BERKELEY, Calif. — Berkeley, Calif., has earned its reputation as the reigning seat of liberal activism, starting with the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, through the city’s anti-apartheid movement, its prominence in the Occupy protests and all the way up to last month’s protests against former Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos.
“Berkeley is like a spark plug,” said Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission Vice Chair George Lippman. “It has a grand history of being the mouse that roared.”
Berkeley’s latest roar was in the much quieter context of a city council meeting this week: It became one of the first municipalities in the United States to “divest” from Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the border with Mexico.
The Trump administration is proposing $1.5 billion in immediate funding to start planning and building the wall and an additional $2.6 billion to fund border security next year. The Berkeley resolution means that any company benefiting from that money, should Congress actually appropriate it, will do no more business with the city, and it hopes to divest from those companies, as well.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin told The Washington Post that the policy was in reaction to Trump’s plans for the border wall and the acceleration of immigration enforcement in the Bay Area, which has seen increased controversial activity by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in, among other places, Santa Cruz and Richmond in recent weeks. He pointed out that Berkeley is a sanctuary city and said Trump’s promise to cut funding for such cities was a “cause for deep concern” among his constituents.
“We need to take a stand, and one way we can take a stand is in how we invest our taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Arreguin connects the city’s move to its activist roots, citing its history as one of the first municipalities in the United States to divest from South Africa under apartheid. “That made a big difference, putting pressure on the South African government to change its approach,” he said of Berkeley’s role in spearheading more widespread divestment.
Under this week’s resolution, the city’s Peace and Justice Commission, the appointed body that Lippman helps lead, will be responsible for gathering information and making recommendations to the city council, not just about the wall but about how to spend in a more “socially responsible” way in general.
That could mean changing where the city keeps most of its money — right now that’s Wells Fargo — and developing “do not buy” lists of companies associated with the wall and other causes, as Berkeley has done in the past with companies that use sweatshops. Lippman says he’s already been in touch with Tucson and Portland about sharing such information in the future.
Arreguin said he expected Richmond, a largely industrial and diverse city to Berkeley’s north, to follow suit with a similar resolution in the near future. Southern neighbor Oakland, itself a long-standing center of activism, is preparing to pass its own legislation. Although Oakland’s policy will not involve divesting stock, it will prohibit the city from awarding or renewing contracts with companies involved with the wall, including not just construction workers but also anyone involved in its engineering, technology, logistics, surveillance and several other sectors.
“We expect the full Council will approve the legislation next Tuesday (it won unanimous support from our finance subcommittee earlier this week),” wrote City Council President Pro Tem Abel Guillén in an email to The Washington Post. Given the city’s large port and busy airport, he said, he’d prefer to see Trump beef up the TSA and Coast Guard, rather than “throwing up a costly and ineffective border wall.”
At least one local company that has expressed interest in bidding on wall contracts has existing contracts with Bay Area Rapid Transit, the beleaguered and much-patched public transit system on which many Berkley residents rely, the East Bay Express reported.
Arreguin said that while new contracts and investments were more clear-cut, deciding what to do about existing contracts will be more complex. “You have to balance cost and efficiency with social responsibility,” he said. “I’m sure there would be other companies that we could do business with. It sends a message to companies to not get involved in the border wall — or else they might not be able to do business with municipalities.”
Lippman compares it to a shot across the proverbial bow, the mouse at it again, roaring. “We, tiny Berkeley, say, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”
Alissa Greenberg is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent guards a fence gate along the U.S.-Mexico border in Brownsville, Tex. (Jason Hoekema/Brownsville Herald via AP)