Berkeley Protests: Black Lives Matter

The following is my detailed account of my experience at the Occupy Oakland, Ferguson to the Bay protest on Saturday night, December 6, 2014. I am Jennifer Davidson and I am Associate Professor of Worship & Theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West, a member school of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. I attended this protest with my dear friend and colleague Sharon Fennema, Assistant Professor of Worship at Pacific School of Religion, also a GTU member school. We also walked beside my dean at ABSW, LeAnn Snow Flesher. The details below are as best as I can remember. I can only speak to my own experience, not to others. I believe the only way we can get a sense of the complexities of people’s presence and responses at a massive protest is to be present ourselves.We attended this protest because it was one way to live out our faith with integrity. To see my tweets from the protest go to @momentofbeing on Twitter

I first arrived a little before 5:00 which was when the protest was set to begin. Sharon and I had agreed to meet about a block away from the protest so we would be able to find one another. Because it wasn’t far from my seminary, I parked in my spot and walked from there. I saw my dean’s car in her spot when I got there, so I texted her to let her know I was headed to the protest in case she wanted to meet up with me there. I think she might’ve already been on her way to it, though, so when I got to the site I met up with both her and Sharon.

The crowd was fairly small at the outset and I was hoping the protest wouldn’t be a dud. I’d guess there were maybe fifty or eighty of us from the start. We stood in a circle around a couple folks who were part of the organizers and we chanted and sang for a bit there. Maybe twenty minutes. Maybe not that long.

Then we headed out and started walking straight up Telegraph. The crowd swelled as we walked down the street. We swept between cars that had come to a standstill. We moved through the whole main business section of Telegraph, and then came to a stop in the middle of an intersection. The organizers did a human mic check – something that comes from the Occupy Movement. A person in the center of the circle shouts Mic Check! And the crowd responds Mic Check! Until everyone quiets down. Then an organizer gives an update and proposes a question phrase by phrase as it is repeated by the crowd for the crowd in waves. The question was whether to proceed to Rockridge (which I think might technically be Oakland) or to head to downtown Berkeley. Initially the group seemed to lean toward Rockridge, but there was internal pushback for downtown Berkeley. And then someone shouted “Downtown for Michael Brown!” And the decision was made.

The organizer warned us that if we chose downtown that we would be encountering police, and this seemed to galvanize us further. They instructed us to keep moving if we saw police, calmly and stalwartly.

LeAnn had to peel off at this point, because of a significant foot injury (suffered previously, not at the protest) that prevented her from walking too far. But she texted me shortly after she left us and said that if I were arrested I was to call her for help. I was deeply proud to work for American Baptist Seminary in that moment.

We turned down a small residential street in Berkeley, chanting all the while. Some of it directed toward residents who came out on their porches to either simply observe or to put their hands up in support. Families holding children on their hips, and wide-eyed children. “Wake up, Berkeley!” We shouted. “Take to the Streets!”

“Whose streets? Our streets!”

“No violence! No fear! The people are here!”

“Indict. Convict. Send those racist cops to jail; The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”

“Eric Garner! Michael Brown! Shut it down! Shut it down!”

“Every city, every town! Shut it down! Shut it down!”

“No justice! No peace! No racist police!”

“We don’t get no justice; They don’t get no peace!”

“If we remember, they will live!”

It was very difficult to tell what the size of the protest was at this point. Sharon and I were maybe a hundred people back from the front. And when I turned around there was a sea of people behind me.

The protesters were a diverse group of people. More young people than not. More white people than people of color, but maybe not by much. Our leaders were mostly people of color, including an Asian woman with a bullhorn and African American women as well.

We got to Shattuck – the major road that goes through downtown – and made our way to a major intersection where we stopped and gathered in a giant circle again. Again they deployed the human mic, and asked if we wanted to stage a die in or keep marching. The response was very mixed. Then a black woman amended the proposal and said, “We can stage a die in and then continue marching.” And the response was affirmative.

We lay down on the street in the middle of the intersection and continued to chant from there. A helicopter, that had been following us since we were on the side street coming from Telegraph hovered overhead. A black man lit sage in the middle of the intersection, kneeling over it and coaxing the embers and smoke with his breath.

With the human mic, a call went out to “hold the space and hold a moment of silence” for Michael Brown and his family, for Eric Garner, for Tamir Rice, for the Ohlone and indigenous people who died on this land, for the transgendered woman killed by Berkeley police the year before. The last words of a human mic are often “Thank you!” And this was the case now as well. So just before we fell silent, we lay on the street and all called out, “Thank you!” Then the silence came upon us and all was still except for the sound of the helicopter blades above.

