Op-ed: 5 myths about East Bay #BlackLivesMatter protests

I’m a longtime Berkeley resident who has attended two of the last five nights of protests and have been following reportage and readers’ comments on Berkeleyside. There are five areas of misunderstanding I’d like to try to clarify:

1. The protestors have articulated no demands

Numerous demands have been made by the national movement that has now seen waves of protests not only in the East Bay, but in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Portland, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix and Ferguson. The set of demands, a work-in-progress that is posted online, includes the appointment of special prosecutors when police use deadly force, better police training, and ending the overpolicing and racial profiling of black residents.

2. The protestors are mostly entitled white kids looking for excitement

The crowd is racially and ethnically diverse, albeit with a white majority and a large number of Asian-Americans. Given that most of the protestors are Cal students and that African-Americans comprise only 3% of Cal undergrads, one might say black youth are actually overrepresented at the protests. There are also a number of older Berkeleyites in attendance.

3. There’s nothing to protest in the East Bay

There have been plenty of local incidents of police brutality over the years, most famously the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station and, most recently, the use of tear gas against protestors, the necessity of which was questioned by Mayor Tom Bates during his appearance on KQED’s Forum on December 8.

Even if our local police forces were infallible pillars of restraint, there’s still reason to protest as a show of solidarity with the grief-stricken communities of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and Phoenix. Protests have erupted in cities, football fields and basketball courts, across the country, a rare occurrence that signifies that much is at stake and that people will not tolerate police misconduct, the militarization of police forces and the surveillance state.

4. Protestors look silly when they raise “unrelated” issues

The focus has been almost entirely on police misconduct with some reference to issues such as poverty, the criminalization of poverty, austerity, affirmative action, tuition hikes, and structural racism. All of these issues—and many more—are deeply intertwined with police misconduct. To try to reform policing in isolation from the many ways in which our economy is failing the 99% is not likely to accomplish much of lasting value.

So long as there is poverty, there is crime; so long as there is redlining, subprime mortgage fraud and gentrification, there is homelessness; so long as there is endless war, there are insufficient resources to rebuild our infrastructure, our cities, our communities; so long as we continue burning fossil fuels, our environmental and economic woes will only worsen to the point of collapse.

When I chant, “I can’t breathe,” I’m mourning Eric Garner and, at the same time, I’m saying that my air is polluted, I’m worried and scared about the future, I feel crushed by mass culture, all at once.

5. The protests are violent, and violence discredits the cause

As Berkeleyside has reported, the protests are overwhelmingly peaceful. Some people consider freeway takeovers an act of violence. This, I believe, stems from a confusion between civil disobedience and violence and an overriding intolerance of actions that inconvenience non-protestors.

Civil rights advocates have been marching, petitioning, electioneering, editorializing, testifying, litigating, and rallying since the 1960s, when Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and shared his dream:

“[w]e have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition…Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy…We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality…We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism….There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.”

More than half a century later, MLK’s dream is barely discernible. Snarled traffic and noisy helicopters are inconvenient; they disturb our peace and tranquility. That is the point. If you’re an annoyed bystander, please tell protestors what else to do other than spinning our wheels deeper into the same ground we’ve been mired in for fifty years.

As for the sporadic acts of violence that have occurred, it’s worth trying to understand what motivates this, even if we disapprove. Understanding is not condoning. I can’t say it better than King: “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years…And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Granted, most of the perpetrators here are white, but underlying all behavior, good and bad, lies a reason, and it behooves us to try to understand and address those reasons rather than simply issuing blanket condemnations.

Even if we can’t understand, a little perspective can help: We’ve sat by and watched Wall St. bankers loot the global economy, and now we’re outraged when people steal a few smart phones from Radio Shack? In a society afflicted with high levels of inequality and materialism, the only surprising thing about looting is that there isn’t more of it.

(Note to organizers: If you know who is committing acts of violence, ask them to stop. If you can’t or don’t want to control them, at least give them some guidance as to which targets are off-limits: Missing Link (a workers’ coop–really?), residential buildings, small businesses. And to restore the community’s trust and good will, consider orchestrating daily clean-ups after nights of vandalism. Put out a call, organize some supplies and the people of Berkeley will come. Partner with the business community. Give them “Black Lives Matter” signs to post in their shop windows. Seriously. Far from undermining your cause, it will deepen it).

The violence may or may not run its course. It only discredits the protests if you let it. Vandals will vandalize, but we can choose how to interpret and respond. If you’re looking for a reason not to support the protests, then a handful of violent acts serves nicely. If, on the other hand, you embrace the “fierce urgency of now” and believe that black lives matter, head over to Oscar Grant (aka Frank Ogawa) Plaza, on Saturday, December 13 at 2pm at in Oakland. Peace.

A longer version of this article can be accessed here.

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Erica Etelson is a Berkeley parent, journalist and community activist.