By Frances Dinkelspiel and Tracey Taylor
The Berkeley Police Department deliberately held back from using tear gas during the protests Sunday night under orders from City Manager Christine Daniel, according to city officials.
Mayor Tom Bates said Monday that he and other Berkeley City Council members had been disturbed by the aggressive tone of the demonstrations Saturday night, when Berkeley police shot rubber bullets, other projectiles, and tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators who refused to leave Telegraph Avenue. He conveyed this concern to Daniel, who apparently was also concerned. She then told Berkeley police to refrain from using tear gas unless absolutely necessary.
Protesters smashed more than a dozen windows and sprayed graffiti on businesses up and down Shattuck Avenue, as well others on Telegraph Avenue, Sunday night. While a few businesses were damaged in the Saturday protests, including Wells Fargo Bank on San Pablo Avenue and Radio Shack on Shattuck, which was hit both nights, the damage was more severe the night of the stepped-back police response.
We regarded “the use of tear gas to be questionable,” said Bates. “We didn’t want to see it happen again unless absolutely necessary…. There was a backing off.”
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan did not respond to requests for comments. Matthai Chakko, the spokesman for the city of Berkeley, provided this explanation:
“The department has a number of tools, which they use when appropriate,” Chakko said in an email. “They take a number of factors into consideration about what they decide to employ. BPD assessed its response to the events based on the resources available through mutual aid and the activity of demonstrators. The safety of everyone – protesters, the community and police – is paramount.”
Berkeley is run by a City Charter, which gives the city manager the authority over city departments, including the police department. The council has the authority to hire and fire the city manager.
Police criticized for approach on both nights
The police were criticized both nights, regardless of the approach they took — to be aggressive, kettle or surround the protesters, and use tear gas to control the crowd, or hang back and not engage.
Ronald Cruz, the attorney for the group By Any Means Necessary, which helped coordinate the protests, told KQED Forum that police were the aggressors on Saturday night. It was police who shot rubber bullets into peaceful protesters after they did not act on orders to disperse. Then they used tear gas. (Police have said it was the protesters who began the aggression, by lobbing smoke, bricks and sand bags at officers, causing injuries.)
Cruz also blamed the city for not reaching out to talk to the protesters. On the same program, Mayor Bates said he wanted to talk to the organizers of the demonstrations. He added that those who wear masks and are intent on destruction should take off their masks and make themselves known.
In the video below, posted on Instagram on Dec. 6 by mediablackoutusa, police can be seen hitting people with batons:
The Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has also expressed concern that the police violated the constitutional right of a number of journalists by hitting them with batons.
“SPJ has been in touch with a number of working journalists who say they were struck with police batons while working and clearly displaying press credentials,” SPJ President Lila LaHood wrote in a letter addressed to Bates and Meehan. “In one incident, a journalist who was on assignment tells SPJ that he was holding out press credentials and telling an officer he was a news photographer when struck. This same journalist also reported seeing a colleague take “serious blows” from police who “hit him with impunity,” despite the fact that the colleague was “obviously press.” Other reporters also described witnessing or experiencing similar assaults.”
The protests started off peacefully both nights, with hundreds of people marching to decry the killings by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. But a small group of people often identified as “black bloc” anarchists were among the marchers, and some of them appeared intent on causing property damage. They smashed the windows of banks and small businesses, and set numerous trashcan fires.
On Saturday, Berkeley police, as well as officers from Oakland, Alameda, Hayward, Pleasanton and the Alameda County sheriff’s department, tried to keep a tight perimeter on the protesters. There were an estimated 1,000 protesters before violence began. After the demonstrators marched down University Avenue and were thwarted in their attempt to get on the freeway, they returned to Telegraph between Bancroft and Dwight. The police had a strong presence and formed lines right in front of the protesters.
When the demonstrators did not disperse after multiple orders and warnings to do so, police shot rubber bullets and tear gas at them at various points through the night. Officers also used batons on numerous protesters, leaving some bloodied and hurt, according to several reports.
Berkeley police have contended they only responded with force after protesters threw gas and rocks at them.
On Sunday, the Berkeley police were much less visible. The 500 to 600 marchers were almost given free rein in the city streets. It was not until they marched down Telegraph Avenue toward Highway 24 in Oakland that they were greeted by a phalanx of CHP officers. Many of the demonstrators managed to get on the freeway anyway, and stopped traffic for at least a half hour before CHP pushed them off the highway down an exit ramp to Claremont Avenue.
The demonstrators then started to return to Berkeley. As they marched in Oakland, some members of the group vandalized two police cars, setting one on fire. Then they proceeded to smash the windows and spray paint graffiti many businesses in Berkeley, including CREAM, Bank of America and Whole Foods on Telegraph; and Chase Bank, Mechanics Bank, Walgreens, Sprint, Radio Shack, Berkeley Bowl, True Value Eastern Supplies, Missing Link and many others on Shattuck Avenue. Nearly every block of Telegraph and Shattuck was affected with garbage cans being overturned and thrash being set on fire, and stores vandalized and looting. They also smashed the front door of City Hall on Milvia Street and defaced the YMCA on Allston Way. Many of the windows at McDonald’s on University Ave. were also broken. The protest continued to about 3 a.m. Some said the violence of the protest was in reaction to the use of force by police on Saturday.