After two full minutes, the human mic started to chant again. And soon we were back on our feet, deciding where to go next. To the police station and city hall. We moved past Berkeley High School, and I thought of walking hand-in-hand with Elliot through those same streets eleven years ago when he was five-years-old.

police stationWhen we arrived there, we were met with a line of police in full riot gear standing in front of the station, protecting it from us. Merely the presence of the police got some folks riled up. And you could feel the tension in the air building dangerously. Some portion of the protestors broke off and started to head up another street. Some lined up to face the police, some shouting at them. There were lots of chants of “Fuck the police!” which I never joined in on. But these chants reached a fever pitch outside the station. One homeless man weaved throughout the crowd, a knapsack and sleeping mat around his back. He would bend over at his waist and shout so that his voice was raw, “Fuck the police!” over and over. Personally, I hate that message. But I couldn’t help but hear the agony in his voice, the instability that was embodied in it, the desperation, the rage. He continued to shout this, weaving in and out of us, for miles and miles.

One group began playing hip hop loudly – and I was thrilled to see that broadcast music from speakers on a bicycle had become 21st century protest music. People had drums, too, which accompanied us through the whole march. A group of women broadcast a hip hop song and performed a choreographed dance. A group of us sat down in front of the police line and sang in a call and response fashion with a young Black woman leading us: “Whose side are you on? Whose side are you one? We’re on freedom side.” Most of the people gathered most closely to the police – including those of us sitting and singing, and those gathered around the dancers – were women.

The call for us to keep moving, keep marching, came. And we started to head toward University – and straight toward a police barricade two blocks away.

More police in riot gear stretched across the street, intending to keep the protest from moving on to University where we could disrupt the most Berkeley traffic. We pressed toward the police, I stood a few people back from the front. The police’s faces were mostly placid, but alert. They avoided eye contact fairly steadfastly.

A hole in the barrier was found along the sidewalk. I later learned from my protest partner Sharon, after we had poured through it, that police are not permitted to prevent us from passing on a sidewalk–though this was the last time they would allow it that night. Calls came to “tighten up” and keep pressing forward so the police would not be able to block off the passageway. We poured through the breach and soon protestors surrounded police on both sides – a decidedly vulnerable position for them.

As people shouted at the police, one of the officers reached out and pushed a much older white man with white hair so that he was hurtled to the ground. This was the first act of violence that night. And police were the ones to escalate it. The response from some of the protestors was immediate and frightening. The cohesiveness of the crowd was strained – the call had been for peaceful, nonviolent protests. But with the first sign of violence, again started by the police not the protestors, had ignited something.

We urged the crowd forward. Sharon and I now near the moving front edge of the protest–trying to help draw the protestors away from the police where the tension was much too high. “Stay together!” A sing-song chant went up. “Keep on marching!”

Eventually the critical mass got the crowd moving again and we reached the intersection of University and Martin Luther King Blvd. When we got to the intersection I turned and looked back toward the police station. Protestors and police were still engaged, and soon smoke began pouring down the blocks. Protestors say it was the first tear gas of the night, and I thought so, too. The wind was blowing away from me, but I could feel a burning in my throat. Police are saying it was protestors who threw smoke bombs. I was too far away to confirm either position.

But I can say that very soon after the smoke began to pour out, we started to hear a deep, almost bellowing crunch. Crates were being lifted up and thrown in the air toward the plate glass windows of Trader Joes. I could see frightened faces inside the store. And I felt the air get sucked out of the space. The Spirit, I felt, had departed from us. This is not the way.

I say it had departed without naming the Spirit’s presence earlier. But it was in the sudden evacuation of the Spirit that I was able to perceive so clearly the Spirit’s presence before. The departure was not permanent either. It was a departure that worked to suck away energy, you see. Not to fuel it. It was a departure intended to gentle.

I joined in a chant going up – hands raised above me in the vulnerable posture of “Hands up! Don’t Shoot” and in the ancient prayerful posture known as the orans. We called out, “Peaceful protest! No more violence! Peaceful protest! No more violence!” Over and over.

Berkeley PoliceA white woman, young, turned and shouted at me. I paused and leaned over so I could hear her better. She screamed, “It should be violent!” And I shook my head and kept on chanting.

Media reports say there was looting of the store and the stealing of alcohol. I did not personally see any looting at the store. But the windows that were broken were precisely where cases and bottles of alcohol were stacked. So that bottles of wine and liquor broke in the middle of street, filling the air with the sweet and and pungent smell of the alcohol. I thought of the judgment prophecies of Amos and Isaiah – when the prophet condemns us for putting our resources and fields toward the growing of grapes for wine when people are starving. Wine running through the streets seemed right in its own way. Though I do not condone the damage and violence done.

