Berkeley mayor: Netanyahu incident tarnished city

Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean apologized for the derailment of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's scheduled talk there last month, saying that the reputation of the Free Speech Movement's birthplace has been tainted.

Adding her views to the ongoing debate last week, Dean sent a letter to the media highly critical of protesters, who forced the cancellation of the lecture and two subsequent Bay Area appearances. The letter appeared in Monday's Jerusalem Post. News of the Nov. 28 Berkeley protest and the ensuing cancellations made news here and in Israel, where Netanyahu is planning a political comeback to unseat Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"I believe that Berkeley's image has been tarnished, and I'm sorry for that," Dean told the Bulletin. "Berkeley is always held up as being the bastion of free speech. And we have lost some of our luster on that one."

In the lengthy, op-ed-style letter, the mayor wrote that she "deplored" the actions of the protesters, which "undermine the civil liberties of us all." Dean added that last month's demonstration marked the first time she had seen a Berkeley group "demand free speech only for those with whom we agree."

She also chided the protest's organizers, saying the veteran protesters ought to have known better.

"Some of the people involved [in the protest], at least the people I know, would be extremely upset had the tables been reversed," said Dean in an interview with the Bulletin. "I know how important the issue of free speech is to them. We allow protests because we understand the importance. But when it gets to the point that you block somebody else from speaking, that's not acceptable."

More than a few of the 300 to 500 protesters at the Nov. 28 demonstration agreed with Dean, saying at the time that they felt the cancellation of the speech was not a beneficial move and reflected poorly upon them.

"I think Netanyahu represents an oppressive Israeli government that has occupied Gaza and the West Bank since 1967 and has displaced millions of Palestinians since 1948," said U.C. Berkeley junior Alana DeRiggi, who protested the Berkeley event. "But I don't think it was productive that people didn't get in. I do believe in free speech, and people should have been allowed to hear what [Netanyahu] has to say."

But a good number of the demonstrators said that, as a "war criminal," Netanyahu did not deserve to speak. Others mentioned that since the former prime minister is a well-known world leader with easy access to the media, they weren't troubled by curtailing his rights to free speech on that night.

Dean questions that line of reasoning.

"I think that's a very specious argument," she said. "Certainly, people have the right to get their message out in pamphlets and fliers, but seeing somebody in person and hearing the words as they come out of their mouth is a different situation than reading an informational pamphlet.

"I think it's extremely important to allow people to have that kind of access," Dean added. "Now, I know that it may be unpleasant for people who vehemently oppose what the individual is talking about, but that's not the point. The point is, free speech is a very precious thing that we guard very carefully. And it isn't always easy."

In the weeks following the cancellations, event promoter Bruce Vogel had been quoted as saying he was pondering pulling the lecture series out of Berkeley. Following a meeting last week with Dean, however, he plans to stay.

"It was a great meeting. After my talk with the mayor and thinking about the [speakers] I'm looking to bring in next year, it's not nearly the problem I thought it was when I was having more emotional, less rational feelings," said Vogel. "Talking to the mayor, I know she likes us there, and thinks we're an added benefit to the community, not only on a cultural basis but a financial one."

Dean praised the Berkeley Police Department's decision not to physically clear the protesters from the area, as "that wouldn't have helped anything, either."

The mayor said that the city "prides itself on the ability to have peaceful protests," and was caught off-guard by the demonstrators' actions. Yet she added that the small contingent of 15 to 20 crowd-control officers might have been able to handle the throng of protesters had there been communication between the protest organizers and the city beforehand.

Dean speculated that had a dialogue been established ahead of time between the police and protesters, with guidelines agreed upon and a number of monitors chosen from within the groups to act as mediators at the demonstration, things might have gone very differently.

"Things went further than we're really used to — we've had 10,000 people march through our streets without any problems," she said. "That's the kind of peaceful solution that we can achieve if we work together."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.