Chess Club Protests at City Council Meeting

Berkeley City CouncilThe October 3rd Berkeley City Council meeting was, uncommonly, highly attended. Community members filed into the audience; some carrying signs with “Trans Lives Matter” and other anti-hate slogans.

The meeting started off strong with two important proclamations by Mayor Jesse Arreguín. The first was in honor of the City of Berkeley officially declaring October 23 as Dysautonomia Awareness Month. Dysautonomia is a nerve disease that affects the regulation of involuntary bodily functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating. Members of the Dysautonomia International organization were present and joined at the podium to receive the proclamation and share a few words of gratitude regarding this landmark event for awareness.

The second proclamation was in honor of Berkeley recognizing October 9th as Indigenous People’s Day. The Mayor said a few words, including that this year will mark the 31st anniversary since Berkeley was the first city in the U.S. to recognize this holiday back in 1992. He invited all to attend the Indigenous People’s Day Pow Wow and Indian market at the MLK Civic Center on  October 7th. Indigenous People’s Day Committee members were also present and came forward. One member performed a song from the Mohawk people followed by another who gave acknowledgements and details about Saturday’s event.

On a sadder note the Council took time to commemorate and adjourn in honor of two members of our community who recently passed. Chris Adams, an Oakland resident who served as an architect, city planner, and nonprofit board member; Maura Ghizzoni, who resided in Berkeley as a licensed midwife and jewelry maker with the slogan “made with joy to bring joy.”

The City Auditor then took the podium to address the recent hate speech that’s occurred during public city council and committee meetings. The Mayor added that during meetings, members of the public joining virtually have used the Public Comment section as an opportunity to “make racist, hateful, anti-semitic comments.” He then reminded the community to read the council rules outlining decorum that apply to council meetings and public comment sections, and that the council does not tolerate hate speech and those who do not comply will be warned and/or removed from meetings. In light of the circumstances and community turnout, the Mayor, with the consent of the council, modified the first public comment section to hear from 20 rather than 10 speakers, in person only.

The public speaking at City CouncilIt’s unclear whether council expected community members to speak about their concerns about hate speech in the community. During this portion of the meeting, 19 of the 20 public commenters were representatives of the Chess Club. The Berkeley Chess Club is an informal gathering of chess players on Telegraph Avenue. One by one all 19 representatives, predominantly UC Berkeley students, used their time to voice their grievances around the recent removal of their chess boards and tables last Friday and the arrest of their lead organizer Jesse Sheehan the following Saturday. Chess Club members were under the impression that the police carried out both events.  Various approaches were taken from pleas about how the club “contributes to community well-being;” to these actions being part of an “urbanization agenda” by the city; and “the final nail in the coffin of his mayoral campaign.” One commenter even used profanity aimed at the mayor in spite of the Rules of Decorum that were read at the beginning of the meeting.

After the 20th commentator, the Council with input from Peter Radu clarified the circumstances surrounding both events. The Chess Club’s clearing was not carried out by the City, but rather by the property owner due to a violation of a Use Permit. Police were present but only per request of the property owner for civil standby. The arrest of Jesse Johns was not for his occupation of the corner for the Chess Club but in response to an assault on a Telegraph Ambassador. Other Councilmembers chimed in to echo the sentiments expressed by Chess Club participants about the loss of “unorganized fun” that Berkeley used to be so well known for. Before the Council recessed, Mayor Arreguín, in spite of some unruly spectators, commended the audience for demonstrating their engagement and commitment to the community.

The council meeting discussion regarding what happened to the Chess Club and Jesse Sheehan left many unanswered questions that require further inquiry.

–Madeleine Regan

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