What seemed clear to me, and to others, was that stopping and standing still was not a good idea. If we could keep moving, the violence would dissipate. So a few of us started shouting “To the freeway!” in order to give us a sense of direction again, and clear purpose. “To the freeway!”

The Spirit returned then, and the crowd moved again. Pouring (we were like water when we moved together) through the street and between cars. People stuck in their cars rolled down their windows and put their hands up in support. They honked their horns in encouragement, not frustration. They high-fived passing protestors.

Several blocks away, we heard that bellowing crunching sound again and turned to see anarchists smashing the windows of the Radio Shack. And a few blocks from there, the front windows of Wells Fargo bank.

Dozens and dozens of smaller, independent, ethnically and locally owned businesses remained in tact. People in the restaurants that lined the road also put their hands up in support of the protestors – another action that breathed more energy, more goodwill into the crowd.

The selection of the places that were damaged was not random, in other words. While we progressives love Trader Joe’s – and they are a good corporation – it was clear that it was the major corporations that were being targeted along the way. In part, corporations that would be able to weather and afford the damage. But also specifically, I believe, to send a message to all massive corporations and banks that business as usual must end.

***
For most of the way down University Avenue toward the freeway, two police officers (not in riot gear) rode ahead of us on their bicycles. Sharon and I had the distinct impression they were moving ahead to shut down intersections for us as we moved along down the street. These two officers were not at all confrontational. In fact, they could have easily gone unnoticed completely by most of the protestors altogether.

When we got to University and Seventh, we could see a full line of riot gear police stretching across the overpass of the freeway, and across the road and sidewalks ahead, preventing our access to the freeway. There was indecision in the crowd at this point. Some folks called for us to veer off and head to Fourth Street, something Sharon and I shouted against for fear of considerable more damage that could potentially be done to this shopping district in the city. (Later I realized that protestors were likely trying to find a breach in the wall of police.) Some of the crowd headed in that direction. Some must have turned around and started back up University (because we would end up reuniting with this larger group again soon), and some of us stayed to go toe-to-toe with the police. We could see the plastic handcuffs hanging from their belts, and Sharon and I reaffirmed our commitment to one another that if it came to it we would willingly be arrested.

The police had blocked off all exit routes except the way we had come. They were down the block on either side of Sixth Street, standing just in the shadows. Experienced protestors around us explained that those police were the ones with pepper spray, and that it would be stupid to head into the shadows with them. Stay in the well lit area, was the advice, where cameras can pick up on what is happening. And the area where we were standing was well lit, indeed, as a police helicopter hovered above us and kept its spotlight on us. “Look around you!” A Latina woman cried out. “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” Other Latinas stood nearby chanting in Spanish.

But it wasn’t too long before we realized the critical mass of the protest had left us – and it seemed unwise to continue to confront the lines of police who now significantly outnumbered us. So we began walking back the way we had just come. An older white woman with white hair walked backwards, addressing the crowd of much younger protestors as she walked: “You are in the right. Stay strong! Take care of one another! Do not lose heart! What you are doing is real! Take care of one another!”

In fact, protestors were taking care of one another. The only time conflict and acrimony rose up among the protestors themselves were when windows were being broken. The rest of the time protestors were kind and gentle with one another. Polite, even. Being careful about personal space. Growing quiet and listening when decision moments were upon us. Several people carried water in sacks or in bicycle baskets and handed it out freely until it was gone. Others had Clif Bars and distributed them to people who needed it. People checked in with one another: “You doing ok? Where are we heading now?” And experienced protestors gave us newbies helpful advice. Reminding us never to run. Warning us of police tactics.

Our smaller group met up with the larger protest around San Pablo where the protest turned again and began taking that street as well. The sense that our movements were fluid and adaptable – and truly intended to avoid confrontation with police but also equally intended to disrupt life-as-usual – felt exactly right to me. This massive body of people was moving like a school of fish moves in the ocean, or a flock of birds in the sky.

Except.

Except the police were fully mobilized at this point. And they were good at what they were doing. They had barricade after barricade in place, and as the crowd would round an intersection, they would move their line in and cut us off from one another over and over. So that our numbers kept dwindling, communication was cut off, confusion was running through the crowd. We were corralled into smaller and smaller streets. Through residential streets and away from main thoroughfares. Some protestors overturned trash and recycling bins and threw them into the street. Other protestors collected the trash and moved the bins back to the curbs.

