“Our campus has never experienced what it went through on Wednesday,” UCPD Police Chief Margo Bennett said Friday night, some 48 hours after protesters and police clashed over the planned appearance of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on the UC Berkeley campus.
An estimated 1,500 people took part in demonstrations against Yiannopoulos that night, with perhaps 100-200 of them using what UC Berkeley has described as “paramilitary tactics, including hurling Molotov cocktails, setting fires, throwing fireworks at police, pushing barricades into windows and damaging campus and city property.”
In the hours and days following Wednesday night’s protests, many — particularly outside the Bay Area — have decried the police response, both on campus and in the city of Berkeley. Two entirely separate law enforcement agencies handle those jurisdictions: the University of California Police Department, a statewide agency, handles security on university property including on campus, and the Berkeley Police Department, which deals with the rest of the city.
Chief Bennett said she had heard about the nationwide outcry from some people who said the police should have done much more to keep order. But she said there had been “tremendous support” from the UC Berkeley community about how events unfolded.
“We are getting a significant amount of criticism from outside of the East Bay area, and my only response to that is: Crowd control situations are different than a military exercise or an active shooter situation,” she said. “It’s just a different approach and a different set of tactics that you have to use in order to not escalate the situation, in order to control it. People have a hard time understanding that. I get it.”
BPD also faced criticism because it made no arrests and looked, to many, to be doing little to stop extensive vandalism to more than a dozen local businesses. BPD has said its mission Wednesday night, due to its limited resources, was to focus on protection of life rather than protection of property. In the city, the costs of property damage and clean-up efforts have not been tallied.
On campus, UC Berkeley has estimated the damage from Wednesday night’s protests will cost $100,000 to fix. UCPD made just one arrest that night, of a 19-year-old man who failed to leave the area of the protests despite repeated dispersal orders. Some have expressed anger that UCPD did not do more to help injured people who were attacked on campus as the initially peaceful demonstration on Sproul Plaza took a violent turn when “black bloc” members of the crowd reportedly threw Molotov cocktails and bricks, shattered glass, set fires and more.
A woman named Katrina, who was interviewed by radio host Stefan Molyneux, said she and her husband were left with serious injuries when the crowd turned on them. She was pepper-sprayed, she said, and left with a concussion. When she tried to get help from campus police, who had taken a position inside a building, she said, they would not let her inside. Ultimately, the couple sought help at the hospital.
Chief Bennett said UCPD did get a report from a local hospital about someone who had been treated. But she said police at times have to make tough calls to minimize the potential for violence overall.
“In situations like that, we understand that if we go out and we engage — with the level of force and the presence of the trained anarchist-style protesters that were present — it will embolden the protesters and it will escalate the level of violence,” she said. “And our officers exercised, I think, some very tough and extreme restraint.”
The goal Wednesday night, she said, initially was to ensure that the event occurred and that anyone who wanted to express their First Amendment rights could do so. UCPD aimed to protect life, and also to protect property. But hard decisions had to be made in the end.
“We prioritize the protecting of life higher than everything else,” she said. “Some broken windows, we can accept. The fact that no one was seriously injured is a blessing when that level of violence was occurring.”
Bennett said first-responders rescued and gave medical aid to four people. Three of them had been pepper-sprayed by other protesters. One person had been assaulted. Bennett said none of those people wanted to make police reports, however. All four received first aid at the scene and then left on their own.
Regarding the pepper spray, she noted, it has reportedly been used by members of the crowd on police at other protests in Berkeley in Oakland, but never on campus.
“This was part of the black bloc that used pepper spray,” she said.
Bennett said she heard about several other people, “wandering injured,” who had been helped by the Berkeley Fire Department and Paramedics Plus ambulance service, but all of them declined transport to the hospital.
The chief also said it was not clear Wednesday night who in the crowd was being attacked, whether it was people who had come to see Milo, or others: “We don’t have any way of knowing. It appears to be random in the crowd, and the crowd was mixed together.” UCPD has asked anyone who was injured to contact the department, at 510-642-6760, so it can complete its investigation and make sure appropriate services are offered.
As for injuries to officers, one reported suffering some hearing loss after an M-80 landed right beside him. Bennett said she wasn’t sure if that injury would be temporary or permanent.
She described the demonstrators who used violent tactics as a “well-trained paramilitary style group,” adding: “They were all dressed alike. They brought weapons with them. Their presence at a public event on campus is not something we’ve experienced before.”
