By Frances Dinkelspiel and Judith Scherr
Under the threat of eviction, protesters at Occupy Berkeley took down about 40 tents in Civic Center Park Wednesday night, preparing for the raid that never came.
As a 10 pm deadline to stop camping in the park loomed, many activists were packing up their gear and loading it up on trucks. Some had stashed their possessions in a safe place, but had returned to the park to confront the police if they showed up. Soon, only about 29 out of about 70 tents remained.
“I’ve got my stuff packed but I’m not leaving,” a man who identified himself as Cincinnati said as the deadline loomed. “I’m going to take the streets.”
But the desire to confront police and stand ground was shared by only some of the 150 people who have made up Occupy Berkeley. Maxina Ventura, who has been staying in the park off and on with her children ever since it started two months ago, took down her tent on Wednesday. She said she could no longer stand behind the radical fringe of protesters who seemed determined to fight police at all costs.
“We had to make it clear we were not a front for those people,” said Ventura.
Berkeley police, acting on orders from interim City Manager Christine Daniel, handed out notices on Dec. 20 that the city would no longer look the other way during the park’s 10 pm to 6 am curfew.
Wednesday evening, police walked through the park two separate times, before 6 pm and at 7:30 pm, handing out copies of the park’s curfew rules and fliers about social services. When they came to one vacant tent in the earlier walk through, they picked it up and carried it across the street to the police station, upsetting some people who thought someone was inside. However, when it became clear that no person was in the tent, the crowd simply puzzled over the reason for the tent removal at that time. The police were jeered when they returned to the park later.
The eviction notice came as conditions in the park have deteriorated. On Tuesday, someone was arrested for attempted rape. On Dec. 5 and 6, there was two assaults with a deadly weapon, according to police. There have been several cases of food poisoning from food served at the communal kitchen. Trash litters the park and police have issued 46 citations since Dec. 15 to people smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.
“There has continued to be an increase in serious crimes and violence,” Berkeley police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said in a statement. “(Police) would like the individuals in the park to follow the law voluntarily.”
But the 10 pm deadline to leave came and went. There was little sign of activity at police headquarters across Martin Luther King Street. Around 10:30, a lone police car pulled into the department’s parking lot and a police officer said he had not heard of any plans for a nocturnal raid.
The scene at the park was anything but quiet, however. A group of Jewish protesters lit menorah candles for the second night of Hanukkah under a big white tent. Others strung lights on a large flocked Christmas tree sitting in the center of the park.
The tension was evident, though, as some protesters yelled at others while they were dismantling the camp.
When a reporter for Channel 4 KRON news was doing a standup and mentioned that there were only 12 tents left in the park, an angry protester interrupted his shot and yelled there were 29 tents. When a reporter for Channel 5 was talking for the 11 pm newscast, a protester with a bandanna over his face stepped into the shot and started shouting about the bourgeois media. He later got into a shouting match with Ventura, accusing her of being a sell out because she had a home.
One protester, Steven, who would not give his last name, said only a small percentage of the people at Occupy Berkeley are actual protesters; the rest are ‘wingnuts” or people who are a bit crazy and are looking for a fight.
“”Twenty-five percent of campers are actual protesters; the rest are hangers-on.”
But other people stood around peacefully, observing the scene. City Councilmen Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin were in and out of the park all evening. They were unhappy that Daniel had not informed them about the eviction plans, but agreed that the current situation could not continue indefinitely. “What went into making that decision?” Arreguin asked, “I don’t know, honestly. I wish they’d told us.”
Both Worthington and Arreguin said they hoped any eviction would be peaceful and not be a repeat of the police confrontations in Oakland.
“Eventually the city is going to remove the people remaining,” said Arreguin. “It’s a public park. There are events that haven’t been happening because of the occupation. I don’t want there to be violence. I don’t want there to be destruction of property.”
Earlier in the evening, Occupy Berkeley members gathered for a 6 pm General Assembly to discuss the Dec. 20 eviction notice. The mood was generally that of resignation to eviction by police from the two-month-old encampment. Speakers acknowledged that it was time to leave. Using the “people’s mic,” where everyone repeats the speaker’s words, one man said he’d been to four different Occupy encampments and was in four different police raids.
“What I have found is that Occupy Berkeley is at the end of its natural life cycle,” he said, noting that the focus had turned to feeding the homeless rather than building a movement. “This is not a sustainable environment,” he said.
Others addressed the question of increasing violence. “Unfortunately, the police had reasons for dismantling the camp,” said one woman. “We tried our best, but the camp peacekeepers were not able to keep the camp safe and peaceful and sustainable.” Elizabeth Gill, who had defended the camp’s reputation when speaking to Berkeleyside a few weeks ago, said she had a change of heart after directly experiencing violence in the camp.
In a separate interview, Phoebe Sorgen, a member of the city’s Peace and Justice Commission and the Occupy Berkeley facilitation committee, said she had been working with Councilmember Jesse Arreguin to extract troublemakers from the camp and move it to another park which would be drug, alcohol and violence free. But the eviction came too quickly for the plan to be put in place, she said.
Sorgen said she thought things started going downhill when people evicted from Occupy Oakland started coming to Berkeley. “Some of them were wonderful people, including a yoga teacher who slept in a tree in a sack,” she said. “But some of them were big trouble makers.” There was a similar migration of those evicted from Occupy San Francisco. “We are now outnumbered by troublemakers,” Sorgen said.
The general assembly tried to address next steps for the occupiers. Michael Delacour suggested shutting down Shattuck Avenue the next day, to impact the Christmas shopping period, but few agreed. “Our primary action needs to be about saving ourselves tonight,” someone said, “Worrying about banks and streets – we’re not ready to deal with this.”