Are Public Officials – in Berkeley of All Places – Stifling Free Speech?
A couple of years ago, my dad and I were sitting in the living room when he turned to me and said he’d just read some great news: California had passed a law increasing the size of chicken cages so now they could fully extend their wings. I was stunned but not for the reason you might think. I was stunned because I had never realized we kept animals in such small cages to begin with. I had thought about becoming a vegetarian before and had stopped eating mammals a year before, but at this point, I stopped eating all animals. In making that decision, I felt lonely. I felt isolated. I thought I was the only one.
At UC Berkeley’s Calapalooza, I made a startling discovery. As I stumbled around the fair without much idea of where I would spend my college years, a bubbly activist whose face was half covered with a smile grabbed me. “Hi, I’m Kitty, do you want to get involved in fighting for animals?” she asked, maintaining an unnervingly high level of excitement throughout the conversation. Kitty was part of BOAA, Berkeley Organization for Animal Advocacy, an entire group of people who shared my love of all animals.
I quickly got wrapped up in BOAA the way so many of us do with our passions. From my newly vegan roommate Serah and from Kitty, I learned about the differences between vegan diets and vegetarian ones, I learned how to speak to friends and family about my beliefs and I felt I had found true friends at UC Berkeley. Then, in BOAA, I learned there was a whole community of people who had the same thoughts as me.
Still, BOAA was never quite home until we had a physical space where we could do our advocacy work. We got that physical space when the Berkeley Animal Rights Center opened this year. The Berkeley Animal Rights Center describes itself as a community center where students and other community members engage in seminars, tutorials and community work for animals. From discussions of wildlife to work parties where we paint banners, fold leaflets and plan effective outreach, I finally felt I had not only a family but a home.
In this space, I met Oliver, a beautiful, timid dog rescued from the dog meat trade in Yulin, China. At first, Oliver would run away in fear from anyone who approached him. Now, he trusts me and knows I won’t hurt him. I have led events with large groups of people, enjoyed 12 types of vegan pie in one day and spoken to a room of more than 40 people about thoughts I previously held inside. The welcoming environment made me feel safe, accepted and empowered to use my voice.
But now, as reported in The Daily Californian, city officials are trying to kick us out of our space.
The reasons the city attorney has offered strike me as bizarre. The city produced a laundry list of miniscule complaints ranging from using sandwich board signs to having a lock box on our door — both of which are regularly done by other tenants in the same property. As the city officials quibble over these minor details, the public restrooms lack toilet seats and faucet knobs. The space where the Animal Rights Center is located hasn’t been occupied for years and yet the city is spending its money sending out government employees to observe our use of the space. Most shockingly, the city sent an employee on a Sunday morning to photograph community members in workout garb — many of them female — without their permission. And the city attorney escalated to hiring a pricey outside law firm, Burke, Williams & Sorensen, without even consulting the Center, a truly bizarre series of actions.
What might be the reasons behind this? Perhaps this is a reaction to the recent disruption at Chez Panisse, where a small group of animal rights activists, including myself, entered this well-known restaurant and delivered a speech — before being shoved, thrown to the ground, sworn at and prevented from leaving. Perhaps it was a recent resolution condemning dog meat in Yulin, China. Perhaps it was a march at which more than 100 people, many of them UC Berkeley students, took to Berkeley streets to celebrate the Yulin resolution and support animal rights. Whatever the case, the sole purpose of the center is to help people exercise their rights to free speech.
In 1964, Mario Savio and other UC Berkeley students insisted political activities be allowed as part of the right to free speech. Thousands of students piled into Sproul Hall to demand the attention of the university administration, and the Free Speech Movement was born. I believe Berkeley is still the city of free speech, but today that legacy is threatened.
The city’s attack on the Berkeley Animal Rights Center is an unfounded exercise of power and a deliberate attempt to silence the speech of Berkeley citizens who call for change. But we will not be silenced. Even if everything else is taken away from us, we will always have our voices and we will use them to speak out just as so many social justice activists have throughout the history of Berkeley.
Cassie King is a UC Berkeley student in the class of 2019.