As renters and landlords filed through the large foyer leading into Alameda's Kofman Auditorium on January 5 to watch the Alameda City Council's latest attempt to address the growing problem of rising rents and evictions on the island, Monty Heying's job was to help renters sign up to speak in front of the council. But Heying, a member of the Alameda Renters Coalition, grew suspicious of three men watching the signup table. "I kept noticing them and was wondering what they were doing," Heying said in a recent interview. "Then, I noticed a commotion and saw handcuffs fall to the ground that made this clattering sound."
Once inside the auditorium, Heying alerted other members of the coalition's leadership about the three men, whom he initially suspected were private security guards, possibly hired by Alameda landlords. Heying then led one renters coalition member to the lobby and pointed out the three men. One of the three men saw the exchange and later approached Heying. "Did you tell him we're security?" Heying recalled the man saying. "You shouldn't have done that. We're here to make sure everything is peaceful."
The exchange was anything but cordial, Heying said. "It was clear he wasn't trying to be friendly," Heying said of the man. "He was trying to be intimidating."
It turns out that the three men were not security guards, nor were they renters fearful of 25-percent rent hikes, or landlords opposing rent control measures in Alameda; rather, the men were plainclothes Alameda cops, who were assigned by city officials to monitor renters.
Although it's not uncommon for uniformed police officers to attend council meetings, the decision to assign undercover cops to keep tabs on renters at the Alameda meeting was unusual. Moreover, the move was not the result of any specific threat, but was in response to concerns raised by unnamed residents about safety at the meeting, Interim City Manager Liz Warmerdam stated in an email to Heying and another member of the renters coalition. "My goal was to ensure everyone's safety without increasing the tension in the room," she wrote. "The vast majority of those present had no idea our [plainclothes] officers were there. That was my goal." Warmerdam did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.
In an interview, Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri confirmed that the three men whom Heying had spotted were police officers. Rolleri said the presence of plainclothes cops at the meeting was necessary because of what happened at the November 4 council meeting on rent control. At that meeting, uniformed police arrested two renters advocates who attempted to force their way into the council chambers after landlords had packed the meeting room and left no room for anyone else. At that meeting, an Alameda cop also threw a 68-year-old renter to the floor and bloodied her nose. Video and images of the incident went viral on social media and cast Alameda as a new flashpoint in the East Bay's growing rental crisis.
Rolleri said that the city manager's office made the call for a covert presence at the meeting, but that he agreed with the assessment and assigned the plainclothes cops and five other uniformed officers to be there. "I wanted to strike a balance between appropriate amounts of security, while not showing a large presence," said Rolleri. "There was nothing to hide. The purpose is not to eavesdrop. We're there to monitor whether someone is going to start a fight or an argument."
Rolleri and other city officials maintained that the three plainclothes officers were not working undercover. When I asked the chief to clarify the difference, he said, "If they were really undercover, they would be actively trying not to be detected."
Oakland civil rights attorney Dan Siegel scoffed at Rolleri's comment. "So these guys weren't trying as hard?" said Siegel, who also questioned the effect on public discourse when police officers conceal their identities at government meetings. "If APD is targeting individuals who they deem are tenant advocates, that would constitute discrimination," said Siegel, arguing that it's akin to reports nationwide of law enforcement spying on Muslims. "The harm is that this has a chilling effect on people who could be dissuaded from participating in government meetings."
Siegel said the city's over-the-top response to what occurred at the November 4 meeting is likely the result of its inexperience in handling incidents of civil disobedience. "I get the feeling the Alameda Police Department is not sophisticated in these kinds of things," Siegel said. "I doubt they have much experience handling protests over there."
Alameda Mayor Trish Spencer and other city leaders have also come under fire for what renters activists say has been a general overreaction to the November 4 meeting. At one subsequent meeting, after Spencer called for a ten-minute recess, she immediately headed toward the exit leading to the council chambers (the area where blood was spilled in November) and hurriedly cleared the hallway of the few members of the public and news media who were milling around. Later, during a December 15 council meeting, Spencer labeled the November meeting a "riot." Then, just days before the eagerly awaited January 5 meeting to discuss potential permanent city rent control ordinances, Spencer appeared before the Alameda Renters Coalition at a Saturday afternoon strategy session. Several attendees described Spencer's unexpected appearance as awkward, and they said she warned them to expect increased security at the upcoming meeting. Members of the coalition then asked Spencer to leave the strategy session.
"We weren't thinking about protest. That's the city's thinking. That's not why we're here," said John Klein, a member of the renters coalition and one of the two people arrested during the November meeting. Klein said that during the two months since that meeting, members of the renters group and city staffers had met on several occasions and had open and productive meetings in an effort to find a solution to the rental crisis. "We were working together with city staff on this issue — like it should be," he said.
And what if the group decided to loudly protest during the council meeting? Klein asked. "They want to criminalize protest," he said. "You don't get to do that. If we stood up and started yelling, it's our right."
From Heying's perspective, the covert police presence at the council meeting was completely unnecessary. "This seems to me to be an overreaction to the altercation in November," said Heying. "It's a suppression of freedom of speech."
He said the experience already has him thinking about being more cognizant of his political speech in public. "I'm going to be more careful about chanting slogans and making gestures that might get their attention," he said. "It's going to have a dampening effect on me."