Speaker Series May Flee Berkeley Politics





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The future of the speaker series that hosted former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be in jeopardy due to Berkeley protests, the president of the series said yesterday.

Bruce Vogul said Tuesday's incident, where safety considerations in the face of hundreds of protesters led the controversial leader to cancel his speech, "questions (the series') ability to continue in Berkeley." Netanyahu's two other Bay Area speaking engagements have been cancelled because protesters were circulating the addresses of those events, he said.

"I don't like the message the protesters sent," Vogul said. "Those people are emotional in nature (and) whether they're violent or not, they're verbally abusive."

The series, which will host Neil Armstrong in February, has had controversial figures before. In October, two protesters snuck into a speech by Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme allied commander of Europe. Community members must pay $222 for open seating and $320 for reserved seating to the eight-part series.

"Speakers are chosen on the basis of their extraordinary achievement and unique experience," a series pamphlet said.

Protesters declared the cancellations a resounding victory.

"If the series is in jeopardy, they're responsible," said Gloria La Riva, an organizer with the International Action Center. "They should know that in the middle of this crisis where over 200 Palestinians have been murdered, they're inviting one of the architects of this terror campaign. By bringing him they were trying to legitimize what the Israelis have done."

Berkeley police Lt. Russell Lopes said the extra security that the department provided cost $20,000 to 30,000.

"Why would the city have to foot the price tag on this, so a private (company) can make a buck," he said. "This directly affects the citizens of Berkeley and their pocket books."

Lopes said the city has the right to decide who will be hosted here.

"If the KKK wanted to hold a rally downtown, they can do that," he said. "But if they wanted to book a (room for an event) we would definitely have the ability to say no."

Larry Bensky, who was fired from KPFA Radio and has led the fight against alleged censorship by the Pacifica Foundation, said the protest did not violate freedom of speech and that the event was a "provocation."

"People are saying that he had a right to speak in public, (but) that wasn't in public," he said, noting that the press and people who could not afford the ticket prices were not allowed in.

Lopes said police have had "innumerable" problems with Jud Owens, who works for the Berkeley Unified School District's theater and books the speakers. He said Owens intentionally neglects to inform police of controversial speakers.

"If the police department had their way, Jud Owens would never operate in the city again," he said.

Neither Owens nor a district representative were available for comment.

The series had planned security for Henry Kissinger, who was originally scheduled but canceled due to a heart attack, Lopes said. Because the Israeli government decided Tuesday that there would be elections for a new prime minister and Netanyahu would be a candidate, the security concerns ballooned. He said that late Tuesday night police received "information that the threat level was enormous," but could not go into details.

"There was no way we were going to let him come into this city," he said. "(If there were problems) we could have mustered up enough officers to clear the streets, but people get hurt when we do that, so it didn't make sense. We could guarantee (Netanyahu's) safety, but not the safety of the people."

Mayor Shirley Dean said it was "outrageous" that some protesters blocked entrances.

"Protesters have a right to protest but they don't have the right to prevent the other person from speaking," she said. "I would say the same thing if it were Yasser Arafat."

She said the protesters and the series' producers should have discussed "ground rules" with the police department before hand.

"I think reasonable, civilized people can work this out," she said.

But Penny Rosenwasser, who works with the Coalition of Jews for Justice, said their non-violent resistance was a way of "speaking truth to power."

"(Netanyahu) is not someone who is silenced," she said. "He has world-wide access to his message at millions of venues all over the world."

Rosenwasser said that if any other people who represent an "inhumane" or unjust position come to speak in Berkeley, protesters will definitely be there to greet them.

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