Encountering the Berkeley Strangler in a Dark Alley

On the night of June 20th I came home from a Berkeley City Council meeting feeling like I’d met the Berkeley Strangler in a dark alley; later I saw this photo in the SF BayView newspaper:

(Credit:) SF BayView newspaper

You can see three of us holding a banner “Stop Urban Shield.”  To the left of me is a woman named Bridget, on my right (though not shown in the photo) was Russell Bates, a Navy veteran.  The large cop in front of me is Brian Mathis, one of the officers involved in the suffocation death of Kayla Moore.  Mathis and the other cops are yelling “Get back!  Get back!” shoving us with their batons.

The city council meeting took place in an auditorium packed with 400, possibly 500, people who were there to ask the mayor and council to terminate the city’s participation in “Urban Shield,” a DHS police militarization project.  We had reason to believe they would respond positively to our request; Berkeley’s recently elected progressive mayor, Jesse Arreguin, had even made a commitment to end it.  Nevertheless, at the end of a six-hour session, the city renewed the militarization project.

The audience was outraged, feeling betrayed and yelling “Shame on you!”  Several activists stepped up on the stage and unfurled a huge “Stop Urban Shield” banner.  This was a non-violent protest, it could hardly even be called an act of civil disobedience, and would probably have gone on for no more than a few minutes.  However, the police immediately grabbed two of the activists holding the banner, wrenching and twisting their arms.

Council Member Cheryl Davila grabbed a mic and yelled at the police, “You don’t have to break their arms!”  Davila was one of the two council members who’d opposed renewing Urban Shield and was, at this moment, the only council person remaining in the auditorium.  Mayor Jesse Arreguin and rest of the council had disappeared.  They took a powder.

Yes, they took a powder!  It was all quite remarkable:  Someone had unfurled a banner, and with that, the leadership of the City of Berkeley vanished.

Police Chief Andrew Greenwood was also gone.  He was at this meeting, explaining how useful Urban Shield was in training the Berkeley police in things such as “de-escalation” of crisis situations.  However, at this moment Chief Greenwood had disappeared along with the mayor and council.  Maybe he was in some concrete-lined bunker command post.  Or maybe he just went home.

(FYI: I’m told that Chief Greenwood is a very charming, likable person.  I should also say that a majority of the council are progressives, and Mayor Jesse Arreguin was even endorsed by Bernie Sanders in last fall’s election.  None of those people are Republicans; they’re all Democrats.)

The cops disregarded Council member Davila and continued to twist the arms of persons they were arresting, making an on-stage show of gratuitous manhandling in front of several hundred people who were now shouting “Let them go! Let them go!”

Those of us nearest the stage took up the “Stop Urban Shield” banner as it was dropped by the people who were arrested.  That’s how I came to be among those carrying the banner you see in the photo.

A squad of baton-wielding riot police suddenly appeared at the door; as though about to charge into the crowded auditorium.  (Although it was after midnight, most of the audience was still there, probably around 250 or 300.)  Potentially it was a panic situation where people could’ve stampeded and gotten hurt — the proverbial “Fire in a crowded theater.”  But nobody panicked.  The next moment the police withdrew, they didn’t seem to know what they were doing.

Still carrying the banner we’d retrieved, we and the rest of the audience found our way through the hall, down the stairs, and finally to the exit still chanting “Let them go!”  Out on the street we saw a traffic jam of a dozen police vehicles, trying to drive this way and that, all of them in each other’s way, not seeming to know if they were coming or going.  A dozen vehicles wouldn’t seem like enough to jam that street, but they were getting the maximum amount of traffic-jam that those few vehicles could provide.  Beside the vehicles, a row of cops were lined up shoving us back with their batons, yelling “Get back! Get back!”

That was when the photo was taken of me in front of that large cop who was aggressively shoving people with his baton.  For some reason he didn’t actually shove me; he just sort of glared at me and then started shoving Bridget to my left.  Despite the dim light, I was able to read the officer’s name tag, “Mathis.”  That name didn’t mean anything to me at first, but afterwards I learned of his involvement in the death of a transgender person, Kayla Moore, in 2013.  Moore suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and apparently thought the police were going to harm her; as it turned out she suffocated while they were restraining her.  I also heard from a woman whom Officer Mathis had handled abusively at a demonstration some years ago, damaging a ligament in her arm.  So I must wonder why this officer was assigned to duty at a city council meeting where he’d be dealing with people who were there to exercise our First Amendment rights.  He would seem rather unsuited for such an assignment, or in fact, anything dealing with people.

Although the cops were aggressively shoving people, I didn’t see them actually clubbing anyone, but after they finally untangled their vehicles from their traffic jam and were gone, I looked around and I saw an elderly man sitting on the curb, a gash in his head, two or three nurses were attending him.  Later I read that he was a 73-year-old retired school teacher; he’d dropped his glasses, bent over to pick them up and then got hit.  I assume it was an accident, but that’s the sort of thing that happens when a bunch of Urban Shield-trained militarized police come charging in to de-escalate a crisis that wouldn’t have been a crisis without them there to create it.

So now finally the cops were gone.  It was about 1 a.m. The mayor and city council were of course long gone, and it was just us — a couple hundred of us — there on the dark street by the school auditorium.  “MIC CHECK!” We formed a circle and held a short rally with two or three speakers. Council member Cheryl Davila also spoke to us, apologizing that she’d been unable to hold the cops back.  “I don’t have control over those guys,” she said.  But she’d acted courageously and done her best, and she was the only council member who hadn’t skipped out.

Civilian control over military and police is a basic tenet in a democracy, but I wonder how much control the Berkeley mayor and council really do have over these militarized police.  The police do seem to have a lot of power, and that was indicated at the very beginning of that six-hour meeting when Police Chief Greenwood and his assistants were given 15 minutes to present their case for Urban Shield and NCRIC.  They took 40 minutes.  That’s right, Mayor Arreguin allotted them 15 minutes, and the police took 40.  The mayor just sat there and let them do it.

Why?  The police chief and his assistants simply did not need 40 minutes to tell about their de-escalation skills and other items in their training. It looked to me like they were taking that much time in order to show their status and entitlement, that they intend to run the show in this town.  Urban Shield and the rest of the DHS programs enhance their power and status.  (The training itself appears to be not all that great — an auditorium-full of people would probably testify to that.)

Police militarization has very little public support here in Berkeley (only two persons in that large audience spoke in favor of Urban Shield), so who wants it?  Who’s behind it?  Presumably it’s the same entities that are behind military solutions everywhere, pushing for it in every town and city across the country as well as at the national and international level.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that militarism isn’t just something that happens half-way around the globe.  It’s also happening here in Berkeley, California, and most of our elected city officials seem too intimidated to oppose it.

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.