By Mara Van Ells
Residents on McKinley Avenue near the Berkeley Police station are seething after a week of protests which saw parking banned, the street blocked to normal traffic after 5 p.m., and police cars and armored vehicles stationed there.
Some neighbors said when they tried to go home, police yelled at them and demanded to see their identification. They were also told, “no ins and outs.”
See complete Berkeleyside coverage of the recent Berkeley protests.
“I was treated like a criminal for trying to come home from work,” said Julie Guilfoy, who has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years.
On Dec. 11, two representatives from the Berkeley Police Department met with nine residents of McKinley Avenue at resident Robin McDonnell’s house to respond to the neighbors’ frustration, fear, and anger over how their street was seized as a law enforcement staging area.
Among the neighbors’ chief complaints were not being informed of the situation beforehand, a lack of respect from officers, police changing clothes on the street, and officers leaving behind garbage like pizza boxes.
McDonnell said she felt “like a prisoner in her own home, ” adding, “we were under siege without any warning and, frankly, it was totally inappropriate.”
“It’s like being invaded,” neighbor John Madill said.
Captain Andrew Greenwood of the Berkeley Police Department expressed regret at the way the neighborhood was treated and pledged to look for a new staging location.
“We totally fell short on communicating to you guys what was going on and why,” said Greenwood, as he listened and wrote down the residents’ concerns at the meeting.
Police had blocked off the street Dec. 6 in anticipation of requiring mutual aid from other police departments for a planned protest. They also wanted to protect the back of the police department, Greenwood said. McKinley Avenue was chosen because it was near to the station and could be secured on both ends. Other locations were considered, he said, but McKinley was the best option under time constraints.
Police weren’t experienced in dealing with this kind of situation, Greenwood said. The department had never faced protests of this magnitude before, he said.
“This was bigger than Rodney King,” he said, referencing the protests that broke out in Berkeley in 1992 after four Los Angeles police officers — charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force for beating King — were acquitted.
“This is kind of historical in terms of size and scope,” Greenwood said.
“It challenges us because we don’t have the experience doing it,” he said, adding that next time, “we’ll take all the measures we can to mitigate the impacts.”
On Dec. 4, signs went up on the block stating no parking would be allowed from 12 p.m. on Dec. 6 until midnight. On Dec. 7, other signs went up that stated no parking would be allowed for the rest of the week.
Lillian Kang, who has lived in the neighborhood for six years, said when she first saw the signs, she assumed that there was an event happening nearby. When her husband suggested that it might be related to the Berkeley protests she argued with him. “They would’ve told us,” she said she told her husband.
Neighbor Ben Wolfson said he was ticketed and his car was towed — which cost him $300 to retrieve. He is contesting the ticket.
Greenwood gave Wolfson his business card and told him he would try to refund him for the tow and the citation, explaining that police were “short for time” when they towed cars with little notice. “Bottom line is, we want to make it right,” he said.
The neighbors also said they were upset about the way they were treated when they tried to get home after the blockades were up.
While walking home, neighbor Ginger Lindsay said police “started screaming” at her to stop when she came within half a block of McKinley. She kept walking and said she wondered, “Am I going to get shot? … I did not feel safe.”
Similarly, John Madill was outraged that police demanded to know where he lived in order to be let onto his block. “My civil rights were violated,” he said. “They asked me where I lived. I said, ‘I don’t have to tell you that.’”
McDonnell expressed frustration that the police area coordinator for the neighborhood didn’t respond all week to phone calls and emails requesting information. Greenwood said the officer in question had been working on another project and promised that he would be the go-to officer for information in the future.
There needed to be a better plan and better communication with neighbors, said Greenwood, who told neighbors he would look into alternate staging spaces for the future. “Nothing’s preventing us from doing that,” he said.
Things improved on Dec. 13, after police put up “no parking” signs in anticipation that protests in Oakland might come toward Berkeley. This time, they emailed the neighbors to let them know about the situation beforehand, and met with them outside at 3:30 p.m. Residents of McKinley were allowed to park on the west side of the street. A portable toilet was erected for police to use, and officers at the barricades were instructed to ask for the addresses of people who were coming and going, but not to demand to see identification.
Protesters didn’t come near Berkeley on Dec. 13, so the department didn’t call in reinforcements. However, Lindsay said she was “delighted” with the changes the police had made so far. “I think they’ve made big strides,” she said. “Of course, if there’s another big night with lots of troops, then we’ll see what happens.”
Lindsay said she still plans to lodge a complaint by Dec. 20 with the Police Review Commission regarding the lack of policies and procedures governing the seizure of the street.
Neighbors plan to ask for the city to develop a protocol for when traffic barriers are set up to ensure that all residents are treated equally, Lindsay said in an email. Neighbors will also request a transparent procedure for suspending parking regulations that would be overseen by the city council. They also want higher authorities to oversee procedures for blockading and taking over a city block.
McKinley Avenue residents agreed that they don’t want their block taken over again.
“They need to not use a residential neighborhood for that kind of militarized staging,” Lindsay said. “It’s just not appropriate.”
Police will continue looking for an alternative staging spot, Greenwood said.
Mara Van Ells is an aspiring digital journalist who is pursuing a master’s degree at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Van Ells lives on McKinley Avenue, the street behind the Berkeley Police Department. She identified herself as a neighbor but also as a journalist who might do a story when speaking with officers and neighbors for this story. She attended the community meeting to take notes as a journalist rather than as a neighbor expressing her own opinion.
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