Black Brunch. Photo:  Blake Simons
A Black Brunch protester makes a black power salute at Tacubaya restaurant on Fourth Street on Sat. Jan. 3, 2014. Photo: Blake Simons

More than two dozen African-American students, many from UC Berkeley, tried to disrupt “business as usual” on Saturday by staging a protest in Berkeley’s upscale Fourth Street shopping district.

The students, as well as some community activists, started walking through various shops and restaurants around 11 a.m. chanting, “Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on? We are on the freedom side.” Some carried signs that read: “Sorry 4 the inconvenience, We wanna change the world,” and “RIP” showing a drawing of a young man wearing a hoodie.

According to the protesters, the protest was staged in restaurants in order to link the demonstrations to those launched in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement when people of color sat down at lunch counters in the South that were reserved for white customers.

“The strategy of Black Brunch is simple: to stop business as usual in mostly white upscale neighborhoods by going into restaurants and stores and reading the names of Black people who have been killed by police or vigilantes,” read a statement issued by the organizing group, which included black students from Cal and community activists. “The small inconvenience felt while we disrupted businesses pales in comparison to the nightmarish reality of being Black in America.”

While on Fourth Street, the group walked through Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto and the Apple store, where they read off names of people who had been killed by police. They went into Bette’s Oceanview Diner, on to Peet’s Coffee & Tea, then to Café Rouge (where they briefly hung a sign from the mezzanine level), and finally to Mexican restaurant Tacubaya. The group also read poems and spoke about their experiences on the outdoor pedestrian by Peet’s and Café Rouge.

Blake Simons, a senior at UC Berkeley, read a poem he wrote about an interaction he had with police. Another protester read off names of transgendered people whom, she said, had been killed by police.

The Black Brunch protests were originally organized in Oakland. Late last year a group interrupted patrons eating and shopping in Rockridge, another upscale area that caters mostly to whites. On Sunday Jan. 4, there was another Black Brunch protest in Oakland, that included protesting in restaurants in Jack London Square, as well as one in New York City.

Students talking at Black Brunch protest on Fourth St. Photo: Blake Simons
Students talking at Black Brunch protest on Fourth Street. Photo: Blake Simons

The demonstrators said they were trying to call attention to a report published by the Malcolm X Grass Roots Movement that shows that “a Black person is killed in this country by police officers, security guards or vigilantes every 28 hours.”

But the students also wanted to talk about their own experiences as black students at Cal. Ever since Californians adopted Proposition 209, which forbade the University of California from using race as a criterion for admission, the percentage of blacks at Cal has dropped significantly. In 2012, there were 874 African-American undergraduate students, about 3% of the total student body, according to a UC Berkeley diversity census. That is about half the number than before 209 went into effect in 1998. Some students feel that campus atmosphere can be hostile.

“A recent Campus Climate Survey revealed that fifty percent of Black students at UC Berkeley feel prejudged by faculty based on their identity/background,” according to a statement released by the group. “The same survey revealed that fifty percent of Black students feel that they do not have the same opportunities for success as their classmates, and various racial/ethnic groups unanimously agreed that Black students had some of the worst conditions on campus regarding climate and respect from peers.

The struggle of being Black in America exists wherever we are.”

As the demonstrators walked through the stores and restaurants, they were met with both support and derision.

Ed, the manager at Bette’s Oceanview Diner, took a video of the protesters (see above), posted it to the restaurant’s Facebook page, and wrote: “This occurred today in the diner. Peaceful and well organized.”

Owner Bette Kroening said on Monday that she was sorry she had missed the protesters coming through her restaurant. “It was a powerful protest and I am happy they came,” she said.

Kroening added that the response had mostly been positive, with comments on the Facebook posting echoing her view that it was a worthwhile demonstration.

One customer was unhappy, however. “Sorry. I wait in line for an hour for a seat to enjoy a Maryland Breakfast or your great meat loaf and not to be politicized by an angry mob,” Nathaniel Hardin wrote on the diner’s Facebook page.” FYI, your customers are not upscale, elitist White Oppressors. They come in all ranges of income levels, colors, and ethnicities.”

Kroening said there were only two negative comments amid many positive ones. Andrew Mboya was one who approved of the protests and the restaurant’s response. “Well done,” he posted. “You’ll be seeing this first time customer very soon”

Early December, when Cal was still in session, was marked by some raucous, often violent protests in Berkeley Once students left for winter break and the holiday season commenced, the protests quieted down. Cal is set to resume on Jan. 20 — three days after the Berkeley City Council is scheduled to hold a special session to gather information on those demonstrations.

This story was updated on Monday Jan. 5 with new information.

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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 Created California, published in November...