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Embattled lecture series leaves town

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Saturday March 30, 2002

The Berkeley Speakers Lecture Series, which has brought luminaries from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit to town, is packing up and heading for Oakland, citing frustration with the city manager’s office and the Berkeley Police Department. 

But some Berkleyans are happy to see the organization go. “There won’t be any hearts broken,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. 

The Speakers Series, part of a larger company called MPSF, Inc. which also sponsors events in San Mateo and San Rafael, is funded by 2,500 East Bay subscribers, and 4,000 subscribers total in the other two areas. The rift between the series and the city dates back to November 2000 

when the organization attempted to bring in controversial former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak at Berkeley High School’s Community Theater. 

Hundreds of protesters flooded the area, series subscribers had trouble getting into the building, and Netanyahu did not speak. 

City Councilmember Dona Spring said the series is to blame for providing inadequate private security and providing the police department with late notice of Netanyahu’s appearance. 

“They really hadn’t done the proper preparation,” she said. 

Series president Bruce Vogel acknowledged the late notice, but said the police could have done a better job of crowd control. 

“I think their policies are pro-demonstrator,” Vogel said. “I think their approach is a palm tree approach – just bend.” 

The police department referred all questions to the city manager’s office. 

Arrietta Chakos, chief of staff for City Manager Weldon Rucker, said construction on the Berkeley High School campus made it difficult to handle the crowd properly. But, she also defended the department’s handling of the situation. 

“They wanted to be sure we protected the First Amendment rights of the speaker and the demonstrators,” she said. 

Mayor Shirley Dean said Vogel’s critique of the police department was unwarranted. But, she mourned the loss of the Speakers Series, and ultimately blamed the protesters for blocking the Netanyahu speech. 

“There’s something called civic engagement,” she said. “In a community that values the exchange of ideas, you let the other guy speak.” 

Spring defended the protesters, arguing that they had acted peacefully and should not be blamed. 

Last year, tensions escalated when Vogel’s frustrations over preparations for a November 2001 speech by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright led him to move the event from Berkeley to Oakland Paramount Theatre, in downtown Oakland, where the series will hold its entire program next season. 

According to Vogel, the speakers series meticulously planned for the Albright visit – setting up three meetings with city officials, hiring three security companies and commissioning a lawyer to lay out all the legal rights and responsibilities of the company when it came to crowd control. Vogel said the company spent $15,000 preparing for the event, when it normally spends about $1,000 for a similar engagement. 

Vogel said the City Manager’s office and police department were not helpful in coordinating security. In an October meeting, he said, the department told him that it would send officers to the event, but was prepared to pull out during the speech if something else came up. 

Vogel said police departments in other cities, by contrast, have been “eager” to lend support. 

Chakos, who sat in on one of the three meetings with Vogel, said the city was fully prepared to work with the speakers series within guidelines established by the City Council. But, she added that the department cannot be expected to dedicate too many officers to a private speaking engagement. 

“We have a city to take care of,” she said. “We can’t focus on one site.” 

“That’s probably the concern of every city we deal with,” Vogel responded. “Each of those cities, it’s a non-event.” 

In a March 27 letter to the company’s 2,500 East Bay subscribers, announcing the move to Oakland, Vogel put his concerns on paper. 

“Working with the Berkeley Police Department and the City Manager’s Office,” he wrote, “has been a hugely frustrating and unnecessarily expensive experience.” 

At least one Berkeley subscriber to the speakers series is turned off by the move. 

“I don’t plan on renewing,” said Jason Alderman, a Berkeley resident and PG&E employee. “I don’t think I want to support a series that repudiates my own town.”