The latest clash in Berkeley between Trump supporters, including many white supremacists, and their anti-fascist foes, made national news in part because of video footage showing crowds of people duking it out in the street.
“My town has ironically turned into a right-wing MMA arena,” wrote local resident Quentin Hardy on Twitter. “But then my town does everything ironically.” Another local resident, Chris Rauber, likened the demonstrations to “Kind of like @WWE, but with radical left & right thugs wrangling instead of fake wrestling.” The blatant violence, which sent at least seven people to the hospital, including one who had been stabbed, left some wondering: Where were the police in all this? That question has been repeated regularly since Feb. 1 when activists shut down a Milo Yiannopoulos talk at UC Berkeley using tactics that included violence. It came up again in March after the first pro- and anti-Trump battle at Berkeley’s Civic Center Park. And now it’s being asked again, at least by some.
Berkeleyan Jack Prizmich wrote to city leaders this week to tell them “more needed to be done for this city not to earn a reputation as a place to come for a supervised street fight club.” He said he happened by the park Saturday en route to the YMCA and saw an “unbelievable amount of scuffling, brawling, assaults and punches thrown within a few feet of dozens of police officers with no reaction from them. When pleaded with to do something about the mayhem, the police merely stood silent. I then saw a half dozen bloodied faces and many more citizens being pepper-sprayed.… I saw blood on the streets of my city with city safety workers nearby doing little or nothing to respond to it.”
Police have said going into the crowd during this type of protest risks escalating the violence and leading to more injuries to officers and the public, including those who are trying to document events. Many of the recent critical questions about the police response have come up online from out-of-towners who may not know Berkeley’s recent history. In particular, the December 2014 Black Lives Matter protest where officers used tear gas and other force to clear Telegraph Avenue, which prompted a wave of public outrage that went on for months and caused the department to devote extensive resources to its own analysis of what happened. The city only recently settled a resulting lawsuit that changed the way BPD will document use of force going forward. Many who have spoken out at city meetings, including city officials, community members and local activists, have said they don’t want to see a militarized police force, and want BPD to facilitate free speech, not rush in heavy handed to protests.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, in a brief statement released Monday, said the police department did an “excellent job” in responding to the challenges that arose Saturday. He noted the 20 arrests police made and said investigators are pursing others. There was minimal property damage, and no one “uninvolved with the event” was hurt, he said. Arreguín was not available Wednesday to answer further questions.
Large-scale events like these consume significant city resources, and many basic questions remain unanswered: How much are these demonstrations costing taxpayers? The city says it may be able to provide that information in the future. Have charges been filed against any of the people arrested? The Alameda County district attorney’s office has not responded. What is the status of those who were injured? BPD has not replied, but medical outcomes are generally not released by the city, which cites privacy laws.
Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood filed a six-page memo with the Berkeley City Council earlier this week to provide an overview of Saturday’s events. He told Berkeleyside on Wednesday he’s heard the concerns raised about what some have seen as an ineffective response.
“That seems to be a question asked by people who weren’t there and people who aren’t from around here. It’s a false frame,” he said. “Yes, you can find times when there were fights, and officers were nearby, if you zero in on a moment. But it’s not the case” that police were just standing back and watching, he said.
Greenwood said there were 10 arrests, and another 15 arrest warrants, after the March protest, in addition to the 20 arrests Saturday. And “substantial criminal investigations are continuing,” he wrote in this week’s memo. Police used no force on members of the crowd at any point.
Greenwood said BPD took the stance it did because “putting a bunch of force into a situation of people mutually assaulting each other” is something he wanted to avoid. The city has made it clear organizers for Saturday’s events did not follow Berkeley’s event permit process; the city spokesman said last week this was an indicator of the type of event they wanted to have. Greenwood said the high number of onlookers with cameras is another concern.
“We don’t want to end up using force on people who are not committing a crime,” he said. “Unlike the participants, we are held accountable for every use of force. To inject force into that scenario does not seem to be the wisest move.”
Since the February Yiannopoulos riot — a situation that began on the UC Berkeley campus with University of California officers — police in Berkeley have been widely criticized on Twitter for being weak and letting violence and property damage go on around them. Greenwood said that criticism can take its toll emotionally. But he says his officers have made him proud.
“Our people did exactly what we asked of them,” he said.
Greenwood said the city has adjusted its response each time there’s a large demonstration, and has continued to learn from those events. This time, for the first time, the city used orange plastic fencing to mark off areas of Civic Center Park to keep the two factions — who planned a “battle for Berkeley” — somewhat separate. The fencing also helped police create checkpoints where officers could confiscate weapons or potential weapons.
