Where free speech in Berkeley is dead

A Berkeley senior housing co-op is in the midst of a battle of pilfered posters. At issue is whether residents need to ask permission to get together for conversations. Believe it or not, the most aggressive suppressor of free speech is a person with notable achievements in artistic creativity and egalitarian activism.

Berkeley, California, may be a home of free speech, but on at least one corner of that city speech is anything but free. That’s the corner of Dana and Parker streets, a mere 6 blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus. There a 9-story concrete building towers over the adjacent houses and low-rise student-oriented apartments. It is Berkeley Town House, a 53-year-old institution notable as, reportedly, the first senior housing cooperative in the United States.

For the last few years, this community, known as BTH to its owner-residents, has been ruled by a clique of leftist-out-there, reactionary-at-home NIMBY folks. The most strident among them is a retired scholar, artist, author, social activist in populist movements, and grass-roots volunteer in efforts to relieve suffering.

Despite these impeccable democratic and expressive credentials, that BTH official (whom I’ll call “B.O.”) has been on a rampage to stop me, a fellow-resident, from conversing freely with others. If I invite an expert on some topic over for a discussion with a few interested residents in some corner of BTH’s vast open meeting area, B.O. becomes outraged and lashes out. B.O. insists on being consulted before any such conversation or any other use of the common area takes place, and claims the power to veto any discussion of a topic uncomfortable for B.O. The mechanism that B.O. wants everybody to use is a reservation request form, which is to be filled out and submitted with a $25 deposit at least 2 weeks before the “event”, after which the supplicant waits for news on whether B.O. and the other directors have, in their infinite discretion, chosen to bless the use. This system expressly applies only to reserved private functions, with the purpose of limiting their frequency so that the space remains mostly open for the residents to use freely in common. But B.O. would gleefully invert this system to stifle, rather than encourage, freedom of assembly.

A few days ago I was sitting with 2 other BTH owners talking about the in-progress BTH election, when B.O. walked over to us, delivered a speech attacking such unauthorized conversations, claimed to be too busy to listen to any other point of view, and walked out again.

B.O. has at times called BTH a “family”. Well, OK, let’s try that out. Do you plan your family conversations 2 weeks in advance? Do you need to pay a $25 deposit before every chat with bro’ and sis? Does your family have a God-Parent with the authority to restrict what you talk about at the kitchen table? Novels and movies portray families like that (There Will Be Blood), but nobody I know (except presumably B.O.) would call them functional families.

An old friend of mine is coming to the East Bay in a week, and I have invited him over to BTH to lead an informal conversation about a topic on which he is a respected author (controversies in psychiatry). I have told a few colleagues about his visit, but I also wanted to let others at BTH know so they could join us if they wish. B.O. is an example of those who ought to find this conversation appealing, having written on related issues. But tonight, as I watched in awe, B.O. walked up to the BTH bulletin board dedicated to social events, pulled my announcement off, and retreated with it into an elevator. When I took it back to repost it, B.O. called out “Damn you, Jonathan!”

B.O. in’t just an antisocial BTH owner-resident. B.O. is a ruling clique member. In fact, B.O. is on the Board of Directors, and the Board’s current majority sides with the anti-free-speech position taken by B.O. So, no surprise, earlier today I watched the Board’s hired office manager, under instructions from BTH’s control-addicted management firm, practice the same poster-pilfering maneuver.

The management firm has warned that anybody meeting in a BTH common area without bowing to the private-reservation regime will be cited and fined. As you may imagine, most residents in a senior building who might want to resist this oppression are intimidated. Consequently, almost any time of day or night, if you enter the common area, you will be the only one there. Visitors with a base in non-BTH reality tend to find this emptiness creepy. There are 60 apartments on the 8 floors above, and this space functions like their shared family room and den, so where is everybody? Creepy to most, but a living room masquerading as a mausoleum seems to warm the heart of B.O.

*Postscript 21 June 2015. B.O. was a Director of BTH when I published this entry in May 2013. In May 2015 B.O. ceased being a Director. In June 2015, in recognition of this changed status, I amended this entry to abbreviate the name of B.O. The censorship of content on bulletin boards and the claim by the BTH Board of Directors of the power to prohibit uses of the common areas to discuss subjects that the Board dislikes remain in effect as of June 2015.

*Postscript 5 December 2015. Today I lightly edited this entry to further anonymize the criticized ex-official.

BTH Lounge
BTH Lounge

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