With two new faces on the dais, the Berkeley City Council returned to an old subject Monday night: international affairs. The council approved a compromise proposal calling for federal prosecution of UC Berkeley Boalt Hall Law Professor John Yoo for supporting torture by the Bush administration.
The decision came after a powerful emotional appeal by Councilmember Max Ander-son, who said he had witnessed torture firsthand during his service in the Vietnam War.
The council meeting, held a day before its usual Tuesday meeting day so that it wouldn’t conflict with the Islamic holiday of Eid al Adha, marked the first official appearance of newly elected councilmembers Jesse Arreguin (District 4) and Susan Wengraf (District 6). Arreguin and Wengraf replaced longtime council veterans Dona Spring, who passed away earlier this year, and Betty Olds, who chose not to run for re-election. Olds appeared briefly in the audience at Monday’s overtime, four-and-a-half-hour meeting, smiling broadly as someone reminded her that, for the first time in years, she could go home early without waiting for adjournment.
Arreguin admitted before the meeting that he was “nervous” about his first council session but later participated extensively in several debates. Wengraf also spoke on several issues.
But it was back to old businness for the council, which has long believed that one of its mandates is to give its opinion on controversial national and international issues.
The subject in this case was UC Berkeley professor John Yoo who, as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Bush administration, is described by the National Lawyers Guild as “the author for several memoranda that provided legal cover for officials in the Bush administration, CIA and Pentagon to ignore domestic and international laws that prohibit torture in interrogating military detainees.”
A proposal on the agenda from Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission for the council to go on record recommending several actions against Yoo brought out a large contingent of citizens in support of such action, two of them in orange prison-style jumpsuits and black hoods imitating the dress of the torture victims at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison, several of them shouting comments from the audience at councilmembers who offered dissenting opinion.
The disruptions grew so tense that an angered Mayor Tom Bates threatened at one point that “you guys are all going to be cleared out of the room if you don’t cool it,” pointing to one particularly noisy spectator and asking, “Could someone constrain that woman?”
Later in the meeting, after another round of shouting from the audience, the mayor declared that “one more outburst and I’ll adjourn the meeting, and we’ll forget about all of this.”
During public comment period, a long string of speakers came to the microphone to condemn Yoo and his actions, calling him a “torture general” and a “cheerleader for torture.” One woman called him a “domestic enemy against the Constitution.”
In its original proposal, the Peace and Justice Commission asked for a recommendation that charges of war crimes be brought against Yoo and that students at Boalt Law School be given the option of taking required classes from a professor other than Yoo.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington brought the law school option as a separate motion, but after several councilmembers—including Mayor Bates and Gordon Wozniak—indicated they considered this an improper interference in the law school’s operations, Worthington withdrew the proposal, saying “because it’s obviously going to lose, I’d like to bring it back at a later point rather than have it defeated.”
The council passed a three-part modified alternative proposal recommended by Bates and Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli and Linda Maio on three separate near-unanimous votes. The first section of the proposal reaffirmed a March 2007 City Council resolution calling for the war crimes prosecutions of Yoo, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee for their support of the Bush administration’s torture policies. The second section called for the termination of Yoo from his position with UC in the event of his conviction of human rights violations, while the third called for the removal of Bybee as U.S. Federal Judge for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals if he is convicted.
Wozniak abstained on the first two portions, and voted yes on the third. All other councilmembers and the mayor voted yes for all three sections.
Several councilmembers and public speakers indicated that because Yoo’s actions in writing the memos happened during his tenure in the federal government and not in his capacity as a university professor, those memos should not be protected by the doctrine of academic freedom.
“He didn’t just get a soapbox or make a speech,” Councilmember Anderson said. “He took a material involvement in the deaths and torture of an untold number of people. There are broken bodies, broken spirits, and a broken trust that he wrought by his actions.”
With tears streaming down his face and his voice choking, Anderson spoke to a council chamber that grew silent for the only time during the Yoo debate.
“I’ve seen people tortured,” he said. “It’s not an academic exercise for me.”
Afterward, Anderson received a standing ovation from the audience.
In other action Monday night, the council passed on the opportunity--for the second time—to either uphold the Zoning Adjustments Board’s approval of a new T-Mobile Wireless facility at 1725 University Ave. or to set a council hearing on a citizen appeal of that decision. If the council fails to take any action on the appeal at next Tuesday’s meeting, the ZAB approval will automatically go into effect.
Councilmember Linda Maio, who has been called to testify in a lawsuit challenging city approval of a cell phone antenna facility at the UC Storage building at 2721 Shattuck Ave., recused herself from the T-Mobile vote. But Arreguin, who has been verbally advised by the city attorney that he must recuse himself from an appeal to the council of any decision he participated in while a board member of ZAB (a situation that would apply to the T-Mobile appeal), said that he would absent himself from the dais during the debate but would not formally recuse himself unless he was given a written opinion to that effect from the City Attorney’s Office.
In other business Monday night, the council changed the term of the council vice president—essentially the city’s vice mayor—from a rotating three-month position to a fixed one-year term, and then unanimously (Maio abstaining) chose Linda Maio for the first term.