Berkeley, a Shining Beacon

Mayor Jesse Arreguin on his First 100 Days 

By Christopher Do

Jesse Arreguin, Mayor of Berkeley, left. Chris Do, staff writer for the BCC Voice, right. Photo courtesy of Chris Do. 

As I waited in the lobby of the fifth floor for my appointment with the mayor of Berkeley, Jesse Arreguin, who took office in November 2016, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of person he was. This curiosity made me nervous, as I was ushered into the mayor’s corner office at Berkeley’s City Civic Center. There I spotted among the minimal decorations adorning the office, a San Francisco street sign bearing, “Cesar Chavez,” a signal I was among friends. Here is a true progressive, I thought, someone who cares about people.

I feel like a lot of BCC students are more activists than political. Why do you think this change occurred for you, and what advice do you have for BCC student activists looking to make political change?

Well, I’ve been a political activist my entire life. Going back to when I was five years old, my interests in the world, as well as current events, gave me a sort of social consciousness that I was meant to fight for social justice. When I was nine, I was in a movement in my hometown of San Francisco, to rename a street after Cesar Chavez. We felt that pushing for change outside of the system was one way to get things done, but having been an activist, I saw that working within government was an opportunity to make real social change. You can make a real meaningful impact on peoples’ lives. That eventually led me to get involved in local government not only in San Francisco but when I came to Berkeley, getting involved with my community here. Activism, however, plays an important role. As a policy maker, I am working with community organizers and activists to try and lobby policy to put pressure on other elected officials to be held accountable and do the right thing. There is a critical relationship there, but at the same time, I believe we can make more of an impact working from inside the system.

With some of the cheapest local studios costing $1500–$1600 in rent, what are some of the ways that the affordability of housing is being addressed?

The vast majority of new projects are being built for people who don’t live in Berkeley and for above moderate income. We need to demand that builders develop more affordable housing. We need to make sure that as we are growing as a city that we are growing equitably. Through the millions of dollars in additional funding that we will receive through taxes from Measure U1, a Berkeley tax, and A1, an Alameda County housing bond, we will provide more resources than ever for Berkeley to create affordable housing. However, the reasons why we are in a crisis is that we have not built enough houses to keep up with the demand over time. Some people say, “let’s just build a lot of expensive housing,” but that is not going to solve the problem. Yes, we need to build more housing, but trickle-down economics will not solve the immediate displacement problem. The Costa-Hawkins Act, which allows landlords to charge whatever they want after a resident vacates, is single-handedly the biggest reason why we see such dramatic rent increases in our community in the State of California. There is a movement now to get a bill passed in Sacramento to appeal that law. However, that is going to be very difficult because of the real-estate lobby. We need the support of students and of everyone to create a movement to lobby Sacramento.

What is being done to address the problems of homelessness and housing?

In the first meeting of the new city council, we directed staff to double the number of shelter beds and warming areas in Berkeley. We immediately put that vote before the city council, which came just at the right time with heavy rains and cold winter months. We have also reached out to the homeless population to ask directly what their needs are. To that end, we created The Pathway’s Project which is my plan to address the homelessness issue. It would create a shelter, which people can stay in for longer periods of time. It also has all services centralized so people can connect with housing plus mental health services, as well as health care. The biggest challenge is that we don’t have enough housing for all the people on the streets. Permanent supportive housing is the solution to homelessness. Housing works, but we don’t have the housing that San Francisco or Oakland does to house everyone. It’ll take some time to build up the housing stock.

Regarding Alta Bates’ potential closure, are there plans to keep them here, so we have an emergency room in Berkeley?

Absolutely. It’s a huge issue that has not gotten a lot of attention. Its closure would effect our city and the entire region. I’m committed to doing everything I can to keep Alta Bates open and continue to serve the community. To that end, we have been trying to negotiate with Alta Bates for a solution, as well as convening a task force composed of the mayors of nearby cities to discuss what we can do to challenge the closure.

Last weekend there was an attack article against you, published by Breitbart, and I was deeply concerned by their allegations linking you to ANTIFA [Anti-facism group, who often employs violent tactics]. How do you respond to these allegations?