Wrote Greenwood, “large elements of the factions arrived in the area armed and prepared to fight. The park strategy helped police to confiscate dozens of weapons, including sticks, wooden dowels, poles, a stun gun, mace, knives, bear spray, an axe handle, and pepper spray.” It wasn’t a perfect system, however. Greenwood said Wednesday he wasn’t able to fully staff those checkpoints throughout the day as more pressing assignments cropped up, and people left the demarcated area.
The fencing worked well to keep the dueling demonstrations apart, Greenwood said, until a group of masked and coordinated individuals arrived.
“At one point, about three dozen ‘antifa‘ entered the park over fencing, ultimately confronting demonstrators, and escalating violence, with fights and assaults breaking out. At one point, a person sprayed a large amount of chemical irritant, possibly pepper-spray, which exposed crowd members and police officers to the irritant,” Greenwood wrote in the memo.
That group’s entrance was a turning point that shifted the day “into violent confrontation,” Greenwood said Wednesday.
Greenwood said in his memo that at least eight officers were injured, including several who had hearing loss due to illegal explosives thrown at them, exposure to pepper spray and a knee injury. According to the Berkeley Police Association, the unofficial numbers are much higher. At a recent meeting, 20-30 officers said they experienced a hearing injury, and 40 said they were pepper-sprayed by the crowd.
After that group of antifa arrived, Greenwood put out the mutual aid request to the county. The Oakland Police Department responded, and sent 180 people, “including squads of officers, motorcycle officers, supervisors and commanders. Community members may have seen the convoy of OPD responders, as they responded en masse. OPD support allowed us to focus on targeted arrest activity, while ensuring that, for example, City Hall was secured,” he wrote, because confrontations were taking place nearby. Greenwood said OPD helped with “some other details,” too. Some community members noticed the OPD helicopter hovering overhead; BPD told Berkeleyside on Saturday that OPD brought the helicopter as a tool to use for its own efforts, not to help BPD. (BPD has no helicopter and is not allowed to dispatch helicopters in crowd control situations.)
Eventually, the crowd moved into the roadway, fighting at times and walking up Center Street, and along Allston Way and Milvia Street, into the heart of downtown.
“A number of assaults between demonstrators occurred in this immediate area, and demonstrators also blocked traffic in the intersections through their presence,” Greenwood wrote. “Ultimately, the crowd, reduced in size, moved to the sidewalks after a targeted arrest, and a line of officers directed people back to the sidewalk. Traffic was opened up, and there were no further incidents of violence.”
City spokesman Matthai Chakko said, despite the demonstration, normal life went on for most people in downtown Berkeley that day. He said neighborhood merchants and residents alike told the city they felt protected.
“We had activities throughout the downtown with no impact,” he said, noting plays and movies went on as planned. “I was downtown on Shattuck and I saw parents pushing kids down the street in strollers.”
Chakko said organizers of large demonstrations should work with the city through its event permit process if they are serious about public safety. Those who don’t use the permit process put themselves, and others, in harm’s way, he said.
“It’s a challenge when people are reckless with their own safety and the safety of others,” Chakko said. “The people who are being reckless … we still try to keep them safe.”
Greenwood says BPD’s main mission Saturday, and in other protests, has been to protect lives and make arrests when the situation allows it — and is safe for a team of officers to move in.
“We are rightly expected to not get swept into the volatility of the crowd. This is in keeping with the values of our community, and the best-informed practices of Law Enforcement across the country, in a time where community trust in our actions is absolutely essential,” he wrote in the memo to council. “A fight within a volatile crowd is not a simple matter in which to intervene.… Intervention requires a major commitment of resources, a significant use of force, and carries with it the strong likelihood of harming those who are not committing a crime.”
Greenwood declined to say what Berkeley might do in the future to stop repeat street brawls, but said the city learns and adjusts every time there’s a demonstration. He said the city has been diligent in its planning and will continue to be. He said, too, that tactics will not be shared in advance.
“The solutions are going to be nuanced and complex,” Greenwood said.
Last week, the city declined to say much about its preparations for Saturday’s demonstrations. In the past, the city has said sharing too many details could compromise safety.
Community members like Paul Kealoha Blake — who has publicly critiqued many aspects of local policing for decades — said he, for one, believes the complaints this time are largely unfounded. He said the searches for weapons were good, though he would have preferred community input on that process. In the park, in particular, he said the police strategy seemed pretty solid.
“They weren’t rushing headlong into the crowd. There was no long drawn out path-blocking, police line. They were almost surgical in their approach,” he said. And Blake noted that, when police did move in to make arrests, those interactions appeared to act as a deterrent to some of the bad behavior.
“I don’t buy the criticisms of them doing nothing. I would point to this: no broken windows, no property damage,” he said. “And there will be no lawsuits based on the police clubbing someone. I like that. I think that’s better.”
Police say they plan to release photographs of “currently unidentified suspects” to the public soon and will ask for help to identify them and others. Those with information can call BPD at 510-981-5900. BPD has also created a website for those who wish to upload photos or videos.