Cal student activist says his arrest by Berkeley police was due to racial profiling

UC Berkeley undergraduate Ismael Chamu said he was traumatized and disrespected during his arrest in Berkeley last week. (The name is spelled differently on the ID bracelet from jail above.) Photo: Ismael Chamu

Update, July 14: Ismael Chamu has been arrested in connection with the vandalism and hate crime case BPD said it was investigating last week. We broke the news, and also have comments from the mayor about the investigation.

Original story, July 1: A Facebook post by a UC Berkeley student activist about his arrest last week in Berkeley has prompted questions about racial profiling from officials and community members in recent days, and has been shared online thousands of times.

The mayor has already asked the Berkeley police chief to look into the matter, and 19 incoming UC Berkeley student senators have signed a statement describing the arrest as racial profiling. Numerous people shared the Facebook post with Berkeleyside and asked for more information.

Ismael Chamu, a 21-year-old from Los Banos who just completed his junior year at Cal, said he was walking in the Frat Row area south of the UC Berkeley campus early Tuesday morning when officers rushed at him and a friend, handcuffed them and subsequently arrested him. (Police records indicate the arrest was actually Wednesday.) Chamu said officers from the Berkeley Police Department and the Alameda County sheriff’s office proceeded, in the ensuing days, to mock him for being Mexican. He was released at 6 p.m. Thursday, 39 hours after his arrest, without being charged with a crime, according to his Facebook post. The post has been shared more than 2,700 times and has sparked more than 400 comments.


BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood said Chamu and a second person were stopped shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday in the 2300 block of Warring Street because police were looking for suspects in a burglary that had just happened. They were detained “because they matched the broadcast description” from a “‘hot prowl’ burglary” — where victims are inside at the time of the crime.

According to Greenwood, an officer saw Chamu duck behind a vehicle when he saw police, and appeared to set something down. Greenwood said an officer recovered a knife under that vehicle during the investigation. According to a photograph of the knife provided by BPD, it was a 6-inch knife with a 2.5-inch blade. Police arrested Chamu on suspicion of possession of an illegal weapon, the spring-loaded folding knife, said Greenwood. The young man was not identified in a line-up as one of the burglary suspects.

Greenwood said he has already told his staff to look into Chamu’s allegations. “Given the apparent interest in this matter, I thought it best to respond to you as quickly as possible,” he said in an email Friday night.

Chamu wrote on Facebook that he’s been plagued by anxiety and unable to eat since his release.

“I was kidnapped by armed agents. I was humiliated. I have been traumatized,” Chamu wrote at about 11 p.m. Thursday. “The Police racially profiled me for being Mexican. For looking like a ‘Burglar’ for appearing ‘Dangerous.’ I will never forget this.”

Chamu did not mention the switchblade in his Facebook post and has not been available for comment.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín, commenting on Facebook on Friday afternoon, confirmed he had already asked BPD for answers: “Unacceptable that this happened,” he wrote.

Chamu shared complaints about police conduct and the legal process in his Facebook post. He said he was thrown into the back of the BPD police vehicle and strip-searched at the jail. He also said BPD officers “mocked me repeatedly for ‘not speaking English'” and that a sheriff’s deputy later “Mocked me … saying ‘Tu no Hablas Espanol o inlges tu little Frijol, you a little Bean’ he would laugh and slap his knees. I felt so low and angry.”

Sheriff’s office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said, after publication Saturday, that he forwarded the allegations to the internal affairs unit following the Berkeleyside inquiry. Kelly said he hopes Chamu will contact the sheriff’s office and added, “we take these allegations very seriously.”

Chamu said he was kept in Berkeley until early Thursday morning, then taken to Oakland to a different jail, where he was held until Thursday night. He never went to court and never saw an attorney, despite having requested one.

That is not unusual. In Alameda County, the first court hearing, where charges are read to the defendant, can take one to three days to schedule, and clients with public defenders do not meet their attorneys until that time. People arrested in Berkeley are generally held at Berkeley Jail until the morning of their arraignment.

Chamu said online that he does plan to pursue a legal remedy and that the police department can expect to hear from him.

“I did no … wrong but exist in my Brown skin in a predominately upper White class neighborhood. I need justice and I will obtain it by any means needed,” he wrote in a follow-up post Friday morning. His descriptions prompted extensive messages of support, advice to file a lawsuit and a complaint, and at least one offer of free chiropractic care to help ease the back pain Chamu says resulted from lying on concrete at the Oakland jail for more than 12 hours Thursday. Many of the responses expressed outrage at police and demanded transparency and accountability from the city.

