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A Changed City

By Judith Scherr Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday September 11, 2002

When one door shuts another opens, they say. 

The cruel attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 may bear witness to this. The event has in many instances spurred positive civic action. 

Pastors, imams, rabbis and priests reacted to the hate and ignorance that emerged from 9-11 by focusing on teaching tolerance. The police department initiated hate crime education. Action taken in the face of the anthrax scare, which right or wrong has been linked to the events of Sept. 11, could strengthen local public health infrastructure. And the city’s disaster planning efforts have been stepped up.  

At the same time, the U.S. Congress reacted to Sept. 11 by passing the PATRIOT Act, which the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, says tramples on constitutional freedoms. Local organizations such as Copwatch and the Middle East Children’s Alliance have held workshops to educate the public about the act. 

On Tuesday night the Berkeley City Council passed a resolution opposing parts of the PATRIOT Act and encouraging the protection of civil rights and liberties. 


Casting blame on innocents 

Anecdotal reports of harassment of Muslims and Middle Easterners began soon after the attacks. At a UC Berkeley vigil on the evening of Sept. 11, one speaker reported that two women wearing headscarves were verbally assaulted on Sproul Plaza and that other students had received “racist and threatening phone calls.”  

The Associated Press reports after Sept. 11 described hate mail sent to UC Berkeley’s Muslim Student Association.  

An Egyptian man was found murdered at the store he owned in San Gabriel. In San Francisco someone left a bag filled with pig's blood on the doorstep of a community center that serves Arabs. Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of the Islamic Network Group in San Jose, reported that callers told her to “get the hell out of this country.” And that, “You people have done nothing but ruin this country, and you will all die. You don't belong here. Your religion is vile and evil.”  

A cartoon in the UC Berkeley newspaper, denounced as racist by the student government and a number of student groups, added fuel to the flames. The cartoon showed what some said were Muslims celebrating Sept. 11, because they would go to heaven for their attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The cartoonist, Darrin Bell, argued that the cartoon was intended to portray the specific hijackers and not Muslims in general. 

Wajahat Ali, a member of the UC Berkeley Muslim Student Association, was quoted in the UC paper saying: “Some sisters did not want to go to college [as a result of the cartoon].”  

Anti-war demonstrators included calls to end “the racist backlash against Arab-Americans,” according to Stop the War Coalition leader Hoang Phan. 

Heightened tensions in Palestine and Israel added to an already charged atmosphere, with a brick thrown through a glass door of the Berkeley Hillel and bomb-threat hoaxes made to a number of Berkeley synagogues.  

In April, letters with phony anthrax were sent to members of the Hispanic community. 

The rise in reported hate crimes in Berkeley has been dramatic. In 1996 there were three; there were five in 1997 and 1998, six in 1999, 10 in 2000, and 23 in 2001. Of the 23 incidents of hate crimes in 2001, 16 occurred after Sept. 11, according to a city staff report. As of mid-June of this year, there had been 28 reported hate crimes. 


Attacking hate crime 

And so, the city put a plan into action that include training police officers to recognize hate crimes. 

The city attorney’s office updated a training manual about hate-crime law, and the mental health division is working to sensitize police to the victims they may encounter. It is important for officers to understand why some people may hesitate to report hate crimes, said Matthew Mock, director of the Family, Children and Multicultural Services for Berkeley Mental Health. It has to do with power inequalities. Victims of hate crimes may have the experience of being treated as lesser individuals by those who have power, such as the police, he said. 

Moreover, some people may fear the police as a result of experiences in their home countries, Mock said, underscoring the importance of good police-community relations. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he’d like the city to take the next step and create a hate crimes unit within the police department, like Los Angeles and San Francisco have done. A separate unit “gives you a very specialized expertise,” Worthington said, noting that investigation of a hate crime requires officers to determine the perpetrator’s motivation. “It takes very sophisticated experience,” he said. 

Using police officers already on duty, however, means no additional costs are generated, said Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz. 


What is Islam? 

After Sept. 11, many people began asking questions about Islam. While hate crimes are relatively rare, it became apparent to many members of the community that Islam was not well understood. Various community organizations and religious institutions stepped in to provide forums for better understanding. 

Khalil Bendib, a Berkeley resident of Algerian origins, a sculptor and cartoonist who co-hosts a weekly program on the Middle East on KPFA-radio spoke at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center in the spring. 

“How did I feel about the talk?” he asked. “I always welcome such interest in my culture and background. … That night at the JCC, I felt as though I had accomplished something, touched a few souls.” 

BRJCC Executive Director Joel Bashevkin said programs such as the one in which Bendib participated are “tailored toward tolerance, toward building trust.” Such programs “draw from Jewish values of tolerance and co-existence,” he said. 

