An outing in downtown Berkeley over Memorial Day weekend turned violent after a white woman zeroed in on a multiracial group of friends and their children, told them repeatedly to “get out of Berkeley,” then attacked two of its female members, police and the victims told Berkeleyside this week.
The group included two young children and a woman who is five months pregnant. When police arrived, the assailant claimed a “mob of people just came at me from out of nowhere and tried to assault me,” according to a video of part of the incident posted online by one of the victims. A couple who stopped to witness what unfolded told police this wasn’t the case, and the woman ultimately was taken into custody.
“I’ve had other situations where it was race related. I can handle the hate if I was by myself. I would have taken off running just to have resolved it,” said 30-year-old Essex Cook of Vallejo, who initially was the main focus of the stranger’s harassment. “But my family was there.”
His family included his 2-year-old son, his partner — who is five months pregnant with their first child — and his 23-year-old cousin, Elexia Cook, who originally posted videos on Instagram of the interaction. Elexia posted the videos Thursday, and they quickly caught fire. Another cousin shared the videos under the “So Oakland” Instagram account and they have since been viewed more than 60,000 times and received more than 1,000 comments on that account alone. That’s not counting the views on Cook’s own Instagram page or on Facebook, where many people also have watched them.
Readers who saw those videos alerted Berkeleyside on Friday to the incident and asked for coverage. Berkeleyside sought out the Cooks and asked police for an explanation.
The May 26 outing began at the Oakland Zoo, then the group decided to head to Berkeley for burgers at Barney’s on Cedar Street. Elexia Cook met her family and friends there. They planned to celebrate her graduation, the day before, from San Francisco State University, and enjoy some time together over the holiday weekend.
Essex Cook, a technician for a cellphone company, said he doesn’t get much time off, so he was particularly happy to have a day to relax with friends and family. After burgers, the group looked online and found a boba tea shop a 10-minute walk down Shattuck Avenue. As they walked, they stopped to take photos along the way.
Eventually, they noticed a stranger who was walking close behind them. She was close enough that Essex Cook said he could smell alcohol on her breath. But she looked like a “normal class citizen,” he said.
“I see a lot of people sitting on the curb,” he said. “You don’t look like a curb-sitter,” he remembered thinking.
Both Cooks said they became concerned their group might be taking up too much of the sidewalk, and asked the woman several times if she wanted to pass. She declined, and instead seemed to prefer to stick with their group. It was awkward, and her presence became increasingly uncomfortable, the Cooks said.
Essex Cook recalled how the woman came up directly behind him, “on the back of my neck.” He said he ultimately made a decision to put some distance between them, telling her, “We’re going to let you go by.” They moved to the left, but the woman said she wanted to walk on that side. So they moved to the right, and the same thing happened. The woman then claimed they were blocking her vehicle, so they moved again, even though her story seemed fishy. But the woman wasn’t done.
“You don’t belong here,” the woman suddenly told Essex Cook. She was fixated on him, he recalled. He said that, though the group was multiracial, he is black and has the darkest skin. “Get out of Berkeley. Get out of here. You don’t belong anywhere,” the woman said over and over.
The woman kept closing the distance, even as the group tried to back up. Cook said he put his hands up in the air, but the woman kept coming: “She zeroed directly in on me and there was no way around it,” he said. She was aggressive and at times was “jumping up into a fighting stance,” challenging the group and calling them “hostile.”
Cook’s girlfriend and cousin both tried to intervene on his behalf. As Cook tried to encourage his girlfriend to walk away, the stranger attacked his cousin. Elexia Cook recalled that the woman grabbed her braids and dress. They ended up in the bushes as the woman hit her.
Essex Cook then grabbed the woman and put her into a “pinky hold” to get her to release his cousin. He had learned the skill when, as a high school student, he was kicked out of PE and was placed in a women’s self-defense course as an alternative.
The Cooks said they kept pleading with the woman just to leave them alone. They said they wanted no trouble with her. But she ran up to another member of the group — a mother who was there with her own young child — ripping off the woman’s shirt and breastfeeding bra, leaving her breasts exposed and scratches on her chest. Her 15-month-old son was screaming as the attack took place.
(Note: The video below begins after much of the verbal interaction, after the woman followed the group down Shattuck Avenue for an extended period. Essex Cook can be seen trying to keep space between the stranger and his pregnant girlfriend. Elexia Cook said she wished she had captured more of the incidenet, but it escalated quickly: “I wasn’t really thinking something was going to happen but just the things she was saying, I thought, this is kinda weird.”)
Throughout the interaction, the Cooks said they tried to get passers-by to stop, either to call police or simply witness what was happening so it wouldn’t simply be their word against the stranger’s. But most people just ignored them.
“We were so loud and people were walking by not even making a noise, trying not to look at us, acting like they didn’t even notice,” Elexia Cook recalled. “It just made me feel very uncomfortable. Berkeley isn’t my hometown but, being from the Bay Area, you expect people to kind of have your back. I was just kind of surprised.”
They said it was particularly stressful because, since they are black, they weren’t confident the police would take their word over a professional-looking white woman’s. Fortunately, they added, one couple, who happened to be white, stopped to observe and call police.
“When the police cars arrived, I was scared,” said Elexia Cook. “I didn’t know what the white couple that stood there was going to say to the police, or what they said over the phone. We were scared that something else might have happened, and we would be arrested along with her until things got sorted out.”
“We looked like we had gotten in a fight,” she added. “We didn’t know if they would believe us.”
Berkeley Police Lt. Peter Hong said the first officer who got to Shattuck Avenue, recognized the woman who had followed and attacked the group. He said she’s known to law enforcement for violations related to drunkenness and aggressive behavior.
When he tried to take her into custody, she resisted, which was caught on video, Hong said. Members of the group told police they did not want to pursue criminal charges in connection with their case. But the officer arrested the woman on suspicion of public intoxication as well as a probation violation.
She was identified in records online as 31-year-old Lauren Milewski. Hong said Milewski has no permanent home address.
According to court records, Milewski was on probation for a 2017 robbery case that was described, when it was charged, as a violent felony that could have sent her to prison. She ultimately took a plea to grand theft, and the rest of the charges in the case were dismissed. Milewski spent a couple months in jail, then was placed on a five-year probation term. According to records online she is no longer in custody and no new charges appear to have been filed.
Both Cooks made it very clear that they prefer not to jump to the conclusion that an incident might be racially motivated, and don’t like to generalize about people of any race.
“You hate getting into the race card,” Essex Cook said, and went on to describe his thoughts as the harassment was happening. “Something could be wrong with this lady. She’s close enough on me that she looks sane. I smell a little liquor, but she looks normal.” He continued, “I don’t know if it was intoxication. I don’t know if it’s race. But you’re targeting me.”
Elexia Cook said it’s impossible to know what was in the woman’s mind.
“What else could it be?” she wondered. “We probably will really never know. That’s just what it looks like on the surface. We are black, and we had three Asian people with us. But she wasn’t really talking to them in the beginning: She was really focused on Essex.”
After the arrest, Cook said she sat in the North Berkeley Safeway parking lot for an hour collecting her thoughts and talking to her parents on the phone. Later, when she was home in Richmond, she and her cousin exchanged texts about what had happened. Both said the bad experience won’t keep them out of Berkeley, however. Elexia said she’s since been back, to have tapas with friends at La Marcha.
“Berkeley is definitely a part of my childhood. I love Berkeley,” she said. “Those things will happen anywhere.”