A commissioner for the city of Berkeley, California was fired for supporting a resolution calling on the city to consider divesting from corporations that operate in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories.
Cheryl Davila served on the Human Welfare and Community Action Commission (HWCAC) for over seven years, where she oversaw numerous human rights resolutions. In the summer of 2014, Commissioner Davila recalled being awestruck at the violence of Israel’s war on Gaza, code-named Operation Protective Edge, in which over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, the majority of whom were civilians, including more than 500 children.
“The Israeli bombardment was a disgraceful human rights violation that has caused a severe social welfare crisis, particularly for children, women, and the elderly in Gaza,” Commissioner Davila said. Numerous human rights groups and the UN accused Israel of intentionally targeting civilians and committing war crimes. “Given that Berkeley was one of the first municipalities to pass an anti-apartheid resolution in support of South African human rights, it is time for Berkeley to do the same for Palestinians who are living under an Apartheid regime,” she explained. “We cannot be silent any longer.”
The city of Berkeley has already approved ethical investment policies that call for divestment from fossil fuel corporations, gun manufacturers, tobacco companies, “oppressive states,” and the nuclear industry.
Commissioner Davila decided to propose a measure on behalf of Palestinian human rights. She authored the resolution “Conflict in Israel’s Impact on the City of Berkeley.” The measure calls for the city to “examine the feasibility of divesting all City of Berkeley direct holdings in companies complicit in on-going violations of human rights and International Law under Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories.”
The resolution also recommends sending a letter from the City of Berkeley to the Board of Directors of California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), “urging them to implement their existing responsible investment policies equitably and to divest all holdings in companies complicit in on-going violations of human rights and International Law under Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories.” Its final request is to add Israel’s illegal occupation to Berkeley’s Oppressive States Business Policy.
Commissioners are not themselves elected; City Council members appoint commissioners to serve on the various commissions. Commissioner positions are unpaid and filled on a volunteer basis. At a commission meeting on the evening of September 16, Davila was informed that she had been fired by Council Member Darryl Moore for refusing to withdraw the resolution.
Kumars Salehi, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley and leader in the city’s Palestinian solidarity movement who attended the meeting said there was an enormous turnout. “People on the commission were saying that they had never seen it so packed before,” Salehi said. Because of the size of the crowd, they had to in fact move to a bigger room, in which there were still not enough seats.
Many members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) came to speak in support of the resolution, along with representatives from pro-Palestinian organizations and the Palestinian youth movement. Cindy Shamban lamented that, “as a longtime Berkeley resident and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, I was surprised and disappointed to see that a commissioner who has done such stellar work over the years would be silenced by her councilman simply for speaking her conscience.”
Commissioner Davila was informed upon arrival at the meeting that she was fired from the commission and was therefore not allowed to sit as a member and vote. Davila sat in the front row during the meeting and spoke as part of the public. She was in tears during her opening statement, which Salehi recalls was moving and powerful.
“She was incredibly brave. And it was so clear that she, as a black woman, truly cared about this issue and identified with the struggle of Palestinians,” Salehi said.
The vast majority of people at the meeting were there to speak in support of the resolution, Salehi explained. He had been told that the vote on the resolution was going to be very close. During the discussion, he said, most people on the commission appeared to be sympathetic, but some of those same commission members later voted against the measure. The resolution did not pass, but commissioners decided to table it, in order to reconsider it at a later meeting.
I obtained several videos of Davila speaking at the meeting, right after she had been informed she was fired.
Commissioner Davila recounts receiving a “threatening” phone call from Council Member Moore, telling her to withdraw her support for the resolution or he would fire her from her position.
Davila also revealed that, in spite of seven years of work on the HWCAC, she almost never heard from her City Council sponsor, who said he largely ignored the work done in the commissions.
I contacted the HWCAC, requesting an official statement on the incident. The commission itself did not respond. Matthai Chakko, Assistant to the City Manager, forwarded a message to Council Member Moore, who did not reply either. Chakko clarified that it is the council member’s right to choose a commissioner as he or she sees fit. “In Berkeley’s governmental system, each council member and the mayor are allowed to appoint a representative to commissions,” Chakko told Mondoweiss.
The Berkeley Human Welfare and Community Action Commission is one of many commissions the city of Berkeley sets up to discuss and deal with various issues. Others include the Community Health Commission, the Energy Commission, the Mental Health Commission, and more. The groups essentially workshop legislation that, if passed, would later go to a vote at the City Council.
Rochelle Gause, a Berkeley-based National Organizer with Friends of Sabeel North America, disclosed to Mondoweiss that at least one other commissioner was also pressured by their City Council sponsor to vote against the resolution, Gause said.
“Her fellow commissioners seemed shocked at her termination,” remarked Gause. Later in the meeting, the fellow commissioners committed to writing a letter to the City Council, requesting an explanation for why Commissioner Davila was removed. The fellow commissioners also unanimously agreed to add Davila to the agenda for the October meeting and hope to, if possible, vote her back on to the commission as a representative of the poor.
Council Member Moore has not provided a statement on the affair to Gause or to the advocacy groups in which she is involved.
Liz Jackson, a staff attorney for Palestine Legal, a group that helps to protect the civil and constitutional rights of Americans who speak on behalf of Palestinian human rights, told Mondoweiss that her organization is involved in the case. “We are looking into whether Council Member Moore had the legal authority to remove Commissioner Davila under the city regulations that govern appointment and removal of commissioners, and we are considering the possibility of legal action,” Jackson said.
“But whether or not he violated the letter of the law, there is no doubt that he violated the spirit of grassroots democracy that the commission system is designed for,” Jackson added. “Unfortunately, in this climate of repression targeting those who dare speak out for Palestinian rights—in Berkeley and across the country—I would speculate that Moore’s motivations were to shut down discussion of Palestinian rights and BDS,” she said, referring to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
“We have responded to hundreds of incidents of suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy over the past few years, including firings, harassment, and false accusations of terrorism,” Jackson revealed. The Palestine Legal attorney mentioned the case of Steven Salaita, a professor who was fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois over tweets critical of Israel, among others. “Commissioner Davila is the latest target among many,” she said.
‘Unprecedented and Undemocratic’
David McCleary, a University of California, Berkeley PhD student and leader in the Palestinian solidarity movement, told Mondoweiss that other commissioners are facing similar pressure from their sponsoring council people. He spoke to a commissioner who said he got a call from his council member pressuring him to oppose the measure.
“It is definitely unprecedented for a commissioner to be removed like this, especially right before a vote,” McClary explained. “This council member ostensibly could have voted against the resolution when it came to the City Council, but instead opted to take this unprecedented and undemocratic step.”
Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, harshly condemned the firing of Commission Davila. Kiswani applauded the commissioner’s efforts, saying they are “indicative of the long standing work between poor, Arab, Black, and Brown communities to raise awareness and organize around issues of state violence and racism.”
“We encourage the City of Berkeley to stand on the right side of history as they did during Apartheid South Africa, and advocate for justice and dignity for Palestinian people,” Kiswani remarked. “Doing so is in fact taking a stand for justice for all people.”