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Updated: Disruptions and Pepper-spray Test the Limits of Free Speech in South Berkeley

By Gar Smith
Tuesday November 16, 2010 - 09:20:00 AM

[Editor's note: At the end of this video can be seen the infamous Dan Spitzer, the notorious persecutor of Berkeley Daily Planet advertisers.]

What began as a peaceful Sunday evening gathering at the South Berkeley Senior Center erupted into verbal conflict and political clashes that eventually drew the attention of the Berkeley police who dispatched a half-dozen squad cars and a fire-truck to the scene.

The Bay Area chapter Jewish Voice for Peace had intended to host a presentation by several young activists who had disrupted Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly in New Orleans on November 8. But the Berkeley event started to go off-the-rails even before the meeting was officially convened. 

With more than 50 participants gathered in chairs in a large circle in the large Senior Center auditorium, an older woman pulled out a camera and began taking photos. At this point, a woman sprinted across the open circle and planted herself directly in front of the camera. “Oh! How nice! You want to take my picture? Here’s a close-up of my hand!” 

A JVP organizer stood up to explain that there had been reports that some people were planning to disrupt the meeting and, as a result, it was decided that a “no photos; no videotaping” rule would be in force. 

A gray-bearded gentleman sitting next to the would-be photographer objected.
Introducing himself as a “Constitutional lawyer who has testified before the United Nations,” he maintained that photographs were perfectly legal since “this is a public event.” 

“But this is a private event,” the JVP convenor replied. “We rented this hall and we have the right to conduct the meeting under our own rules.” 

The Senior Center’s on-site manager was invited into the meeting area and she corroborated JVP’s position, explaining “this building is open to the public Monday through Friday but is available to be rented to private parties on the weekends.” Despite this explanation, the lawyer continued to insist that he was right “and any police officer would agree.” (Within an hour, police were standing watch in the auditorium and the supervising officer confirmed that the JVP was within its rights to request that no photos or videotaping occur during a private event it had paid to host.) 

That was only the first of many debates that would break out over the next hour. After the lady’s camera was briefly holstered, the meeting was called to order. It was suggested that everyone take a moment to introduce themselves, indicate where they lived, and share some thoughts about how they intended to spend Thanksgiving. Civility seemed restored. 

The four young activists sat on the edge of a stage beneath a large screen that displayed a blow-up of the JVP webpage. The activists, representing JVP’s Young Leadership Institute, were introduced and praised for their courage in daring to criticize the leader of Israel’s government “in the same room occupied by their parents, their rabbis, their elders.” 

The plan was to show the videotape of the disruption in New Orleans, where five young dissenters rose from the crowd to raise voices and banners. Unlike most protests, where there is a single outburst followed by a speedy ejection, the New Orleans protests must have been extremely nettlesome for the Prime Minister and the hosts because as soon as the disruption from the first protest had died down and calm had been restored, another protester popped up somewhere else in the crowd with another banner and another cry. 

The theme of Netanyahu’s speech focused on critics who sought to “delegitimize” Israel by maintaining that “Israel is presumed guilty until proven guilty.” Ultimately, five different individuals rose to issue five specific complaints: “The Loyalty Oath delegitimizes Israel,” “Occupation delegitimizes Israel,” “The siege on Gaza delegitimizes Israel,” “Silencing dissent delegitimizes Israel,” and “The settlements betray Jewish values.” 

Understandably, many members of the New Orleans audience were offended and some bystanders physically attacked some of the protestors. An online video of the event shows one audience member jumping atop a chair and angrily ripping a protest banner apart with his bare teeth. 

The Berkeley presentation proceeded calmly until the first of the four young activists began to speak. Suddenly an ear-splitting whistle drowned her out. A woman jumped to her feet and began loudly reading a long statement printed on several pages. She held the page before her eyes and she walked back and forth in the midst of the circle. Other cameras suddenly began to appear in the hands of people gathered around the circle. 

A modest amount of bedlam ensued. The disrupter was entreated to return to her seat so the evening could proceed. After several minutes of “competing narratives,” the woman sat down and the speaker attempted to resume her explanation of how the New Orleans protest was conceived and planned and what they hoped to achieve. 

At which point, another disrupter jumped to her feet, again armed with a printed statement that she proceeded to read with great fervor as members of the crowd shouted objections. Some followed her closely as she crisscrossed the floor, with the flag of Israel draped over her shoulders. “Personal space” was apparently being tested, leading to a flurry of warnings, mostly along the lines of “Don’t you dare touch me or I’ll call the police.” 

The youngsters on the stage responded by beginning to clap and sing the peace song, “ Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.” Slowly, the audience — including the disrupters — all joined voice in the shared song. Once again, civility was restored. 

Suddenly a man came rushing across the floor. He crashed into my chair as he ran past, clutching his face. “Excuse me,” he apologized as he rushed by. “I have to get something out of my eye.” 