“I do think the response by police on Saturday escalated things on Sunday,” said City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, who said he was disturbed by the use of tear gas and plans to call for an independent investigation into any reports of police brutality. “Using restraint (on Sunday) was good. I think the city is trying to find that balance between overreacting and reacting and having a presence so that anyone who commits violence or property damage can be arrested.”
Many of the demonstrators tried to stop the violence, but were threatened when they stepped up. In one case, a man who tried to stop people from breaking the windows of Radio Shack was hit in the face by a young, cloaked man with a hammer. He was taken to Highland Hospital with what Officer Jennifer Coats, Berkeley police spokeswoman, said were non-life threatening injuries.
Many peaceful protesters continued marching, tried to discourage people from causing destruction, often to little avail, and many tried to clean up some of the garbage and mess caused by the rioters.
Bates issued a statement Monday afternoon condemning the use of violence.
“I believe Berkeley citizens share in the nationwide concern over the events in Ferguson and New York City and recognize the need to address problems in police-community relations,” said Bates. “I fully support the right of citizens to peacefully protest and exercise their First Amendment rights, but the violence we’ve seen the past two nights in Berkeley is unacceptable”.
“While the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators were non-violent, we have had numerous reports of masked demonstrators as the main perpetrators of the damage and destruction. We don’t know who they are, but they are not welcome in Berkeley.
“We have also received accusations of police use of unnecessary force. Berkeley has one of the best police departments in the nation with an exemplary record of conduct. It’s possible that one or more officers may have exceeded what was required under the circumstances and could face discipline, but that determination requires an impartial review that we have not had an opportunity to complete yet.”
The aftermath and the clean-up
On Monday morning, many of these businesses were busy cleaning up. There were two glass installers working at the Walgreens on Shattuck, which had numerous windows smashed.
Tat Kwong, who has owned True Value Eastern Supplies at 2900 Shattuck Ave., said he heard his store had been vandalized when his cousin saw it on television. Kwong came down to the store around 12:45 a.m. and was able to use plywood from his own store to cover the broken glass. He will not be able to claim insurance for the damage, because it will not meet his $2,000 deductible, he said.
Billy Parlay, owner of Sandwich Spot on Shattuck Avenue said he had his staff stand in front of the store last night, so his storefront was okay.
“They started taking all the cans on my block and setting anything on fire,” he said. “There were 30 to 40 people, all messed up. They were breaking everything. Throwing cans in the road. Spray painting. Behind them was a young generation of protesters and they were cleaning everything up. The cops could have easily arrested that group. There was zero police presence on my block last night. Early on there were two police on bicycles. I said to one of them, “Would you mind staying here and helping protect me and my business?” He said, “No. Shut up shop and hope for the best.”
Parlay added that this morning it was nice to see people cleaning up. The community is helping out, he said.
Marcus Niles and Nelson Lopez, who both work for the Downtown Berkeley Association, were out on the streets before 8 a.m. on Monday with a truck equipped with a power washers. They were trying to get rid of the graffiti that had been painted on numerous businesses, including Fed Ex on Shattuck, the YMCA and Wells Fargo. But the water removal did not work well against some of the tags. They said those would have to be painted over.
Berkeley’s public works department worked throughout the night to keep the streets clean, said Chakko. Its economic development office also contacted the affected businesses.
Berkeley police reported a total of 11 arrests over the two days. According to Coats, one of the arrested individuals damaged Trader Joe’s on Saturday using his skateboard. Another individual, she wrote, was responsible for throwing a heavy object on Saturday, injuring one Berkeley police officer. Both were arrested for offenses on Saturday and Sunday.
Cruz of By Any Means Necessary said he is asking that Mayor Bates to reverse the decision to arrest protester Kyle McCoy for felony assault with a deadly weapon.
Four officers received minor injuries during the demonstrations, according to Coats.
Frustration that peaceful protests marred by violent faction
Many residents have expressed disappointment that what could have been peaceful demonstrations for a cause they support turned violent. The sentiment was expressed repeatedly in the hundreds of comments left on Berkeleyside’s coverage. “This is so ridiculous and counter-productive,” wrote TryingMyBest. “Berkeley is the kind of city that people should be looking towards as a model, not rioting and looting under the guise of ‘protesting.'” And Misty on Twitter wrote: “Heartbroken walking through Berkeley this AM. News crews w/cameras pointed at every broken window. Hate that this is going to be the story.”
Igor Tregub, who sits on the Zoning Adjustments Board, wrote in a comment: “[I am]…absolutely ashamed of the small minority of out of town residents who smashed windows, caused injury, and sullied what was supposed to be a peaceful and appropriate response to Ferguson and other events. As long as you hurt small businesses whose owners are just trying to eke out a living and have nothing to do with what the protest was about, you will continue to show your true colors and NOT be welcome in our community, which by the way will rebuild and become stronger than ever.”
In a release to the community City Manager Christine Daniel wrote: “It is tragic that in the context of such an important demonstration, the events of Dec. 6 and 7 resulted in violence, injuries and damage to the community.”
City braces for further protests
Meanwhile Cruz and By Any Means Necessary have called via email and social media for another protest to start Monday night. Demonstrators are being asked to gather at Bancroft and Telegraph to begin at march at 5 p.m.
Business owners, local government, schools and residents are taking steps to avoid getting caught up in more protests. Berkeley City College said it will close early today at 3:30 p.m, as did a local preschool. Berkeley High Schools canceled all-after school activities Monday as a precaution.
A reader reported her office manager had recommended employees leave today by 4 p.m. “to avoid encountering further mayhem tonight.”
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