Another of many cultural exchanges took place at a Sunday morning service at the Berkeley Methodist United Church, where Imam Yassir Chadly was invited to speak. The largely Japanese-American congregation had particular concerns about the “war hysteria,” said Naomi Samouthard. During World War II, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were forcibly interned in camps. Samouthard said the parishioners were concerned with people “vulnerable to hate crimes.”  

“Like most Americans, most members of the congregation did not know about Islam,” Samouthard said. 


Libraries under attack 

One city department spurred to action after the events of Sept. 11 was the Berkeley Public Library, which sponsored a series of lectures: one on Islam, another on the history of Afghanistan and a third on peaceful conflict resolution. Through its foundation, the library also purchased a collection of books on these topics. 

But that’s not all the library has done. It has had to face the USA PATRIOT Act. In an effort to get information about terrorists before they strike, the act allows agents of the federal government to get details from public libraries about what patrons are reading. 

Because of her life’s lessons, library Director Jackie Griffin values the privacy of her patrons.  

She’s directed her staff not to respond to questions or subpoenas from the federal government, but to turn such queries over to her so she can address them with the city attorney. Meanwhile, Griffin has ensured that patrons’ records are limited. The computer server is erased daily, so that a patron’s Internet searches cannot be followed. Records of materials that library users check out are kept until the material is returned or fines are paid. After a book is returned, the name of the patron is kept with the book for 30 days or until another patron checks out book. This is so that one could look up Qu’ran, for example, to see who has checked it out. 

The library’s measures “may sound a little paranoid,” Griffin said. However, the FBI has contacted 85 libraries since the Patriot Act was approved. “I want us to be prepared.” 


Health Department  

addresses bioterrorism 

The fear of a bioterrorist attack took hold across the nation in the fall of 2001, when 22 people were sickened and five died from anthrax poisoning. These incidents were never directly linked to the attacks of Sept. 11 yet they disrupted the nation. The postal service and health departments dealt with 40,000 samples of white powder that contained fewer than 10 grams of anthrax, said Dr. Poki Namkung, Berkeley’s health officer and president of the California Conference of Local Health Officers. 

In response, the federal government allocated $1 billion to shore up the public health infrastructure.  

“This is the first significant money we’ve received to rebuild public health,” Namkung said. California’s share has been $100 million with $10 million going to hospitals, $30 million to Los Angeles County and $50 million divided among local public health departments. Berkeley’s share, determined on a per capita formula, was $240,000. The money will pay for programs aimed at improving communication with local clinics, bettering the clinics’ efficiency and educating the public.  

Namkung pointed to the May, 2001 meningitis scare in which one child died in Berkeley. The local health department’s job was to talk with local medical facilities and the public so that any other cases might be immediately recognized and treated, yet to avoid throwing the population into panic. “People must be informed, but not frightened,” Namkung said. 

The new funding will permit the Berkeley Health Department to address bioterrorism in a similar manner, but on a much larger scale, Namkung explained, underscoring that an improved local health department would better attack more common health problems such as the flu, which kills 20,000 in the nation each year. 


A more secure city  

Preparedness training in case of future attacks has taken place in a number of departments. The Fire Department has trained in “weapons of mass destruction,” which includes training its first responders, handlers of hazardous materials and ambulance personnel, according to a staff report.  

The city has held joint emergency preparedness exercises with UC Berkeley, Bayer Corporation, Alta Bates Summit Medical Center and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories. One of the critical questions to come out of a June 6 joint exercise – still unanswered – is “Who calls the shots?” said Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz. Communication is key, among various jurisdictions and among city departments. “People still have to talk to each other,” Kamlarz said. “We have to connect all the dots.” 

In the works is an update of the city’s emergency radio channel, 1610 AM. Kamlarz called it “primitive and laborious.” Staff should be able to update it quickly and easily, he said. 

Mayor Shirley Dean says she is comforted by added security at City Hall. People must now sign in with a secretary before they mount to the council offices and must check in with a secretary once they’ve reached the fifth floor. After Sept. 11 the mayor said she received “a couple of explicit death threats,” and a bulky letter addressed to the mayor of Kabul. More recently, she got a death threat from a former UC Berkeley student, saying “I have a gun with three bullets with your name on it.” The student is now in a Seattle jail waiting extradition to California. The case has nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, the mayor said, but does highlight the overarching need for enhanced security at City Hall.  

And so, despite the ominous threat of a terrorist attack, Berkeley has emerged from Sept. 11 as a safer city – more prepared to face earthquakes, wildfires or epidemics as well as terrorists – and more determined to protect civil liberties and understand one another.