December Berkeley Protests: Where Do We Go From Here?

Traditionally, the start of Dead Week in Berkeley may be known more for competition among students for coveted study spaces in Main Stacks than for large-scale protest, but the weekend of December 6th proved to be an exception. That Saturday night, the first cries of “No justice! No peace! No racist police!” began to ring on Telegraph. The protests began in reaction to racist police brutality, an issue brought to the forefront of our national discourse by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by (non-prosecuted) police officers. As murmurings of protest began in Berkeley, police officers from all around the Bay Area, some from cities as far away as Vallejo, Pleasanton, and Hayward, rolled into the city in windowless buses and modified Humvees that looked better suited to warzone roads riddled with improvised explosive devices than the relatively calm streets of a college town. It barely felt self-absorbed to say “the world was watching”—as choppers flew overhead, teargas spread, and rubber bullets hit protestors, the hashtag #berkeleyprotests reached trending status on Twitter. No one on campus, particularly on the Southside, could be deaf to the protest chants and constant stream of news about the events happening in full view of our dorm-room windows. Clearly, the protests were widely publicized. But the overwhelming presence of non-POC (people of color) leadership and co-optation of the protest by various outside elements distorted the crucial message that “Black lives matter.” Now with the protests over, people coming back to the daily humdrum of student life from a long winter hiatus, it is worth asking: will the protests be effective in the long-term, or as blindingly ephemeral as a police-thrown, crowd-deterring “flashbang” grenade?

Berkeley is often idealized as one of the most liberal, welcoming, and social justice-focused college campuses in America, but on a campus where African-American students make up barely 3% of the student body, marginalization is rampant. That marginalization was highlighted by the University’s radio silence on the events in Ferguson and New York. According to Mylo Santifer, a junior at Berkeley who chairs the Black Student Union’s executive board, “the University’s lack of care and attention to these issues need to be addressed. Berkeley purports to be progressive, but administrators need to do more to uphold those values.” In the immediate wake of the Eric Garner decision, the Black Student Union planned its successful December 4th occupation of the Golden Bear Café to emphasize that black lives matter, and to provide a space for the community to heal. Later, the Black Student Union planned a march to Oakland on December 13th, coordinating with the Oakland Millions March.

It is important to distinguish this POC student-led action from the protests on the weekend of December 6th that spawned the #berkeleyprotests hashtag. Stripped of the context of the Brown and Garner deaths and #BlackLivesMatter movement, anyone just looking at the demographics of protestors on the streets of Berkeley on the weekend of December 6th could be excused for thinking the issue at hand was not specific to people of color. After all, the majority of protestors were not black, and at times the main message—speaking out against the loss of black life to police brutality—grew muddled due to various causes. Every individual who shows up to a protest comes with an agenda; whether or not that agenda aligns with the main goals of the protest is never 100% predictable. The Berkeley Protests were no exception. Among the protestors, there were splinter groups devoted to issues unrelated to police brutality. They were most visible the night of Wednesday, December 10th, when protestors first shouting about Ferguson but eventually changing to chants about the NSA disrupted a Peter Thiel talk on campus. Other protestors may have joined the marches with good intentions but a lack of in-depth understanding of the dynamics of power and race within the movement. These individuals shouted slogans like “All lives matter!” in the name of greater “unity” or “solidarity,” unaware that such slogans detracted from the key point. We live in a society where only some lives are treated as if they matter by our schools, criminal justice systems, and governments. The focus must necessarily be on black lives.

But while most protestors were working for positive political and social change, the most widely publicized protestors were unfortunately the anarchic groups, who drew media attention disproportionate to their relatively miniscule size. These largely white-dominated groups appeared more interested in inciting civil unrest and property destruction than participating in peaceful protest. One source (who chose to remain anonymous as he saw himself as more of an ally than an authority on the protests) who was present during protests on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, observed that the protests on Sunday night were populated by a significantly smaller student contingency than Saturday’s and Monday’s events. Echoing the accounts of many protestors, he described the widely-publicized events of violence such as the vandalism of four police cars and the looting of the Radio Shack in Downtown Berkeley as the actions of isolated anarchists, not representative of the protestors as a whole. Walking along Bancroft during Sunday night’s protests, I witnessed one woman attempting to smash a Wells Fargo ATM with a spray paint can; protestors quickly surrounded her to dissuade her. Indeed, throughout the weekend many protestors tried to discourage those with violent intentions; when anarchists “were trying to break into Cream and lighting trashcans on fire, a lot of people were telling them off” and even “did arm links in front of businesses to protect them,” the anonymous source stated. On Monday night, when the protest spread into Emeryville later in the night and police arrested many protestors, I saw several men who seemed more bent on vandalism than spreading any particular message; one individual said, “I wanna break some s**t.” Another protestor, Guy Fawkes mask dangling at his neck, aimlessly swung a wooden plank as he stood on a street corner. A third whipped out a can of spray paint and tagged various parts of a freeway exit as protestors climbed the stairs to the overpass.

