BERKELEY -- The city was once a leader in the civil rights struggle, Mansour Id-Deen, president of the Berkeley NAACP, told a standing room-only-crowd at an afternoon meeting July 13 at the South Berkeley library.
"However, today we have some very serious issues that this city has to deal with," he said, contending that Berkeley has issues of discrimination in housing, employment, education, health care and policing.
The meeting, called by the Berkeley NAACP and partner organizations, was attended by around 100 people.
Id-Deen talked about racial profiling in Berkeley. Two days earlier, he was driving in South Berkeley behind an unmarked drug task force car and watched as officers turned their lights on and stopped near a young black man waiting at a bus stop. Id-Deen stopped to observe.
"Three officers got out of the car," he said. "They approached the young man and he's looking at them, like, 'What's going on?'"
Id-Deen said it brings to mind the killing of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. "You have officers walking toward you -- you don't know what they want," he said. "You haven't done anything."
The officers asked the young man for identification and where he was going. "He politely refused to give it to them and said he was waiting for the bus," Id-Deen said.
The officers said they'd wait with him. At that point the young man walked away, Id-Deen said.
It's not easy to prove racial bias in police stops, Maria Moore, sister of Kayla Xavier Moore who died in police custody in February, told the audience. She said police don't keep records on the race of people they stop but don't cite; she asked the audience to demand that they do.
School board member Josh Daniels addressed the gap in academic proficiency between African Americans and whites, a gap that increases between kindergarten and graduation.
School district data shows, for example, that on standardized tests in language arts, just 23 percent of African Americans were proficient, while 84 percent of whites were proficient. Daniels said that schools are addressing the problem and the gap is narrowing, but it won't close by the district's target date of 2020.
Paula Phillips, president of the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees pointed to the dearth of black teachers in Berkeley. Daniels said the district hires African Americans, but they leave at higher rates than other teachers.
City government came under fire with allegations of discriminatory hiring, firing and promotional practices. Speakers said the NAACP asked the city to hire an independent firm to assess the situation, but the city has yet to agree.
"This year is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's march on D.C. about jobs and justice and freedom," said Gladys Gray, president of the city's maintenance workers division of SEIU 1021. "We need to understand what that was about 50 years ago and where we are today."
City Manager Christine Daniel was present for the four-hour meeting, as was Police Capt. Cynthia Harris. Daniel told this newspaper she was not prepared to comment on questions raised about city employment practices, other than to say the city continues to meet with SEIU on labor issues. Harris said she would be able to comment later, after gathering information about the police stop Id-Deen referenced.
Councilman Jesse Arreguin blamed Berkeley's diminishing African American population -- about 19 percent in 1960 and 10 percent today -- on the lack of affordable housing.
"We're losing families, low income people, working people," Arreguin said. "Rent continues to increase. It's almost virtually impossible if you're a working class person to buy a single-family home in Berkeley. Unless we stand up and fight for affordable housing, and we fight to protect our diversity, what we love about our community may be gone."
Census figures from 2009 show that 23 percent of African Americans in Berkeley (2,700 people) lived under the poverty line. For whites the rate was 14 percent or 8,000 people, while 20 percent of Hispanics (2,300) in Berkeley live below the poverty line.
Dr. Vicki Alexander, who worked in the city's health department for more than a dozen years, addressed the high rate of low birth-weight babies among Berkeley's black population, arguing that health issues and education levels are only part of the problem. She placed much of the blame squarely "on stress related to racism, stress walking down the street as a black person."
Alexander concluded that "At a certain point, the struggle (for health care) has to join ... the housing struggle, the labor struggle -- all the other struggles."
A follow-up meeting is planned for December.