City Council members Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington told a crowd of protesters yesterday that they want an investigation into the use of tear gas by police. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
City Council members Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington told a crowd of protesters Tuesday night that they want an investigation into the use of tear gas by police during Saturday night’s demonstration. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
City Council members Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington told a crowd of protesters Tuesday night that they want an investigation into the use of tear gas by police during Saturday night’s demonstration. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Hours after Berkeley’s police chief defended his department’s decision to use tear gas on protesters on Telegraph Avenue on Saturday, Dec. 6, two Berkeley City Council members called for an investigation into what they said were police excesses.

Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín made that call on the steps of Old City Hall shortly after 7 p.m. Tuesday. Normally, the two would have been inside the building for the regular council meeting, but Mayor Tom Bates had canceled the meeting earlier in the day, expressing concern that it would be swamped with hundreds or thousands of protesters. Bates said he plans to reschedule the meeting soon.

Speaking through a megaphone to a crowd of more than 200 people that had gathered as part of the fourth night of protest against police killings of and violence against black men, Worthington said Berkeley police had used their batons Saturday to hit students, members of the clergy, journalists and others.

“I am embarrassed that Berkeley police would attack our constituents,” he said. “We will demand an investigation. … We will demand reforms of the way the police operate in the entire city of Berkeley.”

Arreguín criticized the police use of tear gas and rubber bullets, though his time in front of the crowd was cut short when one of the protest organizers took the megaphone from him. Arreguín told the crowd he would ask council to end the use of tear gas in Berkeley.

So far, Arreguín and Worthington are the only two council members who have asked for an independent review of the actions of Berkeley police and other agencies that provided mutual aid since Saturday. Bates has stated he does not think that kind of review is necessary, although he has expressed dismay that tear gas was used. (Berkeleyside has also submitted a lengthy list of questions to Berkeley police, and will report back when answers are provided.)

At a press conference Bates held exclusively for TV media Tuesday afternoon, Police Chief Michael Meehan explained why his department used tear gas to try to quell the protests. (Berkeleyside found out about the meeting and was invited 15 minutes before it started — after telling city staff we were coming anyway.)

Meehan said, in general, the Berkeley Police Department respects peoples’ rights to demonstrate and tries to facilitate peaceful protests. For example, on Saturday night, police cleared traffic to help the demonstrators walk down the center of generally busy streets. Police also stood by when demonstrators had a “die-in” by lying down in an intersection.

Officers resorted to using tear gas only after they felt physically threatened by the protesters, Meehan said. First of all, the police were outnumbered; there were only about 150-200 officers at the demonstration. Then some protesters started to throw fist-sized rocks, bricks, an ice pick and even a sandbag. Some officers were injured. It is impossible for police to pluck the troublemakers from a crowd and arrest them, Meehan said, so they had to use techniques to disperse the entire crowd.

“This was a very unusual occurrence,” said Meehan. “We haven’t seen protests of this size with this level of violence in many decades. It’s important for people to remember that we are a middle-size city with a middle-size police department. We cannot bring the resources of a San Francisco, which has 2,000 police officers. Even when we called in mutual aid, we were vastly overwhelmed by the number of protesters. We had limited options but the options that we are trained to, the options we had, we used.”

After Saturday’s protests, Bates and City Manager Christine Daniel expressed their reservations about the use of tear gas to Meehan, and it has not been used in Berkeley since the first night of demonstrations. That was even true Sunday when some protesters smashed the windows of many businesses along Telegraph and Shattuck avenues, in both Berkeley and Oakland, and sprayed graffiti on walls all along the route.

Meehan said tear gas was not needed because officers did not feel as physically threatened as they did Saturday. He also said that, despite Bates’ and Daniel’s concerns, he felt he has the latitude to use tear gas again if it is necessary.

“The goal of the tear gas is to stop people from assaulting us,” said Meehan. “I cannot allow our people to get hurt for any reason.”

(Watch a video of his remarks below or on YouTube.)

YouTube video

Hear Meehan talk at Tuesday’s press conference about the use of tear gas and about how his officers felt threatened. 

Many of the protesters when were gassed and beaten Saturday have challenged Meehan’s account. They said that police were the aggressors, and police officers started to hit and push protesters who would not disperse. It was only then that demonstrators started to throw rocks and bricks, they said.

Numerous videos and photographs taken Saturday night show police hitting people and poking them with batons. Police also allegedly hit reporters. The Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent Meehan and Bates a letter detailing some of the beatings. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a video showing a police officer hitting one of its freelance photographers.

