide support to their children and classmates.
“It’s going to be more of us holding a heavier load,” Kwanele said. “Be that mama on campus. I certainly was for many years and will continue to be.”
Lyndon Ward and Zoe Seale, both students at Berkeley High, shared their own difficulties finding community at school.
“I joined the IB program, a predominantly white school. In a couple of my classes I was the only Black kid,” said Ward, a senior. The feeling of alienation has only grown with distance learning, he added: “There’s a boundary or border between reaching out to teachers.”
To fight back against that isolation, Seale and Ward helped create the Black Honor Society to celebrate Black students’ academic achievements and “give kids something to look forward to,” Seale said.
“It’s really important that we have community support to sustain that push forward,” Ward added.
Protecting and expanding celebrations and monuments that represent Black Berkeleyans’ history and achievements was another popular talking point at the event.
“We know we have a rich history, and it’s up to us as Black people to promote that history,” said Delores Nochi Cooper, a board member of the Juneteenth Cultural Association. “When we celebrate our accomplishments and who we are, it strengthens who we are as a people.”
Carole Kennerly, who served on the Berkeley City Council in the ’70s and was the first African American woman to be elected to the body, voiced concern about the defacement in January of a statue of William Byron Rumford, a Black Berkeley Assemblymember in the 1960s. She called for more oversight and protection of the statue by officials and more markers to represent Berkeley’s diverse history.
“We begin to have markers that say we were here, we’re part of this wonderful thing we call Berkeley,” Kennerly said. “We must be sure our government, our representatives know how important that memorial statue is to us.”
Despite the 50-odd attendees being separated by the virtual format, organizers managed to bring some pep to the three-hour event. They played James Brown’s “I’m Black I’m Proud” to kick off the event, and a drum performance by Kele Nitoto and a dance energizer by Karma Smart infused the rest of the afternoon with music.
Update, Feb. 24: This article was corrected to identify Carole Kennerly as the first Black woman on the Berkeley City Council. It previously stated that she was the city’s first Black City Council member. That is incorrect. She was the first African American woman elected to the body. Wilmont Sweeney, who was elected in 1961, was Berkeley’s first Black council member.