Police in Berkeley can now use larger pepper spray canisters on protesters who use violent tactics. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley City Council voted 6-3 Tuesday evening to let police use pepper spray on protesters who are violent.

Officials reaffirmed their commitment against the use of pepper spray for “crowd control,” or on anyone who is passively resisting police.

The vote, at the end of a special meeting that began at 3 p.m., followed nearly two hours of public comment. Most speakers said they were against expanded permission to use pepper spray, and said police should instead focus on de-escalation. Several other speakers said police need the tool for officer safety and better control when protests get out of hand.

Council members Cheryl Davila, Kriss Worthington and Kate Harrison voted against the request by Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood.

According to the motion to approve the request, made by Mayor Jesse Arreguín, officers may now “use pepper spray upon specific individuals within a crowd who are committing acts of violence upon police or others.” Arreguín spoke forcefully at the meeting about the rights of officers to be safe while they are doing their jobs and trying to keep the community safe.

Greenwood said police may need to use pepper spray should demonstrators attempt to use violence to overcome a police line, which could happen Thursday during a talk at UC Berkeley by conservative talk show host Ben Shapiro.

Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Most of the people who attended Tuesday’s meeting were not convinced, and expressed disgust with the council vote.

“They should be with the protesters standing against fascists, not giving them pepper spray to shoot at us,” one man said. “Police have all the tools they need,” said another speaker. Members of the public also said they are concerned about unintended consequences, and the fact that peaceful protesters may be pepper-sprayed by mistake.

Others, however, argued that police should have pepper spray to use during demonstrations should they need it. (They can already use it during arrests if people become violent, though they don’t use it often.)

“I’d rather get shot in the face with pepper spray than a bullet,” one local father said.

Many speakers took issue with the police portrayal of the Aug. 27 demonstrations in Berkeley, and said they didn’t see any violence so it must not have happened. Thousands of people did demonstrate peacefully for many hours that day, but there were also a handful of injuries reported, including at least two people who were taken to the hospital. The police also made what turned out to be a controversial decision when they abandoned a perimeter they had set up at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park and allowed thousands of people — including hundreds of black-clad antifa — to pour in with shields and other items police had classified as weapons.

Some people also said the chief’s report spoke too often of “extremists” and did not put enough blame on “Nazis” and “fascists” who have come to Berkeley to provoke a response. The chief said, by “extremists,” he was not focused on one side or another, but anyone who uses violence for political purposes.

Mayor Arreguín did not disagree. And he repeatedly countered the narrative that Aug. 27 was completely peaceful.

“We have seen extremists on the left and on the right in our city,” he said, from the dais. Of Aug 27, he added: “There were a few … people that did have weapons and did engage in violence.… We have to recognize that that is the reality.”

Councilwoman Davila said she wasn’t at the protest but still questioned the police depiction, which she found one-sided.

“No mention of neo-Nazis was in your presentation. That’s very problematic,” she told the chief. “Why are we defending the freaking neo-Nazis? I don’t get that.”

She continued: “Peace is the answer. Have love in your heart and just move forward in that direction.”

Councilwoman Harrison said she is more concerned about the possibility of innocent bystanders being hurt than about the violence that has already taken place in Berkeley. She said she had been “stunned” to learn of the proposal, and didn’t understand why police need to use “bigger weapons.” (The pepper spray canisters police received permission to use are larger than the ones they carry on their duty belts, she noted.)

Council members who voted in favor of the Arreguín motion said police should have the tools they need to do their jobs, and said the city should not support those who come to Berkeley with violent intentions.

Councilwoman Linda Maio also noted that so-called free speech advocates are likely laughing at the steps Berkeley is taking to protect them — despite their repeated provocations throughout the year.

“We are standing up for something that they are using against us,” she said.

Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood answered questions from the media after the council vote. Raw video of the Q&A appears below.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...