By Monday morning, that vandalism was beginning to eclipse the main points that protest organizers have been trying to make about ending the institutional racism in the legal system, as newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle led with businesses “assessing damages” and the local FOX News affiliatedescribed the clean up after “destructive protests.”
What’s missing in these news reports—which will undoubtedly feed mainstream coverage—are key facts and points about what makes the Berkeley protests different from many across the country that are responding to the white police-caused deaths of unarmed Black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, this past summer.
1. The Police Were First To Riot On Saturday Night. This critical point has been almost entirely overlooked in the regional and national media, but was captured in extensive and graphic video footage. Eyewitness accounts of what unfolded and the video footage, bothhere, show police inciting and escalating a confrontation with marchers. Several protesters on Saturday, described as “anarchists” by protest organizers in a follow-up planning meeting Sunday afternoon, broke windows in a Trader Joe’s and Radio Shack. That prompted police to use tear gas in the downtown and near the University of California campus, which drifted into some campus dormitories.
2. Sunday’s Night Protest March Was Spontaneous. On Sunday afternoon, organizers were talking about a major action on Monday evening—but said they would assemble after sunset on Sunday at a campus plaza and see what the group wanted to. After 500 people showed up, including many students upset about Saturday night’s violence, another major march began. The organizers, The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary, (BAMN), who are primarily women of color, led the march down to Berkeley Police headquarters, where the cops were present but restrained compared to Saturday night, according to eyewitness reports on live blogs and tweets.
3. The Protest Movement Has Different Factions. After massing at the police station, protesters broke into different groups. Some members of the main BAMN contingent, which, as leaders explained in their Sunday afternoon planning meeting, targets law enforcement and political power, decided to march to nearby Oakland. En route, one group decided to shut down a major highway, which they did, after breaching a squad of California Highway Patrol cars and officers. That was Sunday night’s first major confrontation with police.
Others marched back through the Berkeley downtown and headed back to the campus plaza where the demonstration began. It was during this part of the night, several hours after march began, that anarchists started attacking police cars—breaking front windows and spray painting them, as well as breaking the windows of banks, and other corporate chain stores along the way.
4. Many Protesters Tried To Stop The Vandalism. The live web blogs and twitter feedscaptured this extraordinary response. Many marchers chanted, “peaceful protest, peaceful protest,” as young men used skateboards, crowbars and hammers to smash windows. A few of the protesters can be seen on video trying to stop the anarchists—and getting hurt doing so. As merchandise from a Radio Shack was thrown into the street, some of the protesters threw it back inside. Later, as young men set garbage cans on fire along one commercial strip, other protesters lingered to put out the fires and guard stores—like a bicycle shop—whose window was broken.
On KQED-FM’s Forum program on Monday morning, the region’s largest public radio talk show, Berkeleyside’s reporter, Emilie Raguso, who was on the scene, said that there were “a dozen people or more who were really intent on setting fires, smashing windows and menacing anyone who was documenting that or intent on stopping what they were doing.” She said, “The people who were doing the damage wouldn’t take no for an answer. There were confrontations [with other protesters] that turned physical.”
5. There is a movement schism over targets and means. Inside protest circles, there is a split between people who are—and aren’t willing to use violence—to make their point. At Sunday’s planning meeting, BAMN’s Yvette Felarca, said anarchists primarily have economic targets, such as banks and corporate chains, in contrast to BAMN’s targets, which are political power, the law enforcement system and government.
However, BAMN’s leaders—almost entirely women, and women of color—would not condemn the anarchists. Felarca said that their anger, and their expression of it, was a legitimate response to racist institutions. She said that history has shown that some violence was needed to prompt meaningful political responses, citing the late 1960s urban riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere over civil rights and economic injustice.
“I’m sorry, breaking a window is not violent. Taking a life is violent,” said another top BAMN organizer, when pressed by a graduate seminary student about how to respond to anarchists. “I don’t think we should condemn those people or police our movement… We stand united. We are fighting for justice.”
6. These Protests Do Not Appear To Be Going Away. The majority of Sunday’s protesters appeared to be university students, many of whom are white, who decided to march even as they face the pressure of upcoming final exams. On Monday, several of the protesters who were arrested on Saturday night, will be arraigned in court. Protest organizers said they would attend that proceeding, as well as a Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday evening. And there is another call for protesters to gather after sunset later tonight.