Nearly 300 protesters staged a die-in on University Avenue on Sunday. Photo: Lance Knobel
Nearly 300 protesters from a number of churches and synagogues staged a die-in on University Avenue in Berkeley on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014. Photo: Lance Knobel

By Lance Knobel and Tracey Taylor

An estimated 300 people, most of them affiliated with local faith-based places of worship, blocked University Avenue in Berkeley for just over an hour during a peaceful protest Sunday, Dec. 14. The “Black Lives Matter Large-Scale Demonstration” was initiated by a number of local faith groups.

The protest joined the hundreds of demonstrations that took place locally and nationally over the weekend over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.

See complete Berkeleyside coverage of the recent Berkeley protests.

At the center of the protest was an 11-minute die-in, reminding people of the 11 times Garner said, “I can’t breathe.”

“This demonstration is intended to show the discipline of civil disobedience,” said Pastor Michael McBride, founder of The Way Christian Center at 1305 University Ave., directly opposite Congregation Netivot Shalom at 1316 University, where the die-in took place.

Protesters, including a group from First Congregational Church in Berkeley, marched west down University to join the group that convened outside The Way Christian Center and Congregation Nevitot Shalom on Sunday Dec. 14, 2014. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Netivot Shalom described his synagogue’s involvement as a “presence of solidarity.” He said it had been agreed that the protest would be termed a “pilgrimage of lament.” Given the context of the protests — to raise awareness of the deaths of black men — Creditor said he believed it was important that “white clergy doesn’t stand in the limelight.” He said he had been asked to recite a prayer, however, which he planned to do with humility.

McBride made explicit the difference between Sunday’s demonstration and some of the protests earlier in the week where some protesters engaged in violence and property damage.

“We are aware that there are anarchists out here,” he said. “People that claim to be allies of black people. This is not your struggle. Don’t hijack our struggle. We love allies, but allies aren’t in charge.”

Berkeley police blocked off a stretch of University Avenue during the protest, which was deliberately planned to last just one hour, from 2-3 p.m. Creditor said the group wanted to define a clear beginning and finish to prevent the protest being open-ended. The organizers also requested that there be minimal promotion of the event in advance so that it not attract non-peaceful attendees.

Shortly before 2 p.m. a diverse crowd gathered outside The Way Christian Center. Among them were Erin Rhoades, executive director of the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, and her son, Thomas, who attends Longfellow Middle School. Rhoades said it was the first Black Lives Matter protest she had attended locally and she felt it was important Thomas experienced it. “He has been learning about the issues at school,” she said.

Rafi Wirtschafter, 13, joined the faith protest in Berkeley on Sunday Dec. 14, 2014. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Also in attendance, holding a sign that read “Jews Against Prejudice,” was 13-year-old Rafi Wirtschafter, who attends Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland. He said it was the first protest he had been to. “It’s important as a Jew to participate,” he said. “My people have struggled but we have come to be accepted. So many people have not.”

Before the 11-minute die-in, demonstrators observed a 4½-minute silence, reflecting on the 4½ hours Michael Brown’s body lay in the street after he was shot.

“I want you to think of the pain and the anguish every mother feels, every father experiences when they are not able to hug their son anymore,” McBride said. “We can do everything in our power to ensure more lives are not senselessly lost.”

During the die-in, three speakers provided personal reflections on the meaning of the police shootings and the recent protests.

“I’ve never been so proud to be black,” said Eniola Abioye from the UC Berkeley Black Student Union, who organized Saturday’s march from the UC Berkeley campus to Oakland. “This is what I need, this is what helps me, this is what heals me.”

Pastor Michael McBride speaking during the faith-based protest on University Avenue in Berkeley on Sunday Dec. 14, 2014. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Between the speakers, McBride offered five policy recommendations to prevent future shootings. They included equipping all law enforcement officers with body cameras, mandatory reporting and publication of excessive force or shootings, requiring a special prosecutor to investigate shootings, investment in violence prevention programs, and federal defunding of law enforcement agencies that have “egregious levels” of racial profiling, excessive force and unlawful killings.

He criticized what he called the “militarized weapons and militarized tactics” used by Berkeley police Dec. 7, when tear gas was used to disperse protesters.

“We’ve got stuff we should be paying attention to, and not just be proud to be progressive in Berkeley,” McBride said to Berkeleyside after the protest. “There’s a culture of law enforcement that needs to be shifted nationally. It would be great for a progressive city to lead.”

After the protest, a number of faith leaders said it was vital to keep the issue visible.

“Those who are comfortable are going to have to be uncomfortable,” said Ben McBride, associate pastor at The Way and founder of the Empower Initiative. “One of the things we learned from Ferguson was that the young people there refused to let it die. We’re not going to let it die.”

A young participant at the faith-based protest in Berkeley on Sunday Dec. 14, 2014. Photo: Tracey Taylor

[Correction: Sunday’s 11-minute die-in was to memorialize the 11 times Garner said “I can’t breathe.” The initial version of this story had an inaccurate rendering of that element of the event, which has been clarified.]

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