by Carol Denney
The most interesting thing about the police report on the protests held in Berkeley last December is what’s not in it. There’s no mention of the fact that it was a Black Lives Matter protest, part of the nationwide concern over disproportionate black arrests, incarcerations and shooting deaths. The Berkeley police apparently considered this context irrelevant. Black Lives Matter as a movement is not mentioned at all. It isn’t in the glossary. It isn’t in the appendix.
Everything about the “Response to Civil Unrest” report seems to fall like a shadow from that towering omission. Without the gravity of the national, even federal, recognition of systemic civil rights violations pervasive in law enforcement, housing, education and employment policies toward communities of color, people in the streets marching together to pressure for political change are viewed as nothing more than a riot on the move.
The demonstrators in December’s Black Lives Matter marches had their dignity, their rights, and the deep history of the racism they were addressing set aside once the police saw evidence, emphasized in their report, that agitators might join the march as well. The report includes copies of fliers with phrases like “fight like hell” and images of vandalism which had no connection to Black Lives Matter as an organization.
The following passage is from “Response to Civil Unrest Police Report” by the Berkeley Police Post Incident Review Team about the protests in Berkeley on December 6 and 7, 2014.
“On 12/01/14, the Berkeley Police Department received information from various sources that a march was scheduled to take place on 12/6/14 in Berkeley. The march was advertised as a ‘From Ferguson to Ayotzinapa March — March Against State Violence—Remember the Dead.’ Organizers urged attendees to ‘Fight like hell,’ ‘Bring masks’ and reminded the public of previous mass uprisings that had taken place. Online flyers for the event showed a picture of a man sitting on an overturned police car. Oakland and San Francisco had just experienced ‘Fuck the Police’ (FTP) marches which resulted in mob violence, damage to businesses, looting, vandalism to vehicles, and attacks on officers.”
Some will say that the police create this kind of agitation themselves. But longtime activists know that as possible as this may be — and police repression has been proven historically under the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to infiltrate and discredit political movements — the Bay Area also has its own large basket of vandals and window-smashers who typically wear masks and hide behind a peaceful crowd, tactics which have confounded organizers of peaceful marchers for years.
Most people acknowledge that the handful of people who turn a peaceful march into a hail of broken glass are counterproductive in the extreme to any principled group, and costly to any community’s ability to gather together, let alone stay in business.
But the group that smashes windows is also very small. The Berkeley police report acknowledges this, and yet made a decision to call in mutual aid forces and prepare for a battle royale before the march began, and apparently decided that as soon as things went south, everybody had to go home or take the consequences of baton strikes, CS gas, projectiles, and flash grenades. The Berkeley police report described why it called so many additional “police resources.”
“The Department determined that because of the potential for unrest and likely high attendance, staffing resources above and beyond what BPD could field would be needed. BPD requested additional police resources from the Alameda County Office of Emergency Services. The County arranged for most mutual aid responders to arrive in Berkeley prior to the start of the event.”
Ironically, this kind of preparation precludes the crowd management techniques which would have facilitated the march, as the report itself states: “… crowd management techniques were understaffed in favor of preparing to utilize resources for expected unrest.”
The demonstrators who marched to the police station the night of December 6 were met with a skirmish line of officers prepared for war with the weapons of war. According to videos from the Internet that police supplied to accompany their report, the officers seemed to have some agitators of their own gratuitously shoving and herding people in ways that inflamed tensions, as the report grudgingly acknowledges:
“The event turned to violence and looting once police blocked the roadway at MLK and Addison St….”
Even reporters with press badges were knocked around. CS gas, moreover, is banned in warfare by the Organization for Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. There is no “non-lethal” weapon that hasn’t caused increasing concern regarding its injury or morbidity statistics.
But the decision to arm the police in this way was made long before the march began, long before any violence or vandalism on the part of people in the street, as this report acknowledges.
The police report goes further, blaming their own lack of response to the few who committed acts of violence and vandalism on the larger, peaceful crowd:
“In addition to these violent elements, much larger contingents of protesters refused to disperse and physically resisted lawful orders, choosing instead to stand their ground and confront officers. These protesters, by their sheer numbers, prevented the police from addressing the most violent offenders. Through refusing to disperse, large groups of protesters, who may have considered themselves peaceful, protected, facilitated and enabled violent elements as they launched assaults on officers and non-violent community members within the crowd.”
The report neglects entirely to acknowledge what hundreds of people experienced that night: The police gave dispersal orders to people trapped between skirmish lines with nowhere to go. The garbled, repeated announcements in an echoing urban setting full of news helicopters had the opposite of its intended effect as people came out of their homes and apartments and walked toward the noise to try to figure out what on earth was going on. The report states:
“More than 23 dispersal orders were issued over 54 minutes using a loudspeaker beginning on Telegraph Ave. before officers took measures to disperse the crowd. The dispersal was read from a pre-prepared script… Rather than dispersing, the crowd size significantly increased at Telegraph Ave. and Durant Ave.”
We as a community can all just stay home, of course, until we can convince window-breakers not to smash windows. We can abandon our own civil rights, of course, if we all choose to do so. But we would be well advised, if we intend to travel the long, respected trajectory toward justice, to keep on walking forward even if the Berkeley police decide that one angry flier telling people to “fight like hell” means we cannot.
The police and the City Council purportedly supervising them have a choice to make. More gadgets, more weapons, more surveillance, and even helicopters are requested by the “Post Incident Review Team” which clearly wishes to continue militarizing police departments, as well as defending their violent response to the Black Lives Matter movement in December — as though legitimate protest in our society does not exist, or is nothing more than a cover for civil unrest.
Our lives are not a video game. Our friends and neighbors, our children, students, theater-goers and reporters are not an invading force. We are the breath of life in a civil rights movement which we have the right to describe as a battle without being drenched in chemical weapons.
We will continue to patiently defend our right to gather and our treasured principles. Weapons, gadgets, surveillance, and helicopters are no substitute for the common sense and leadership which we hope someday we can count on from our city leaders.