A date has been set for a public conversation between comedian W. Kamau Bell and the owner of a Berkeley cafe where Bell says he was the victim of racial abuse.
The forum will be held this Friday, March 13, at 7 p.m. at Berkeley's Willard Middle School.
The event, organized with the help of the Berkeley Unified School District and the Berkeley chapter of the NAACP, hopes to tackle “implicit bias and micro-aggression experiences in the East Bay.”
The need for a public conversation became apparent to Bell and Michael Pearce, the owner of the Elmwood Cafe on College Avenue, after the comedian, who is African-American, made public on his blog how he was asked to leave the cafe on Jan. 26, while he was talking to his wife and her friends, who are white, at an outdoor table.
Bell, who performs regularly in Bay Area comedy clubs, said he was shocked when an employee tapped on the window from inside the cafe and indicated that he should leave the area. The employee apparently thought Bell might be trying to sell something. Bell said he was dressed in a dark Oaklandish-brand hoodie at the time, carrying a book he had just bought and a laptop computer.
“It is the definition of prejudice,” Bell, a Berkeley resident, told Berkeleyside shortly after the incident. “They looked at me, they judged me against other people, an idea they had in their head about what a person like me is going to do, and then they acted in stupidity and ignorance.”
After reading Bell’s blog post, which quickly went viral and prompted lots of reaction, not least 711 comments, Pearce, an advocate for social justice, reached out to the Bell family and apologized. He said he wanted to ensure an incident like this one never happened again. Bell suggested a conversation to which the community would be invited to participate.
The employee in question was subsequently let go. Pearce said the reason was because she did not try to solve the problem or report it to management. Bell said his intention in highlighting his experience was not to get anyone fired.
The March 13 panel will be facilitated by Pamela Harrison-Small, former executive director of the Berkeley Alliance, as well as Berkeley High School senior and president of the Berkeley High Black Student Union, Kadijah Means, as well as ACLU-Northern California Staff Attorney Novella Coleman. Other possible panelists will be announced nearer the time.
Announcing the date and venue for the forum on his blog, Bell said he wanted it to be clear that “this is not just the story of the Bells’ struggles, but how an unfortunate incident can be turned into positive change for the Berkeley community.”
Bell concluded: “The hope is that we will all leave with a broader understanding of the complex racial issues facing our community and have greater practice addressing them through conversation.”
The Bell incident prompted another mixed-race Berkeley couple — Gibor Basri, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion at UC Berkeley, and Jessica Broitman, a psychotherapist — to write an op-ed for publication by Berkeleyside, about the prejudice and bias they have experienced firsthand, including in Berkeley.
KQED News Associate Berkeleyside is an independently owned news website based in Berkeley, Calif. Click here if you would you like to receive the latest Berkeley news in your inbox once a day for free with Berkeleyside's Daily Briefing email.