It turned out he apparently had been pepper-sprayed by the lady wrapped in the Israeli flag. A young woman reportedly was also hit in the face by the same woman’s can of chemical irritant.  

The two pepper-spray victims were later identified as JVP members Glen Hauer, 54, and Alexei Folger, 46. The attacker was identified as Robin Dubner." 

The next young activist began to speak — only to be disrupted by another audience member. Calling for “mutual respect” and a willingness to honor differences, one of the young activists proposed that anyone with a question or a comment be given one minute to express their feelings. Another disruption quickly followed as another critic began to expound well beyond the one-minute limit. 

Tempers continued to flare until a strong operatic voice broke through the babble. An energetic lady with red hair and a British accent was suddenly throwing her arms wide and belting out a tune called “Christians Arise!” It brought everything to a halt and injected some timely laughter. 

“I knew it was a completely inappropriate song,” she told the Planet later. “But, at the time, I think it was just what the evening needed.” (At another stormy moment in the proceedings, she would race to the stage, plop down behind a piano and begin to belt out some Beethoven, until the crowd found itself clapping along with the beat.) 

As the shout-fest reached another peak, one of the young activists calmly walked to the center of the circle with his arms spread and invited everyone to “Please relax and take three long breaths.” Again: civility. 

Which lasted about two minutes. At which point, a portly bearded man [Editor’s Note: Dan Spitzer of Berkeley] jumped up and began lambasting the youngsters while defending Israel’s “right to defend itself.” 

By now, half the audience was on its feet. Some were following the disrupters, some were trying to keep a serviceable distance between the disputing parties and urging people “Don’t engage. Don’t engage with them.” The “no photography” rule was long-forgotten. Dozens of people had their cell phones out and were aiming them like protective shields — at arms length — at different members of the crowd. 

By now, the Berkeley police were on the scene. They had been holding their ground, watching over the proceedings from the sidelines. Following the pepper-spray attack, they moved in and handcuffed the spray-can assailant. 

Throughout all the tumult, the five young activists remained calm and resolute in their attempt to mediate the unfolding events. In addition to inviting one-minute statements, they also said they would welcome extended questions from the audience at the end of their presentation. As it turned out, they were never able to resume (let alone finish) that presentation but, refusing to surrender to chaos, they consulted with one another and came up with another plan. 

Each activist invited members of the audience to join them in small discussion groups at various fringes of the auditorium. And, happily, as the police slowly withdrew and the fire truck returned to station, the evening had been transformed into a scene of quiet and earnest debate. 

One of the key questions tossed at the students came from an angry man who yelled: “How does it feel to have someone disrupt YOUR speech? It doesn’t feel so good when the tables are turned, does it?” 

He may have missed a key point. Unlike in New Orleans, where members of the audience physically assaulted the dissidents, pushed them to the ground and muzzled their mouths before dragging them to the exits, these young Jews acted with compassion, tolerance and decency towards their fellow Jews. It was also worth noting that it was the young people, not their older detractors, who showed a prevailing interest in accommodating, rather than suppressing, dialog. 

In a report on the New Orleans protests, the Jewish Journal quoted a participant who observed: ‘What were they against…. The Loyalty Oath? The Occupation? Gaza? Most Jews would agree with them.” But while many might agree with the criticisms, there was still the feeling that disrupting Netanyahu’s speech was inappropriate. 

This critical issue was debated online in response to an online article posted by Tikkun Daily. David Stein suggested that it was “rude and undemocratic” to disrupt the Prime Minister. Neil Landers replied that the Prime Minister’s views are “incessantly broadcast loud and clear by the media…. It is hardly democratic to give all our airtime to a narrow spectrum of vision.” Landers concluded that: “when we decide how to interpret the protesters’ interruptions, we should consider the massive structures of force organized to amplify the president’s ideology and suppress any dissenting views. This is not the case of two equal people.” 

Tikkun noted that the response of the Jewish media had been surprisingly sympathetic to the young protestors. Ha’aretz quoted 17-year-old Hanna King’s rationale for her decision to act: “We believe that the actions that Israel is taking, like settlements, like the occupation, like the loyalty oath, are contradictory to the Jewish values that we learned in Jewish day school…. Oppressing people in refugee camps is not Tikkun Olam. And it is a hypocrisy that I cannot abide.” 

The Jerusalem Post offered the following quote from Eitan Isaacson, one of the New Orleans disrupters: “The time has come for the Jewish community to talk. We didn’t say anything new. We just made the disaffection of young Jews apparent…. If it weren’t for the interruption of Netanyahu, people wouldn’t be discussing it.” 

And finally, a quote from the Jewish Journal — from a member of the General Assembly audience in New Orleans: “Hey, we talk about getting the younger generation involved in Israel…. Here they are.”