Bennett declined to state how many officers UCPD had on campus, but said nine of the 10 University of California campuses sent officers to help. UCPD also called the Alameda County sheriff’s office for what’s known as “mutual aid,” and officers from around the county, including Oakland, responded to help. But Bennett said she could not say how many officers came from which agencies because those are tactical details that could compromise security if shared.
Despite widespread reports online about what was called a “stand down order” by police in Berkeley, Bennett said that never happened. In fact, that isn’t a law enforcement term, she said.
“I don’t know what a ‘stand down’ order is,” she said. “We did not tell anyone to stand down. What we did tell officers to do was: ‘Hold your post.'”
When rocks, M-80s, flares and Molotov cocktails started flying, she said, “we had [officers] pull back into the building because our job was going to be to hold the building. That’s where our post was,” inside the Pauley Ballroom in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union where the Milo event was slated to have taken place.
She said UCPD grenadiers did shoot “less-lethal munitions,” including pepper balls and paint balls, to mark offenders for possible arrest later, and to keep demonstrators away from the building. Bennett said that approach ultimately did keep people at bay, and also interrupted protester assaults on other members of the crowd.
All UCPD officers who used force, she said, would be required to document it as per longstanding department policy. Bennett said a special report would be completed about the demonstrations, but she did not know whether or in what form it might become publicly available.
Some have also questioned why UCPD gave so many dispersal orders to the crowd but did not act right away. Bennett said the law does not require immediate action following dispersal orders, and that UCPD was waiting for mutual aid to arrive from other law enforcement agencies so that it was in a position to act.
“We waited until we were ready,” she said.
Bennett said the public needs to know that dispersal orders are not given lightly, and should be obeyed.
“When you hear it, you should know exactly what it means,” said Bennett. “And what it means is, you need to leave, and we will take action if you don’t.”
One of the frustrations of the night for police, she added, was that people unaware of the protests and violence were wandering around campus and through the area of the demonstrations, potentially putting themselves at risk. UCPD put out a “shelter-in-place” order at about 6:15 p.m. But not everyone got it. Officers on the scene tried to advise pedestrians about the situation, but it didn’t always work.
“We’re trying to explain, it’s not safe for you to go there,” she said, “and they keep walking.”
Bennett said, as far as she could recall, Wednesday evening’s “shelter in place” advisory was the first to go out campus-wide since perhaps 2011. As a result, she said, not everyone may be familiar with exactly what it means or how important it is to take heed. She compared it to the “stop, drop and roll” fire safety advice many learn as children, and said, these days, everyone needs to have a similar immediate and reflexive response to “shelter in place.”
“This is really the first time where we’ve had an incident where it was dangerous for people to come out,” she said, continuing: “It was appropriate to use that caution.”
Bennett said the university already does try to educate the campus community about what “shelter in place” means, but that more drills and presentations are likely in the works “to help ingrain that into our institution.… to expose them to this, and put it out there frequently. Hopefully it’ll stick.”
Both UCPD and BPD used the Nixle system Wednesday to put out safety alerts. The system offers email and text alerts to anyone who signs up. BPD sent out 13 advisories to the community to keep them informed about developments. UCPD sent out four alerts.
But some of those alerts were delayed to campus affiliates, Bennett said. UCPD actually put out a follow-up Nixle alert at about 5:15 p.m. Thursday — nearly 24 hours after the initial alert — to make it clear to people that the shelter-in-place warning had been lifted.
“Please be advised that as of 3am on Thursday February 2nd, there have been no more reports of riot activity on, or near the UC Berkeley campus and a Shelter-In-Place order is NO LONGER in effect,” the alert read.
It’s not the first time there’s been a delay either. Earlier this year, when police were looking for a UC Berkeley student they said stabbed one woman and killed another, alerts to the community came late and were delayed to many.
Bennett confirmed to Berkeleyside that there had been a delay as far as some of the emails that went out Wednesday to the campus community, but said UC Berkeley is “working with the vendor to discover what happened.”
Time will tell exactly when UC Berkeley will have to face a similar challenge again. But there’s no reason to think it won’t.
The East Bay Times reported Saturday afternoon that Milo hopes to return to the Bay Area to speak within the next few months, “to give the speech I was prevented from delivering,” he wrote on Facebook.
More than 34,000 people liked the post, which had been shared nearly 1,000 times as of publication time.
UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof told the East Bay Times, however, he’d heard nothing from student groups to indicate that appearance is slated for the Cal campus.
Bennett said, in the future, if controversial events are planned on campus, UCPD will be involved with hosts to work to ensure those events are safe. She declined to go into detail about what might have been done differently Wednesday, but said her agency will learn from the past as it plans for the future.
“We will make changes and adapt as we move forward,” Bennett said.