Well, Breitbart is not real news. It’s fake news, and they didn’t even contact me for a comment or reach out to me to get my side of the story. I, for example, follow Donald Trump on Twitter. It doesn’t mean I am a Donald Trump supporter. I liked that page many years ago because I wanted to know what they were up to. In particular, because they (ANTIFA) were organizing violent elements to come into our city to engage in violent confrontation. Had I known that I still ‘liked’ that page I probably would’ve unliked it, because I don’t want to give the impression that I support their views or their use of violence. In fact, I strongly disagree with their tactics. It was a distortion of the truth. The article was trying to fit Berkeley into this right-wing narrative that Berkeley is trying to suppress people from engaging in freedom of speech, but in reality, it is the exact opposite that’s the case. We have gone above and beyond to let everyone, regardless of their political views, express their views and engage in public assembly. What we have seen, however, is people coming into our cities to specifically engage in violence. Violence is not freedom of speech.

Considering Milo’s appearance, how, as the mayor of Berkeley, did you deal with the perils of balancing free speech with the will of the people and the will of the university?

I received many emails from concerned residents who were troubled with Milo’s invitation to speak at UC Berkeley. We knew that there was a real chance that his appearance could incite violence. In fact, I think at one campus rally [University of Washington] someone was shot. So we had a right to be concerned, which we had conveyed to the University [UCB], but at the end of the day, it’s their decision. Looking back on the event, we thought there was a potential for violence, and sure enough, there was. I know it’s challenging for the university to balance freedom of speech and public safety. Going forward, they will most likely allow controversial speakers to come to campus, and they must set the parameters of when they speak and where so that we, the city, can balance public safety while facilitating freedom of speech. I personally strongly disagree with Milo and Ann Coulter’s views, but this city is the birthplace of the free speech movement. We believe in allowing everyone the opportunity to showcase their points of view. However, when violence is involved that’s when we will get involved. That’s when we will arrest people and hold them accountable for their actions.

How has your tenure embodied resistance by keeping Berkeley’s sanctuary city status, especially with the concern of ICE enforcement?

One of the first things that we did before I was sworn in as mayor was that we made a declaration that Berkeley will remain a sanctuary city in light of the current administration’s threats and cuts in federal funds. We also created a protocol if ICE comes into our city as well as expanding resources and providing legal defense to members of the undocumented community. We made very clear that despite the fact that we may lose $12 million in federal funds and grants, that maintaining the safety and security of all of our residents, regardless of citizenship status, is something that we believe in. Moreover, we also conveyed that Berkeley needs to resist against unjust and unconstitutional policies that the national administration is putting forth. We have a particular responsibility to speak out to be used as models for other cities.

As the first Latino mayor of Berkeley, I’m sure that this issue hits home for you.

Absolutely, it’s my people that Trump is going after and attacking. We are a nation of immigrants, and what he is doing goes against some of the core principles of what our country stands for.

On the subject of Berkeley’s federal funding potentially being cut by $12 million, would this adversely affect Berkeley?

It specifically affects funding for public health, housing, and homelessness; however, we are fortunate in the last election that the voter’s approved two measures. Measure U1 and Measure A1 will provide additional funds to address the housing and homeless crisis. That helps even if we are going to see cuts at the federal level. We need the help of the state though. When the federal government cuts funding for the state with the impending elimination of Obamacare what are we going to place at the state-wide level as well as the local level? We need to provide health care for everyone, and that is why I strongly support the bill in Sacramento to establish a single-payer system in California. If that doesn’t succeed, we are looking into creating a program modeled after San Francisco, which would require that employers provide health care to all their employees in the City of Berkeley. I am totally for the single-payer method; it would be ideal. It’s what Obamacare should’ve been. But we have to monitor it [the potential federal cuts] is a changing situation. The president can introduce a budget that is very draconian, which is unlikely be passed in Congress. We are challenging the court, but if the federal government does cut that $12 million, we will maintain the safety net.

How is Berkeley going to embody the greater resistance fight as a whole?

Berkeley needs to lead the resistance, and we need to use our voice as a city to speak out against the unjust actions of federal government. Not only are we a sanctuary city, but we also became the first city to pass a policy that we will divest in companies that are involved in the construction of the border wall. Which has actually led to other cities passing similar action policies such as in Oakland and San Francisco. We have also passed policy that we will not participate in any Muslim ban as we have spoken very firmly against the anti-Muslim policies of the administration. We have directed our police department to process any hate-crimes to make it clear we are a hate-free city. We have come out in opposition to the president’s federal budget. Finally, we have also called for the impeachment of the president due to violations of the constitution.

Last question Mr. Mayor, is there anything you would like to say to BCC students?

I think there are a lot of opportunities to strengthen the partnership with BCC. I’ve met with the president of BCC Rowena Tomaneng, and we are working on creating an internship program with BCC. We welcome the involvement of BCC students since we are literally half a block away. Also, we have a lot of forums at City Hall, and we want to hear your ideas.

Learn more about the mayor and his vision at:

http://www.jessearreguin.com/

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