We turned one corner, and then the next, until finally we were blocked in completely. No way to turn around. No way to move forward. The police were forcing a confrontation.

The only possible route of escape was through a fenced-off parking lot. Protestors grabbed a hold of the wire fence and started pushing, swaying with their full weight, back and forth trying to tear the fence down. Eventually a breach was formed and we were on the move again. Two women stood on top of the collapsed fence, to keep it from catapulting back into place. They reached their hands up to help each of us down a two or three foot jump into the lot. Two-by-two we moved and dashed through the lot to the other end where we had to scale the chest-high fence on the other side to get back to University Avenue, which felt like a victory.

I’ve been nursing a shoulder injury for some months now, and knew I would pay dearly for climbing the fence. I used to be good at that when I was ten-years-old. Not so good at 45. A white man stood on the other side, younger than me by far. He reached over to help me up, and as I reached the top, I heard an explosive, low pop. I felt alarm and even more urgency ripple through the crowd. “Don’t panic!” Protestors called to one another. “Don’t let them frighten you.”

I later learned the sound I’d heard was a canister being shot into the crowd. It hit an African American man on the leg, causing him to collapse as soon as he reached the sidewalk by University Avenue. Cries for a medic went up. Someone stuck in their car on University jumped out and ran to assist the fallen man.

Sharon and I moved toward the intersection of University and Acton where the crowd was gathering – again confronted with a line of police. I glanced behind me and saw another line of police – a long, thick line of police – take several steps up University and toward us. I’d learned by this time that this was how they would cut us off from one another. And people were still climbing and clamoring over the fences to join the rest of us.

I called out to Sharon and said, “Come back here! They are going to cut us off again! Don’t let them cut us off!”

The two of us moved out so we were just beyond the point where the fence breach was and stood facing the police – now about 100 yards away – with our hands raised above our heads.

We kept hearing more cries for help and for more medics. Another person was down on the ground near the edge of the parking lot. Every now and then, the line of police would take several more steps toward us. Sharon and I stood stock still, intending not to move an inch until all the protestors were reunited. Holding the space.

A young white man walked near Sharon and I and said, “He needs ice. I need to get him ice. I think I can get it from that bar over there, but it’s near the police line. I’m afraid they will shoot me if I go near them.”

“You can do it!” Sharon called.

“Just move slowly!” I cried. “Be careful. Put your hands up so they can see them!”

Soon, a wave of riot police came sweeping around the parking lot corner forming a line two or three deep to our right. They were now even with the injured man (the man they had injured) who was lying on the sidewalk. They refused to assist him.

Pretty much simultaneously the line of police across University moved swiftly toward us until they stood less than a foot away from Sharon and me and now a full line of protestors who stood beside us. It was at this point that I thought arrests were about to begin. And I stood calmly, ready for what was next, whatever it was. A young white man beside me got down on his knees and held his hands up. Holding fast.

The police that I saw in that line were all white. They were also all fairly young. They were also Oakland police, not Berkeley police. And they were also, with the exception of one person, male. It was the female officer who began poking me in the arm to try to force me back. It was a male officer who began poking Sharon in the sternum to push her back. A young white woman stood beside me. I later learned that she was also from the GTU, a student at PSR. I was proud that we were three people on the front line. There because we felt called to be there. There because our theologies mandate it of us. There because as followers of Christ we were supposed to be there. There because as baptized people of faith we had nothing to fear, not because we wouldn’t be injured. But because we have already died in the waters of baptism. And all that is before us is life. Even in death.

The captain addressed me and said, “Is there an injured man over there on the sidewalk?” “Yes,” I replied. He said, “Well we’re going to need you to cooperate and back up so we can get an ambulance to him. I understand you are peacefully protesting. But we need you to help us out here. Can you move back?”

I looked in his eyes, but couldn’t tell much that way. I knew I’d heard a protestor, another woman, on the phone earlier calling for an ambulance. And I had wondered how an ambulance would get through. So I called out around me, “They need to get an ambulance through!”

The line of police moved forward again.

Later, I realized there was no ambulance. The tactic, which I heard the captain call out to his men, was to push us to the crosswalk of the intersection where we would be “given to Berkeley.” In other words, they wanted us back in Berkeley’s jurisdiction fully. And they used the unattended injured man as leverage toward that end.

The same officer came to me a few minutes later, as I stood on the crosswalk, and said, “I need you to help me. Are you willing to help?”

“What do you need?” I asked him. He pointed to a belligerent protestor, a white man, shouting at the officers about ten feet away from me. “Will you go and try to calm him down?”

