by Carol Denney
A unanimous Berkeley City Council took a tentative step toward curbing controversial police crowd-control techniques on Tuesday, February 10, in council chambers packed with dozens of people telling chilling stories of Berkeley police abuse during December’s local protests over nationwide police killings of unarmed black citizens.
A temporary moratorium on the use of CS gas, wooden and rubber projectiles, and over-the-shoulder baton strikes proposed by Councilmember Jesse Arreguin passed unanimously. CS gas is more commonly called “tear gas,” but Physicians for Human Rights considers that a “misnomer for a group of poisonous gases which, far from being innocuous, have serious acute and longer-term adverse effects on the health of significant numbers of those exposed.”
The council also passed a motion to support vehicle and body-worn cameras by police, an investigation into December’s protests by Berkeley’s Police Review Commission, and a motion to support national demands from Ferguson Action, an organization working to address the militarization of police and specifically support communities of color primarily affected by policies such as racial profiling.
The public comment that night brought forth deeply troubling testimony from people whose efforts to nonviolently protest police killings of unarmed black citizens such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner were met with beatings, CS gas, projectiles shot directly into crowds.
Many of those arrested were given no way to leave an area. People attempting to help injured, fallen individuals were also beaten, and emergency vehicles were prohibited from assisting.
Polly Armstrong, a former police review commissioner, former city councilmember, and current CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, spoke in support of the police use of wooden and rubber projectiles, saying the police “need our support.” Vice Chairman of the Chamber’s Board Steven Donaldson also objected to the temporary moratorium, stating, “We do not need to disempower the police right now.”
But Armstrong herself was one of the authors of a policy created when she was on the Police Review Commission in 1992 requiring the police to move a crowd only as quickly as they could reasonably walk. A video reveals that this policy was widely ignored by police in the December 2014 protests.
The rest of the public testimony was overwhelming in its support of a temporary moratorium. Moni Law, a 55-year-old African-American woman, testified that she was hit in the back with a baton and “had a flash grenade thrown” at her feet while trying to help another injured woman. “I was born in 1960 in Alabama,” she said to the council, which was clearly moved by her words.
Students, bystanders, and protesters alike described trying repeatedly to show solidarity with nationwide protests over police abuse and being met by the Berkeley police with aggressive tactics, including CS gas, “less-than-lethal” projectiles shot into crowds, and “kettling” groups who were given no way to leave, caught between two police lines which would jab or beat them without any way to exit an area.
The Berkeley Police Department’s general response to criticism of their tactics suggests that the vandalism and sporadic violence toward police officers made CS gas, projectiles, and baton strikes necessary. But testimony on February 10 included many people who tried to protect local stores from vandalism and did their utmost to keep the peace. Even police statements seem to agree that the troublemakers in the crowd were a small minority.
This is not the first time a temporary moratorium on chemical agents and projectiles has been proposed in Berkeley. In November of 1991, a similar proposal came before the council after well-documented cases of protest-related police misconduct in a meeting featuring “skunk oil.” That night, a protester ran onto the Berkeley Community Theater’s stage and poured a noxious liquid onto some of the councilmembers to convey her disapproval and was one of several arrests.
(I was also arrested that night; then Berkeley Chief of Police Dash Butler and then City Manager Michael Brown both claimed that I had committed an assault on the Chief. Both men lost their jobs, and I was acquitted, when Channel 7 news footage revealed that I had been peacefully standing still, waiting for my opportunity to speak when I was tackled from behind by police officers who inexplicably dragged me from the Berkeley Community Theater to jail.)
The 1991 moratorium proposal never got the votes it needed. But on February 10, 2015, supported in part by the undeniable and well-documented experiences of, among others, Berkeley Rep patrons and passers-by who had to contend with clouds of CS gas drifting into parking structures as part of their holiday experience in Berkeley, the vote for the police reform was unanimous.
The long wait for these proposals, originally scheduled for December, was frustrating for many who had come to repeated meetings only to be met with inaction, especially those primarily at risk.
Even the FBI’s self-reported data reveal that a white police officer killed a black person nearly two times a week during a seven-year period ending in 2012, which most people agree is a severely underreported statistic. But the coalition of student and civil rights groups which pressured the council seems well aware that this moratorium is only a modest beginning.
Communities whose police forces have body cameras, for instance, end up with hours of footage and no particular expertise in storing and sorting them, often confounded by public records act requests for footage. The Police Review Commission investigation has its own conflicts of interest as a group which now operates primarily in secret because of the Copley decision, a state law arguing that investigations of police are private personnel matters.
