Berkeley Protests: Saturday Night, Sunday Morning


Here you go, blog fans: An actual semi-journalistic document about last night’s protests in Berkeley. What follows is a story memo I wrote for the news staff at KQED, the public radio station where I work. It falls short of Pulitzer/Peabody importance or immortality, but it does detail a late evening, early morning in my town:

I had stuff going on early Saturday night, but went out with my wife (and with a camera and recorder, which I used) about 11:30 p.m. because I could see (from helicopters in the air and the traffic on Twitter) that stuff was still going on. I did not succeed in getting into the thick of the action, but I do have some impressions nonetheless:

–First, the caveat that there was a whole lot I didn’t see, a lot of tense moments and use of tear gas to disperse the crowd on Telegraph Avenue that I was following via social media so can’t comment on. (One reliable Twitter source I found: Evan Sernoffsky from the San Francisco Chronicle, who was right in the middle of stuff on Telegraph Avenue after 10 p.m. Another decent source, though I think it overplayed the violence/vandalism angle at first: Berkeleyside.

–After reading description of destruction along the streets — especially of the Trader Joe’s store and a Radio Shack on University Avenue — I was surprised to find that most of the windows in those stores were intact and that nothing else that I saw appeared to have been touched. (Caveat: Yes, it’s possible that there was other damage done, but again, the place the protesters spent the most time, Telegraph Avenue, was not damaged at all that I could see. Despite the general absence of property damage, I found a TV news crew at 3 a.m. set up in front of the two large boarded-up spaces at the Trader Joe’s store. Of course.

–Even though there was a faceoff going on on Telegraph Avenue at midnight, the general atmosphere in downtown Berkeley and around campus was calm and property intact.The biggest gathering I personally saw at this point, aside from the dozens of California Highway Patrol officers on the street, was a big, loud party at one of the co-op housing developments on Dwight Way. I’m sure the police could have found lots of violations of various laws and ordinances there.

–The only live account I heard of the protest at the point it turned turbulent, around 6:30 p.m. came from KCBS’ Mark Seelig. He had been moving with the protesters from campus, through downtown, where there was a takeover of one of the main intersections, and down to the Police Department a couple blocks away. Seelig gave a very confused account of what happened at the PD, but it seemed apparent from his reporting that that was the flashpoint for any vandalism that happened. It was immediately *after* the police began deploying smoke/teargas that the window-breaking occurred — that was Seelig’s witness account, anyway, which KCBS allowed to run on for minutes even though it was often a very confused account of events.

–Since I wasn’t there, I can’t really comment on or judge the police action, but it *sounds* like they responded very aggressively to *something* that happened down there — thrown objects would be my guess. Again, not having been there, I can’t judge, but I think it’s worth asking about the intensity of the police response — the smoke and tear gas that was deployed and the appearance of what I believe was an Alameda County armored vehicle on the streets.

–The part I did see more directly was after 12:45 p.m. or so. I was finally able to get on to Telegraph. Police had the intersection of Dwight blocked, so I couldn’t follow the crowd down Telegraph. But for whatever reason, the police were using tear gas as they forced the crowd south, in the direction of the Oakland border. I hung out watching a small crowd, mostly students, and a larger crowd of CHP officers in full riot equipment, gathered at Dwight and Telegraph. The small crowd was generally just curious with the exception of one guy, older, a non-student for sure, who told the cops off for violating the right to assemble.

–I circled south of the crowd down to Telegraph and 63rd. There were traces of something acrid and irritating in the air there — I’m assuming it was teargas, but don’t know for sure. Again, it was quiet on that part of the street, and the action was up a couple blocks. Using the police helicopter overhead for a cue — figuring it was circling over wherever the people had gone — and I went down to Shattuck Avenue a couple blocks north of Ashby. It was about 1:45 or so by this time, and now, I had what was left of the protest marching straight at me. At this point, the police had departed — not a single officer in sight as the march moved north on Shattuck Avenue toward downtown. There were still about 150-200 protesters in the group, chanting and entirely non-menacing. The makeup of the crowd: mostly student age, I thought. Mostly white and Asian.

–I drove downtown to get in front of the march again, then accompanied the last 100 or so people up Durant to Telegraph. The only conflict at this point was with one very angry driver, a young African-American woman, I think, who wanted to get through the crowd but couldn’t. So, sometime just after 2, the marchers essentially took over the intersection of Durant and Telegraph. They held a mic session there, which mostly featured Yvette Felarca of the left-wing anti-police-violence and social justice group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). They go back about a decade in Oakland and were very active in the Oscar Grant and Occupy Oakland protests.

–It was pretty much a party atmosphere at the intersection.. A car that had been stranded parked in the intersection and was playing music really loud during the speeches. One person was shouting, “Less BAMN, more dancing!” And Felarca announced there would be a gathering at 1 p.m. Sunday and another march frrom Bancroft and Telegraph on Monday evening at 5 p.m. I stayed until just after 2:30, then walked back downtown to get in my car and go home. The nearest police I saw were a very long block away — an unmarked car with two or three officers just observing.

–On the way home, I got to see the TV crew shooting its story about the unrest, in front of the Trader Joe’s windows.

–Two takeaways:

*I think we all know we’re going to see more of the same (gatherings, marches, scattered vandalism and arrests). My guess is for weeks at least, not days.

*I think we need to ask questions about the police response. Given that the great majority of the crowd appears to have been nonviolent, why did the police resort to aggressive crowd control so suddenly? What exactly, by their account, occurred at the police station?

–I think we ought to get an inventory of all the means police officers used. There are reports via social media that “less than lethal” projectiles (bean bags or rubber bullets) were fired. The officers on Telegraph were equipped with guns that fire less-than-lethal munitions, but I didn’t witness them being used.

–Officers used batons at several points on Telegraph, and one student displayed a scalp wound she says she suffered when she was struck — Berkeleyside has a picture.

–One student I talked to (this is on tape) said that students in one of the large residence halls near Telegraph had been affected by the gas. Wonder if the university has anything to say about that.

Last: I’m tied up today — I’m going to the potential riot at the Oakland Coliseum, where a football game is being played — so I’m not available for further coverage and/or blogging until sometime this evening.

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