War Zone Berkeley

It was Saturday night (Dec 6th), and I was about to watch a video when a noisy helicopter started whirling overhead where I live in north Berkeley. This is a quiet residential neighborhood; the chopper was really noisy, and it didn’t go away. Finally I went outside to look. It was flashing a bright spotlight downwards. So what might that be about? A robbery in progress? Maybe someone held up a liquor store over on University Avenue; that’s where the spotlight kept pointing.

Four or five police vehicles shot past my house, red and blue lights flashing. Wow! The police seemed to be taking this really seriously, whatever it was. I guessed they were overreacting, but who knows, there might be a gunman holed up with a hostage. Curiosity got the better of me, and without even pausing to get my notebook I headed out. University Avenue was only a few blocks away, walking distance.

Sirens were wailing out there on the dark tree-lined streets. The chopper continued to rattle around overhead. I passed three elderly persons and stopped to ask them if they knew what might be happening. “It’s a demonstration,” said one, “If we were 25 years younger we’d be out there marching with them.” The others chuckled approvingly.

On Acton street, just before coming to University, police vehicles were blocking the street. Would they let me through? (This was my neighborhood, after all.) I continued on; they weren’t stopping me. In a dark parking lot behind a liquor store to the right of me was a bunch of riot police, dozens of them. In the shadows of the street behind it even more riot police were hidden away; it looked like hundreds — a small army of militarized police, ready to turn our neighborhood into a war zone.

(News reports later reported that a hundred police came from other cities around the Bay Area. To me it looked like a lot more than a hundred, though in the dark it was hard to say.)

Reaching University Avenue I saw it was not a really large demonstration, 200 or maybe 300. There seemed to be more cops than protesters. (News reports put the number at 400 marchers and said there’d been over a thousand earlier in the evening.) They were in the midst of the intersection and no traffic was getting through.

“I can’t breath!” they were chanting — the last words of Eric Garner. It was only ten days since a grand jury had refused to indict the Ferguson cop who murdered Michael Brown, and this week a New York grand jury echoed the Missouri decision, refusing to indict a police officer in the chokehold killing of Eric Garner. That’s what this demonstration was about — a call for police accountability.

Most of the protesters were young, presumably students. A few elderly persons in the gathering told me they were nearby residents who’d come out to join them. “Isn’t it great to see these young people out here!” one of them said to me, “They’re not going to give up on this!”

I was glad to see Russell Bates of Berkeley Cop Watch there on the scene, and KPFA reporter Anthony Fest.

A dozen riot police were lined up along the sidewalk, brandishing their clubs menacingly. The rest of them, the ones I’d seen on my way here, presumably continued to lurk in the shadows beyond. Why were they there? And so many of them.

People here in the intersection seemed to be keeping their cool. Finally around 8:30 p.m. the demonstration set out marching back uptown, and I went home.

That was what I saw from about 8:00 to 8:30 p.m., Saturday, December 6th. There was a lot more that I didn’t see that night. Earlier that evening the riot police had attacked the demonstration on MLK Way; following that windows were smashed. The work of agent provocateurs? That’s what some of the protesters suspected, that cops in street clothes had infiltrated the demonstration and were involved in the vandalism. Later that evening, after I left, police attacked the demonstration again. Among the memorable moments is a video of riot police in some residential area. It’s in the middle of the night and police are waking people up with loudspeakers, advising them to close their windows because teargas might be used in the neighborhood. (I suppose we could call that a public service announcement, courtesy of the Berkeley Police Department.)

Daniel Borgström is a member of the KPFA Local Station Board Rescue Pacifica Caucus. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Kennedy years, and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes on various topics including travel, history, and struggles against corporate dominance.  He can be reached at danielfortyone@gmail.com Read other articles by Daniel, or visit Daniel's website.