Part of the perception that police are the aggressors might come from the way police act during a protest. During the last few nights, Berkeley police have been dressed in riot gear with black helmets, plastic face shields and bulletproof vests. They have used their batons to push demonstrators in particular directions, and beat them back from metal barriers. Many protesters have said that just seeing police dressed like that makes them anxious and makes them feel like police are ready — and willing — to use force.

Members of the crowd also said police used rubber bullets to disperse them, and photographed their bruises to prove it. (Berkeley police do not use rubber bullets, according to Meehan. They do, however, carry what are called “less-than-lethal weapons,” which fire small beanbag rounds. Meehan did not address the less-than-lethal weapons at Tuesday’s press conference.)

The video below shows how police and protesters sometimes interact. The police are trying to get people to move by pushing them with their batons. The marchers are shouting epithets and insults at the police officers. They are also asking “Why are you hitting us?

YouTube video

Maio promised, in an email blast Monday, that the city will look into all of the allegations of force used by police, but said non-peaceful protesters may see consequences: “You have my word that we will look into every one. I trust our police will act in concert with Berkeley’s values. That does not mean that we will tolerate violence and looting in any form, and those participating in such acts will be arrested.”

Meehan said officers wear helmets to protect themselves. In spite of their protective gear, 20 police officers have been injured during the marches. Throughout Sunday night, for example, some members of the crowd threw glass bottles at police anytime they came close to the march. Two officers went to the hospital with non life-threatening injuries after the first night of protests, he said.

Berkeley police are not the only ones monitoring the marches. The California Highway Patrol, and officers from Oakland, Alameda, Pleasanton, Hayward and the Alameda County sheriff’s department have also been involved.

Four nights of protest, and another scheduled for Wednesday evening

There have been protests in Berkeley for four nights running, with another march scheduled to leave from Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue this evening. Organizers have asked people to come to Barrows Hall to watch a live stream of a tribunal that will be held in Ferguson, Missouri, on the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. They plan to march when it is over.

It is only by keeping up this pressure that things will change, according to Antoinette, a 43-year-old Oakland resident. She marched Tuesday night as well as last week in Oakland.

“It’s important to make a statement that the police are not above the law and that black lives matter,” she said. “It’s important to show the disproportionate number of blacks who are victims of police brutality as opposed to whites. These are executions. Lynching is still a thing, it’s just called something different.”

From left: Berkeley Police Chief Mike Meehan, Mayor Tom Bates, Councilman Max Anderson, and Fire Chief Gil Dong. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
From left: Berkeley Police Chief Mike Meehan, Mayor Tom Bates, Councilman Max Anderson, and Fire Chief Gil Dong. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Berkeley city officials, by and large, support the message of the protests, just not the vandalism and violence, they said at Tuesday’s press conference.

“Events have reached a pinnacle,” said City Councilman Max Anderson. “We have a toxic brew of issues… The statistics are staggering in terms of the shooting and the killing and the lack of prosecution. This really strikes at the heart of democracy in this country and people are very upset.”

Bates said he and other council members are working to improve the communication between the community and police department. Bates wants to bring in experts to discuss the issues. City Councilwoman Linda Maio has called for a “teach-in” next year, he said.

“We are actually going to sit down and figure out: ‘We’ve got problems with the police. We’ve got problems with the community. What can we do to make that balance differently?’” said Bates. “Berkeley’s ahead of a lot of places, but we have problems, too. We want to go on the offensive…. We want to do something positive and take it to another level.”

Correction: Kriss Worthington got in touch to say he did not use the expression “police brutality.” We have corrected the story accordingly, and apologize for the error. 

Op-ed: 5 myths about East Bay #BlackLivesMatter protests (12.10.14)
Op-ed: Talking about violence is not a distraction — The Berkeley protests for Ferguson (12.10.14)
Berkeley protesters breach freeway again (12.09.14)
Gallery: Third night of Berkeley protests, trains halted, a freeway brought to a standstill (12.09.14)
After protests, City Council meeting cancelled
City of Berkeley calls for invite-only press conference for TV news (12.09.14)
CHP arrest 150 protesters after they block I-80 freeway (12.09.14)
City told police to use restraint, avoid tear gas, on second night of protests (12.08.14)
Photo Gallery: Two nights of protests, riots in Berkeley (12.08.14)
Pastor: Brown’s death was the final straw that galvanized communities across the nation (12.08.14)
Protesters take to streets for second night: violence, vandalism of local businesses, looting (12.07.14)
Ferguson demo: injuries reported, tear gas used, property vandalized; arrests (12.06.14)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...