Graphic Content: Police Riot in Violent Clash with Protesters in Berkeley Over Racist Police Actions
Protest organizers claim that contrary to mainstream media reports, it was the police, not the protesters, who rioted on Saturday night on the outskirts of the University of California-Berkeley, provoking one of the most intense confrontations in the Bay Area in years (video below).
“When we got up to march to the university, the cops went into major overkill,” Yvette Felarca said Sunday. She recounted what happened after several hundred marchers led by her group, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), left a plaza in front of the Berkeley police station, where they marched to protest the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.
“The cops blocked our way and stopped two feet ahead of our front line,” Felarca said, describing how rows of officers in riot gear appeared to face down marchers. “The cops lunged at them. They were attacking and it was completely out of pocket. People were like, ‘What the hell are you doing? This is completely unacceptable.’”
What unfolded next and into the evening was a script that is familiar to anyone who saw the militarized reponse in Ferguson, Missouri, this past August, where police drew on the same tactics—inciting and attacking protesters and using excessive force and tear gas. Across America, the culture and practice of policing too easily spins out of control.
That initial charge by Berkeley police into the march’s frontlines sparked a cat-and-mouse chase during the next several hours, according to accounts by Felarca and 20 other protesters who assembled on Sunday to review the incident.
“We regrouped. They regrouped. The cops were surrounded,” she said. “They chose to incite and escalate things. They shot off smoke bombs to clear people out. We regrouped on the corner of Martin Luther King and University. There were some people who chose to express their anger at what happened by attacking businesses [breaking windows].”
The vandalism led to police declaring a riot was underway, a UC Berkeley policeman explained on background before the BAMN meeting began. That order, in turn, allowed the police to use all available force to clear the streets, he explained, which included the “kettles” or attempted roundups, Felarca and others described.
“We escaped five police kettles,” she said. “We stayed together and found a way through people’s yards and back to the university [where the march had begun hours before]. The police attacked protesters again and again. One guy was hit so hard he had a seizure. Another was hit so hard, his kneecap was broken.”
“Any time we came close to a residential area, plenty of those folks came out,” said a protester named David. “There were hundreds of people out there. While we were trying to find a way to get back to the university, they were saying to the cops, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
The marchers did find their way back to the campus, where the protest began. Along the way, the police had begun to fire tear gas as helicopters circled overhead. Students who smelled tear gas wafting into nearby campus buildings came out and joined the protesters.
When the police used megaphones telling everyone to disperse, protesters and students chanted, “We go home when you go home,” Felarca said. The police finally encircled the protesters, who somehow managed to break through and then head down another major commercial strip before finally dispersing into nearby residential streets.
“That was the most over-the-top police response and riot that I have seen in recent weeks,” said Tom, a protester and middle-school teacher from Oakland. “We have to embarrass the city council and city government of Berkeley. This is a Democratic Party city… The policy of gunning down anyone is not just an issue for the black community. They went after the students here.”
“People of faith are committed to this issue of racial justice,” another protester said. “People of faith talk about being voices in the wilderness. That voice last night was saying, ‘We can’t breathe [Eric Garner’s last words].’”
BAMN’s organizers presented a list of demands that they would pursue as they plan more marches. They want charges dropped against anyone who was arrested. They want the UC system to revive affirmative action and remove UC president Janet Napolitano. They want the government to abolish or reform the grand jury system, which frequently exonerates policemen who kill unarmed civilians. And they want the fall semester’s deadlines extended so students can participate in ongoing protests.
“We do not accept the police occupying UC Berkeley and our community,” Felarca said. “We won last night. We came out stronger.”
(Editor's note. On Sunday evening, hundreds of protesters led by BAMN met on the U.C. campus and marched back to the police department to protest Saturday night's crackdown. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that protesters were met by cops in riot gear. As the protesters kept marching in the downtown area, a group broke off and tried to shut down a nearby highway, where they clashed with California Highway Patrol officers but stopped traffic. In downtown Berkeley, several police cars and businesses were vandalized, the Chronicle reported, noting that some protesters tried to stop the attacks. Shortly before midnight, Berkeleyside.com reported anarchists were smashing windows of banks, police cars and setting fires along a commercial strip near the university. #berkeleyprotests on Twitter reported that some protesters were putting out fires and guarding stores with broken windows.)