Students: It’s time to take back city politics

Ariel Hayat/Staff
Students hold up signs supporting that ASUC proposed student district map. Berkeley City Council discussed the two student districts at Tuesday's meeting.

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More than 25 years ago, students were intentionally silenced and excluded from city politics. When city council districts were first adopted, students were split across multiple districts to dilute our collective voice and our ability to influence city issues. Since then, this deliberate plan has made it excessively difficult for students to participate in the governing of our city. In fact, only one student has ever been elected to Berkeley City Council — a shockingly low number considering we represent more than a quarter of the city’s population. In 2010, however, student-leaders began a conscious effort to reunite a supermajority of students in one district, to reunify our voice and give us a representative on Berkeley City Council.

The map the ASUC sponsored and endorsed, the Berkeley Student District Campaign map, takes District 7 and turns it into a student supermajority district, complete with 12,000 students — which is 86 percent of the new district. Students from all walks of life and all types of organized and unorganized housing are included in the district, meaning that the diverse student voice will be heard on the council in all its complexity. No student district can hold all 37,000 students of UC Berkeley. We are confident, however, that by uniting a diverse group of students from apartments, residence halls, Greek houses and co-ops alike into one district, any representative elected from this district will have to answer to student issues such as safety, development of Telegraph Avenue and affordable housing.

The map does not only benefit students, though. Previously divided neighborhoods such as Bateman, Monterey Market and Willard are reunited in the BSDC map. Additionally, each district is as close to equal population as possible, with each district deviating from the equal population target of 14,073 by less than 1 percent, a necessary requirement to adhere to the principle of “one person, one vote.”

But the ASUC’s job was not complete when this map was submitted. It would have been disrespectful to the residents of Berkeley and to the students of UC Berkeley had we not done our utmost to present the map to students and residents for feedback and to participate in negotiations around our map prior to and during the submission process. BSDC has spent much of these past three years presenting our ideas to the public, listening to the community and talking with stakeholders. Our map was built with community input, good-faith negotiations and respect for all communities across the city. It was vetted by the City Council and by neighborhoods, by political groups and by community organizations. We worked extremely hard over the past three years to build a coalition of students, neighbors and elected officials, and it was for this reason that our map was always at the forefront of the redistricting discourse.

Years of hard work culminated in one City Council vote on Dec. 3. Having been vetted at 17 citywide meetings since the campaign began in 2010, the ASUC’s map was the only remaining option that represented a viable choice based both on its policy merits and its broad coalition of support. After hearing public input and participating in spirited debate, an overwhelming majority voted to adopt the ASUC’s map over all others.

Despite this tremendous victory, some students are still being used as political pawns to try to undo the ASUC’s and the student body’s great work. Students now have their own district. More than 86 percent of District 7, the first student district in the country, comprises students. Yet, an extremely small group of opponents, who have only been minimally involvedin the process until this year, are attempting to undo this work in a way that doesn’t benefit students, but rather uses gerrymandering in a way that seems to only protect the narrow political interests of a single council member.

Yet, an extremely small group of opponents, who have not been involved in the process until this year, are attempting to undo this work simply to protect the narrow political interests of one council member. In their desperation to preserve a gerrymandered district, they are attempting to whip up support for a referendum — with which signatures from less than 5 percent of the city’s residents can force a vote to delay the implementation of new laws — on the City Council’s decision to partner with the ASUC and the student body to draw a student district. This strategy is risky and completely irresponsible. What these opponents fail to grasp is that if a referendum is filed and passed, the nation’s first student district would likely be abandoned. Should the referendum succeed, the City Council is under no obligation to replace it with a map with a new student district. The most likely outcome, in fact, is that Berkeley City Council will revert to a subpar compromise plan that could easily place students back at square one. Even worse, this strategy undermines the work the ASUC has done over the past three years to build consensus and negotiate with citywide stakeholders to prove that students are ready to take a seat at the table. Simply put, “it’s our way or the highway” is not a reasonable or mature strategy for governance.

If this outrages you as much as it outrages me; if you want to prevent political machinations from harming this great student achievement; if you find it absurd that students would sabotage their own hard-fought victory—the first student district in the country—then I ask you to not support a referendum. Do not let the smallness of Berkeley city politics torpedo one of the greatest successes the ASUC has ever won for students. Instead, register to vote and get ready. Come November, it’s time for us to make our voices heard in Berkeley City Council.

 Safeena Mecklai serves as UC Berkeley’s ASUC external affairs vice president.