Tenants group crashed Berkeley party for end of eviction moratorium. Then things got ugly

BERKELEY, CA - MAY 21, 2023 - A general aerial view of UC Berkeley and Sather Tower on Sunday, May 21, 2023. (Josh Edelson/for the Times)
Berkeley was the site of a melee Tuesday evening after tenants rights protesters interrupted a property owners' celebration of the end of local pandemic eviction moratoriums. (Josh Edelson / For the Times)

Dozens of protesters and tenants rights activists crashed a party by Berkeley landlords celebrating the end of an eviction moratorium, a clash that resulted in fist fights, thrown chairs and hurled food on the patio of a trendy gastro pub.

City police were at the scene Tuesday for what began as a protest outside the Freehouse restaurant and pub in Berkeley's Southside neighborhood. Inside the pub, members of the Berkeley Property Owners Assn. were holding a social mixer to celebrate the end of the local eviction moratorium. Plans for the event were first publicized by the independent news outlet Berkleyside.

Like many cities across the country, Berkeley instituted an eviction moratorium in March 2020 due to the economic hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city's moratorium expired on Aug. 31, allowing landlords to resume evictions for nonpayment of rent due Sept. 1, according to the Berkeley Rent Board.

The end of the moratorium came to a boil outside the mixer.

The Berkeley Police Department said approximately 50 to 60 protesters gathered in front of the pub, where they chanted, beat drums and held signs and banners. Multiple people entering the restaurant were met by protesters yelling "Get a job" and "Parasite," the Berkeleyside reported.

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The protest started shortly after 5 p.m., and later in the evening a group of protesters walked into the Freehouse, where numerous fights broke out, according to police.

Officers outside the pub were not aware of the fights inside, the department said in a statement, and no one on the scene requested medical assistance for any injuries or alerted the police.

Several members of the property owners association alleged that they were attacked by protesters from the Berkeley Tenants Union and the Bay Area chapter of the Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, though it is unclear who got physical first.

The Berkeley Property Owners Assn. accused protesters of throwing food, chairs and then punches after they entered the restaurant and then confronted its members on an outdoor patio.

In a video clip reviewed by The Times, an apparent protester is seen using a utensil to hurl food at someone off camera. After a man attempts to pull the utensil away, the protester punches him in the head.

According to the Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, or TANC, members of the property owners association "were quick to anger, attacking tenants unprovoked."

"We stand with our members who were assaulted by landlords, just as we stand with any tenant facing eviction," the group said in a statement. "We are not surprised by [the Property Owners Assn.'s] behavior."

After the protesters left, someone reported they had been attacked and filed a police report, according to Berkeley police. The incident is under investigation.

The tenant protesters called the property owners' mixer "incredibly cruel" and said the celebration could not go on "without a rebuttal from the tenants," TANC said in an Instagram post.

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The Berkeley Property Owners Assn., a trade group with more than 750 members, also said that members had been harassed after the protest, with threatening calls and social media posts against members and their businesses. One member said they had contacted police during the protest and that an officer refused to intervene because the situation was political, according to a statement from the trade group.

"We condemn the actions of hostile dissidents who disrupted a private gathering at a local restaurant to intimidate, harass, and physically assault our members who are law-abiding small business owners. Their protest planning included language celebrating mass killing of landlords, celebrations by guillotine, and references to landlords as parasites," the Berkeley Property Owners Assn. said in a statement posted online.

Becky Warren, a spokesperson for the Property Owners Assn., said the group admits that it was a mistake to center the mixer around the end of the eviction moratorium.

"They were not intending it to be a celebration, but more of a gathering," Warren said when reached by phone.

Several landlords were relieved they could start collecting rent again, because it was their main source of income, Warren said.

"No property owner ever wants to evict anyone," she said.

In a statement posted on Wednesday to the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, the Tenant and Neighborhood Councils said the property owners' decision to celebrate the end of the moratorium "reflects their contempt for tenants."

"Yes, we disrupted the Berkeley landlords' vicious 'celebration' of the resumption of evictions," the tenant union said. "The crisis of high rents and homelessness is a direct effect of their business model. We stand by our action and we stand with all tenants facing evictions."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.