I didn’t know the man. And I am not trained in conflict management. I felt the police officer was asking me to do something dangerous, and thought he was being irresponsible in doing so. I shook my head and said, “No.”

“We’re asking you to police yourselves,” he said to me, his voice edgy. “We’re asking for your help. You don’t want to help us? You don’t want to cooperate with us? Are you refusing to cooperate?”

I just shook my head no, and said nothing else to him. I was out of my league. I was afraid of being coopted.

A white woman came then and stood between Sharon and me. She identified herself by name to the officer and told him she was a lawyer. He initially rebuffed her, then began to listen. I couldn’t hear what she said, but very soon thereafter an officer got on the bullhorn and declared this an illegal assembly. Sharon suggested later that the lawyer may have been the one to instruct the officer that they must do that before any arrests could be made.

By this time our critical mass had been severely weakened. We could see some of our group holding signs but caught behind the line of police. Another large group of protestors had already moved back up University. It was clear that momentum had shifted. And it seemed pointless to stand there and be arrested when the protest had perhaps ended. The crowd dispersed.

We’d been at it for about four hours at that point. And Sharon and I were hungry and thirsty. We decided to walk back to downtown Berkeley to a restaurant and support local business on a tense night when business had been perhaps especially poor.

We ended up talking with a young woman who had come in to the restaurant to wait until things calmed down before heading back home from work. She regretted that she’d not yet been able to join in any protests because she has to work every night. But she talked about how effective that night’s protest had been in terms of helping to raise awareness. “A lot of people were asking me at work tonight, ‘What are they protesting?'” We talked about the possible longevity of this movement. And our hopes for a unified, organized action for the month of February. And that maybe the persistent protests will cause enough of a burden on this “guilty as hell system” that it will eventually make more sense to actually reform it than to keep on doing things as they’ve always been done. We talked about the major progress in police training in the City of Richmond, and the hope we feel in that movement. We talked about the incomplete work of the Civil Rights Movement, and the need for more radical change. We talked of our hope that this would happen. That energy will build. That the Spirit will breathe.

***

I took a cab back from downtown Berkeley to my car which was parked in the lot at American Baptist Seminary of the West. (We had walked nearly eight miles by that time.) But I checked my Twitter feed while I was in the cab, and saw that the protest had moved back to Telegraph near Blake. (Just three blocks from the seminary.) I advised my cabby and told him to drop me short of there so he wouldn’t get stuck in any stoppages. I didn’t want him to lose a night’s worth of business because I was trying to get to my car.

I climbed out of the cab and immediately felt the sting of teargas in my throat. I pulled my bandana up over my nose and mouth to help filter the air a bit. And I rejoined the protestors as we marched back up Telegraph, stopping at Channing at yet another police line, this one with a massive armored vehicle behind it. Again, lines of police stood on the side streets, just in the shadows. Away from TV cameras and too dark for livestream cameras to pick them up.

Professor Davidson wore a bandana across her face to protect herself from teargas.
Professor Davidson wore a bandana across her face to protect herself from teargas.

It didn’t feel right to leave. But by this time I’d lost my accountability partner. And I was getting texts from my husband and son begging me to return home. The news reports had been filing in at home, and they were worried about me. My son told Doug that he was both proud of me and angry at me for being there.

I wavered a bit. The feel of the protest had changed. I was hearing reports of police violence and military-grade teargas being deployed on Ashby by the BART station. I knew the protest was far from over, and that things were going to continue to get worse. It didn’t feel right to turn and walk back to my car, leaving people behind. But I did.

When I got to my car, there was trash strewn across the lot from our dumpster at the seminary. So I stooped down and cleaned up all that I could before climbing into my car, texting my family that I was on my way, and driving home.

This was my experience with the Berkeley Protest last night. I can only speak from my own experience of it. I saw hundreds and hundreds of peaceful protestors. I saw maybe a couple dozen violent protestors. I saw hundreds of calm policemen and one relatively calm, though confrontational policewoman. I saw hundreds of police corralling protestors and forcing a confrontation. I saw police push men with white hair so that they hurtled to the ground. I saw a man lying injured by a canister shot by police. I saw this man attended to by protestors and left to lie there by the police who had injured him. I saw lots of support by onlookers in cars and restaurants. I saw wide-eyed children taking it in.

After I left, people saw much, much worse things.

And the movement marches on.

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2 thoughts on “Berkeley Protests: Black Lives Matter

  1. Thank you for your detailed and well written account of your experience at the protest. Your clearly Spirit driven actions and account are important work and it is good to see people sharing it.
    As a GTU graduate I applaud you.

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