It’s not Chamu’s first time publicly sharing his experience of harassment due to race. He told the Daily Cal last year that he was carrying groceries home after the November election when “a red Ford pickup truck driven by two white men slowed beside him — ‘Son-of-a-bitch wetback,’ one of the men yelled before driving away.”

Even before the arrest, Chamu made it clear he had no love lost for police. He has posted extensively on his public social media pages about the need to question authority in the battle for racial equity. Last week, he criticized the Berkeley City Council for voting to continue to participate in the controversial Urban Shield first-responder training program, writing, “These politicians do not care about Black and Brown bodies.… Remember, Berkeley is not a safe haven. Let’s say this together fuck the police.”

In recent months, he’s decried police and the legal system, gentrification, the tech industry, “the right wing” and “their free speech,” liberals, progressives and the Democratic Party. A photograph he posted on his Facebook page in May might sum it up best: He is standing beneath graffiti on a wall that says, “Against all authority except my mom.” His caption reads, “The Core of Rebellion.”

After protests in Berkeley earlier this year, Chamu also posted in support of the antifascist movement and said police protected white supremacists and were “hand in hand with Nazis” during demonstrations in town.

Chamu, who is studying public health and political science, wrote on Thursday that he was having trouble healing from his experience in jail.

“They stole 2 days of my life. I missed a Scholarship Interview, a Fellowship Skype interview and work,” he wrote. “I want the world to see this injustice. I was not a teacher, or a student, or a scholar. I was but a Criminal Mexican in thier [sic] … eyes.”

People who wrote to Berkeleyside said they had seen Chamu’s post online and felt the concerns raised were troubling.

“I hope this isn’t true,” wrote one poster on Facebook. “Racism should play no part in policing in Berkeley.”

Wrote another person, on public safety app Wildfire, “I’m so conflicted because I’ve heard of these things happening all across our country, but it kills me that Berkeley PD of all police departments could be responsible. That being said, this is just the account of a singular person, so I guess we should take it with a grain of salt?”

Incoming UC Berkeley ASUC senators, in the statement posted Friday, described Chamu’s detainment and arrest as “violent,” and wrote that “state violence … should not be tolerated by the City of Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley, or any community.”

They continued: “We urge the City of Berkeley officials to push forward a thorough investigation into this incident and continuously work to monitor the actions of the Berkeley Police Department. We also urge administration of UC Berkeley to engage in conversation with the ASUC and students to further support measures that will keep our campus community safe, while recognizing the trauma marginalized communities experience at the hands of police departments.”

Chamu has been quoted repeatedly in the Daily Californian student paper about a variety of campus issues. He has said it’s also important for students to be engaged off campus, too. He said, in a 2015 Daily Cal story about a memorial he attended in honor of 43 Mexican college students who went missing the prior year, “We as students at UC Berkeley have the power to influence real life politics.”

The Berkeley Police Department has come under fire from activists in recent months for being too slow to release an analysis of traffic and pedestrian stops that some have said show racial bias.

Though there has been some criticism, the department has a longstanding reputation for progressive values, and officers who are more educated, experienced and professional than those in many other law enforcement agencies.

According to the most recent city data available, which came out last summer, there were 46 complaints filed by members of the public against officers in Berkeley in 2015 related to more than 112,000 calls for service. The most common allegation involved improper procedure, with “discourtesy” a distant second, followed by a category for improper stops, seizures or arrests. Harassment and improper use of force were the next most common type of allegation.

All six of the complaints sustained by either the Police Review Commission or the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau last year were related to “discourtesy,” though IAB sustained 24 complaints related to improper procedure.

There were no sustained complaints in the other categories: improper use of force; improper stops, searches, seizures or arrests; improper detention; discrimination; or harassment.

The PRC has sustained no use of force allegation since 2013. Further, most of the panel’s findings against BPD that are appealed are later overturned by a judge, according to the PRC’s annual report.

There have been no officer-involved shootings in Berkeley since 2012. In February of that year, police shot a man who tried to run over an officer, crushing him between two cars. Two months later, police shot a murder suspect who opened fire on officers surrounding the building he had fled into during a chase. Neither incident was fatal. Nearly two years before that, in June 2010, officers shot and killed Choung Nguyen after he pulled out a gun and fired at them following a chase through Albany.

[Editor’s Note: Chamu was arrested early Wednesday morning, although he listed the day as Tuesday in his Facebook post. This story was corrected to reflect that. Sunday, sheriff’s office comments were added to the story after they were provided to Berkeleyside.]