Some have argued that the most polarizing organization present at the protests, BAMN (the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary), failed to condemn or even adequately address incidents of violence within the protests. That was clear on Monday night in Downtown Berkeley outside the police station, when BAMN’s leader Yvette Felarca stood up with a megaphone. A number of protestors chanted “Peaceful protest!” and “Nonviolence!” Instead of amplifying those voices, Felarca responded with “Everyone protests in their own way,” the ambiguity of which seemed to condone the violent actions of rioting individuals. (Ms. Felarca did not respond to a request for comment.) The protests were a space ripe for exploitation by outside organizations, with a large number of participants being first-time protestors. Students who never attended Occupy or the tuition hike protests this year in Wheeler or other demonstrations in their communities wouldn’t have the experiences that allowed them to develop an understanding of the conventions around protests. Thus, people often reacted with confusion or indifference when someone would yell “Mic check,” due to a lack of knowledge as to how to react. Contrastingly, “BAMN had a bullhorn, so they get the attention of a lot of people very easily,” the anonymous source said. “They kind of twisted the message a little bit and made the protests unsavory to some people.”

The large non-POC contingency of the protests simply created a different dynamic than action led by black students, regardless of the presence of white anarchists, individuals detracting from the focus on black lives with “all lives matter” slogans, or controversial organizations mining the protests for impressionable followers. Many students who were not persons of color quietly cited voyeuristic and/or social aspects to their motivations for turning out. The protests were Snapchat gold: impassive police officers marching in unison and protestors with arms raised yelling “Hands up, don’t shoot!” became main characters in countless 10-second videos. “Meanwhile, at Berkeley…” became a common caption on photos students sent to their out-of-state friends. A classmate from my freshman seminar changed his Facebook timeline cover photo to a dramatic shot of him standing alone facing a line of police officers, illuminated by bright red and white lights from cop cars. The humdrum of academic life found an easy antidote in the melodrama of tear-gas haloed protest, and people knew it. Maybe no one was dying on Telegraph, but from the posts and pictures that flooded social media, it felt as if on these streets, as in no class or dorm room or office, heroes were being born and martyrs made. The Daily Cal reporter Adrienne Shih covered the protests day after day, her Twitter account, @adrienneshih, becoming a de facto place for information as she live-tweeted locations and events. She said, “What I saw was that on the first day, especially when it was on Southside, a lot of students came out because they heard ‘there’s a protest,’ they probably got excited.”

Some students choosing to protest in the name of excitement is a powerful reflection of privilege. Police brutality is terrorizing, not exciting, for the members of minority communities affected by it every day. Mylo Santifer pointed out that many of the white protestors who stood in the streets the weekend of December 6th “might be out there for the right to protest, or other issues; black people are out there for our lives.” Indeed, some chants during the protest were generic, and could be used for any protest, not just one focused on black lives. Chants such “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” spoke more about the performative action of protesting than the issue at hand. We yelled “Whose streets? Our streets!” but these streets are not yet the streets of people of color, and they will not be the streets of people of color until significant change—in our police forces, our internalized prejudices, and our institutionalized injustices—is accomplished. Community members have a duty to support that change in the name of justice, but as Santifer said, “If you’re a non-black person: check with black people, plug in with black organizers you know. Some people have been trying to help, but they don’t know how to help—they don’t experience the same terrorization that black people face as a result of police brutality and genocide.”

Although the Berkeley Protests of December 6th-8th may have splintered into uncertain pieces, many present expressed optimism more generally about the future of positive change on the issue of racist police brutality. One student commented, “It might not change federal policies, but what it did was open a larger conversation. By bringing it to people’s minds, you don’t force them to take a side, but you force them to think.” Adrienne Shih said the scale of the protests spoke powerfully to Berkeley’s legacy and reputation as a progressive institution, and that “so many students taking action was really exciting to see.” Mylo Santifer exhorted both allies and black students to “get involved with organizations. Build an infrastructure. Protesting is not the end—we need laws, we need policies, we need education even.” This echoes the sentiments of many at Berkeley, particularly those who feel a sense of protest fatigue and wonder what can be done to effect change more rapidly. Ultimately, students should reject the pull toward a wholly cynical response to the protests. Santifer concluded, “I feel like locally and nationally change will be made. We’re seeking to drive this point home and put pressure on this institution. This is something that is spreading everywhere. City council members and political leaders are coming under pressure to address [police brutality]. I’m going to work on this every day. I’m going to defend black lives.” As should we all—in ways that are constructive, respectful, and follow the lead of black student organizers within our campus community.

Featured image photo credit: Anoeil Odisho