A new kind of battle is brewing on Telegraph Avenue. Those who are leading the fight say it is not against religion, or against freedom of speech, but they contend that some religious speech on the street is just too loud.
Neighbors, merchants and activists stood on the corner of Telegraph and Haste Wednesday to protest the weekly sermonizing of the Bay Area Ministries, which they say is too loud.
“We are not anti-Christ, we are not anti-religion, but we are anti-noise,” said Russell Bates, a prominent figure on Telegraph, who has been protesting against the ministry. “They have been doing it for 15 years but it’s gotten to the point that the sound level is disturbing people who live, work or simply pass by in the area.”
The Bay Area Ministries, an Evangelical Christian ministry based out of Oakland, argued they were below the legal decibel level.
“We have been at Telegraph and Haste for about 15 years now and we have never been found in violation,” said Lawrence Rosenbeum, a ministry member.
“The last couple of weeks we’ve had a number of extra outreaches but normally we are there only on Saturdays. We are not out there to disturb people, we are just trying to make sure that people can hear us.”
Gyen, who works at Telegraph Flowers across the street, said the noise drives her customers away.
“I can’t battle these guys and do my job too,” she said, selling potted orchids to two UC Berkeley undergrads. “I am here when they arrive and I am here when they leave. They are so loud that I can’t hear myself on the phone and my customers just get aggravated. Whenever I walk up to them and complain it always gives rise to conflict.”
Gyen added that calls to the police led to a cat-and-mouse game between the ministry’s members and the city.
“They send down a man with the decibel meter and he spends some time checking the noise level,” she said. “But the ministry has its own decibel meter and they try to keep it at the edge. It’s a huge waste of police tax dollars. They are completely abusive to the system. As far as I am concerned, it could be my favorite band but when it’s rattling on that loudly for four hours it’s too much.”
Rick, who sells African jewelry on the corner of Telegraph and Haste, agreed. “What annoys me is that they turn the volume down when the police arrive but turn it up again when they leave,” he said. “It scares people away from my shop. That’s not what Jesus preached.”
Marc Weinstein, who co-owns Amoeba Records, called the noise problem a nuisance.
“A lot of times I have had to pay $4,000 out of my pocket to purchase permits for that corner to keep them from being there,” he told the Planet over a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “It has a terrible impact on my business. Our customers are not interested in their messages. It just creates a big ruckus. I pay $31,500 in rent for my space and these people pay $36 for a permit to disrupt my business. I want the city to stop people from holding amplified events. It’s cutting into their own efforts to make Telegraph better.”
Weinstein said he resented the fact that most people preaching on behalf of the ministry were from outside the community.
“They have people from Colorado and Iowa out there,” he said. “I want them to stop standing on my corner and stop ruining my best business days. The city should be more calculated about the places these people should be allowed to preach.”
Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department, said that the BPD had responded to a fair number of complaints about the amplified music.
“Community members were particularly upset about the noise levels on Aug. 16,” she said. “Recently, we also received a complaint about an ADA issue which said the ministry was blocking right-of-way on the pavement.”
Manuel Ramirez, Berkeley environmental health manager, told the Planet he was aware of the community’s concerns.
“The city is monitoring the problem,” he said. “We issue amplification noise permits to them like many other organizations. Noise levels are also monitored regularly. The standard for that area is background level plus 10 decibels 50 feet from the source. If they violate that we can revoke their permit.”
Telegraph merchants said they were concerned about the ministry’s attempts to increase their time from four to 36 hours every month.
“It’s just too much,” said Bates. “They must conform to their permit. If they don’t do something about it, we will. That’s not a threat, it’s a promise.”
Ramirez said that the only new permits that had been sought from the city were for two events for Sept. 8 and two in October and November.
But for people on Telegraph, the problem doesn’t stop at noise.
“They are unruly and rude,” said Ann Marie, an activist. “They shove their pamphlets on my face and when I protest they gave me a look that sort of says you are going to burn in hell.”
“They condemned the tarot card reader to hell the other day,” quipped Bates. “They need to find a new location.”
Rosenbeum said that all the group did was preach about Jesus Christ and play Christian music.
“We don’t force anything on anyone,” he said. “And when the police tell us to turn down the volume we do.”
Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee.
Russell Bates protests against the Bay Area Ministries outside Telegraph Flowers Wednesday. He is joined by the store’s florist Gyen and Berkeley resident Michael Delacour.