The Berkeley Police Department initially denied a public records act information request from Copwatch’s Andrea Pritchett, then responded to a second request with a comically redacted document resembling a Mondrian painting without the color. But the long wait of more than 20 years since the last organized effort to change controversial police tactics has not discouraged those who know that policy change is not just possible — for communities of color, it is crucial.
Jim Chanin, one of the original founders of Berkeley’s Police Review Commission, spoke to the City Council in favor of the moratorium, pointing out that San Francisco police don’t use CS gas or projectiles as crowd control.
“This is the only city where testimony like this is happening,” Chanin said, noting that on April 28, 1992, the Berkeley City Council passed a law requiring that “BPD take direct supervisory responsibility over mutual aid,” and that “prior to deployment in the field BPD advise mutual aid units that they are required to comply” with Berkeley policy.
Chanin finished his testimony by noting that Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates had at one time questioned why the Berkeley police would even have an application for an armored vehicle.
George Lippman of the Peace and Justice Commission and the Police Review Commission pointed out that “another flare-up could happen at any time… What we really want to do is prevent these situations.”
Long-time community activist and former Councilmember Ying Lee Kelly stated, “Non African Americans do not experience what African Americans experience … I can’t believe that my City Council would allow this kind of behavior.”
Berkeley Councilmember Max Anderson specifically thanked the Black Student Unions at UC Berkeley, Berkeley High School, and Berkeley City College who joined together to organize a peaceful march to the council meeting with ringing words of support. “You are part of a continuum,” Anderson said. “Tyranny will flourish if it’s not unchecked. We have sent treasury and troops around the world … saying no government should oppress its own people … Yes, black lives matter.”
At the City Council meeting on February 24, two weeks later, Anderson wrestled even more police restrictions with stronger language from the council, calling for an examination and analysis of the Drug Task Force, banning the “four-way search clause” allowing even public searches at any time or place without probable cause or warrant, banning the handcuffing of citizens prior to arrest, recommending a public safety model that doesn’t rely on militaristic tools and techniques, recommending a restoration of mental health funding “on an urgent basis,” and calling for the creation of an inclusive community task force to promote police accountability and civilian oversight.
Even initially dubious members of the City Council seemed to recognize what the crowd clarified a second time with riveting testimony: namely, that police tactics in the historically black parts of Berkeley are dramatically different than in other parts of town and disproportionately impact poor people, people of color, and people struggling with mental illness.
Anderson was clear that the weaknesses in earlier proposals had inspired his effort to address what so many citizens illustrated with chilling personal stories. As the local president of the NAACP, Mansour Id-Deen, put it, “It’s almost as if there’s two separate Berkeleys.”
“I drafted this language because the language in the packet on the agenda was not adequate,” Anderson said. “When we go to seek out remedies we need to go deeper.” He added, “The low-lying fruit is politically easy, fiscally easy, and socially easy. The Police Review Commission has to be restored to its proper place.”
Editor: After attending the City Council hearings, reporter Carol Denney wrote, “I am so glad I went to the meeting, a feeling I almost never have! It was like seeing a tidal wave of moral strength rise in the room.”
Don’t Call It Tear Gas
by Carol Denney
“We believe ‘tear gas’ is a misnomer for a group of poisonous gases which, far from being innocuous, have serious acute and longer-term adverse effects on the health of significant numbers of those exposed.”
Physicians for Human Rights wrote the above paragraph after studying the health effects of chemical agents commonly known as tear gas after the government of the Republic of Korea admitted using 351,000 canisters against civilians in 1987. Physicians for Human Rights worked to “bring the skills and influence of the American medical community to the defense of international human rights.”
Under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, CS gas was banned from use as a method of warfare because it is capable of causing long-term incapacitation and even death, but it continues to be used by law enforcement for riot control, as Berkeley residents witnessed during the December 2014 protests of police killings around the nation.
The police claim the use of chemical agents was necessary because of projectiles thrown at them, if press reports are accurate. The hurling of rocks and bottles at anyone is an outrage, to be sure. It is also a criminal act, and most of us have seen that an extremely small group of two or three individuals uses the cover of a larger crowd to throw objects. The larger, peaceful crowd is as much at risk as the police officers.
Responding with CS gas which blinds, terrorizes, and in some cases incapacitates the entire crowd, rather than the individuals responsible for throwing objects, is an absurd, logic-free police response. The object-throwing individuals are usually furthest away, least liable to be affected by the chemical agents, and the haze in the street further obscures their movements and identities. The peaceful crowd is liable to get hurt trying to find a way out of the toxic air.
Our community has work to do to ensure that we as a community can safely express our outrage at the injustice of racism, which falls primarily on people of color. We need to demand that our police force be required to respect those rights, which are precious.