Soul food and crackerjack funk bands traditionally mark Berkeley's Juneteenth, or "Emancipation Day," celebrating the moment that slaves in Galveston, Texas, found out they were free. Although Galveston is ground zero for Juneteenth celebrations, Berkeley's version is the heavyweight on the West Coast. Started in 1987, it was the brainchild of several ex-Black Panthers, Cal alumni, and community activists. All had loosely coalesced around the idea of strengthening the African-American presence within Berkeley.
For the past two decades, festival organizers blocked off the Adeline corridor between Alcatraz and Ashby avenues — one of the city's last truly black neighborhoods. They filled the streets with food vendors and multiple stages of entertainment. Though its size decreased over the years, Juneteenth nonetheless had tremendous staying power. It persisted for two decades as an all-volunteer operation, despite changes in the neighborhood and the political climate. It became a source of local pride. Yet it's also had its share of controversy.
Essentially an ad hoc operation, Juneteenth seemed to be woefully understaffed in the past. It often went on hours after the scheduled end time because festival volunteers had trouble getting all the vendors to close up shop. It caused major traffic problems. It strained the city's police force. Then, in 2007, a large fight broke out toward the end of the celebration, requiring police intervention, according to Berkeley police officer Andrew Frankel. It was one of several incidents that occurred in the area that day. According to the Oakland Tribune, there were two shootings during the festival: one on the 1500 block of Alcatraz Avenue, and another at Alcatraz and Sacramento Street, a few blocks away. Although Juneteenth organizers couldn't really be held accountable for every spat in their vicinity, they were saddled with the bad press anyway. For these and other reasons, last year's festival was abruptly cancelled.
This year, Juneteenth is back. Organizers are pinning their hopes on the idea that 2009's event is going to be really, really great — and that history doesn't rear its ugly head.
Two months after the 2007 Juneteenth imbroglio, representatives from the city met with festival organizers for a "debriefing." Around that time, the organizers also received a letter from the city with suggestions for future improvements, said deputy city manager Lisa Caronna. Most of them were fairly straightforward. "There were things that we wanted to see managed differently, and better," Caronna explained. "We wanted the vendors to remove their stuff in a timely fashion. We didn't want them to do some of the things in 2007 like putting stuff into the storm drain. We wanted more security officers that are hired by the event producers themselves. We wanted a person who specialized in events to coordinate the event."
It wasn't clear whether the organizers took these suggestions as mandates or as mere possibilities. At any rate, they apparently were taken by surprise during the event planning for 2008, when city officials presented a new list of terms and conditions. "There was not an agreement, nor an accord from the city and the Juneteenth Festival board," said Gerald Baptiste Jr., the event's co-president. "A lot of that had to do with board's ability to change and respond to the city's deliverables. They came to us in too short a period of time to make changes." Shortly before the event was supposed to take place, organizers quietly pulled the plug.
From the city's perspective, it was a matter of inadequate preparation — it really takes six months to a year to prepare for an event that requires the closure of major streets for a full day. Their main concern was traffic, said Caronna. Adeline is a major thoroughfare, and closing several blocks of it for an entire day creates a lot of congestion on nearby streets. The other problem was the date. Traditionally, Juneteenth has coincided with Father's Day, an inopportune time to ask for extra police reinforcement. Frankel said the Berkeley Police Department has a lot of family-oriented officers among its ranks, and they weren't eager to spend the holiday patrolling the Berkeley-North Oakland border — an area known for homicides.
But to many people it looked like Berkeley was unfairly cracking down on its only long-standing celebration of African-American culture. "We don't want to use the term 'racism,'" said longtime Juneteenth host Lothario Lotho. "But there's a lot of public safety issues that had to be addressed. There's been a lot of difficulties with the police and the way they perceive the African-American males."
Thus began a protracted, passive-aggressive battle between festival organizers and city administrators, which went on for several months in 2008. At one point, city administrators thought they had a solution: Why not relocate Juneteenth to a park — either Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park downtown or Cesar Chavez Park by the Berkeley Marina? The Juneteenth committee strongly objected to both. They wanted to keep the festival in a visibly black neighborhood, in accord with its theme. In that sense, Adeline Street seemed like the only logical choice. Organizers dug their heels in and, ultimately, the city conceded. "It's extremely important for it to be in the area of town that's most populated with African Americans," said Caronna. "The businesses there are also owned by people who live in the community. We totally got that."
This year, festival organizers came up with a compromise. They recruited ministers and local youth to serve as "ambassadors" for the event and help with "spiritual elevation." They scaled back the hours and hired more private security officers. They opted for a more "edu-tainment"-themed lineup, which will include speeches by elected officials (among them Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Berkeley City Councilman Max Anderson, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, and state assemblyman Sandré Swanson), performances by Black Repertory Theater, leaders from faith-based organizations, and booths with applications for traditionally black colleges. Headliners this year include R&B star James DeBarge and the inspiring (or at least enterprising) pimp-turned-blues artist, Fillmore Slim. The theme, inspired largely by Obama's presidency, is "Building Villages of Hope." It seems apropos for an event that's relied less on pragmatism than on faith that things will ultimately fall into place.
So it was revealing when, during the course of an interview with Baptiste, he decided he would no longer discuss past Juneteenth events. Shortly thereafter, he sent an e-mail stating that he'd demand a retraction if any information regarding past events was published — even what he had already disclosed. "The 2009 Berkeley Juneteenth Festival Association, Inc is excited about the upcoming event and has put to rest the 2008 cancellation event," he wrote. Perhaps the success of the festival depends partly on how well its organizers can re-cobble together its image.
But this time, Berkeley city officials seem to agree. "They took the time this year to prepare in advance, because they understand the complexity of pulling off an event like this," said Caronna, who played a large part in this year's planning operations. "Everything aligned. I don't think it's a big deal." Evidently, there's hope after all.
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