Berkeley City Council members Cheryl Davila and Ben Bartlett voiced deep pain and anger on Tuesday over last week’s police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis and were joined by the full City Council in taking one minute of silence to mourn black people who have died due to police brutality.
City officials have been setting aside an opening portion of the meeting every week to address COVID-19 and its impact on the Berkeley community, but Mayor Jesse Arreguín repurposed that time Tuesday night for remarks on Floyd’s killing and the protests that have been roiling the Bay Area and the nation. So far, Berkeley has not seen significant demonstrations, apart from a small protest by Berkeley High students on last week, but an Oakland march organized by youth drew 15,000 people on Monday. Berkeley did see looting over the weekend, however.
Davila, who grew up in the 1960s, said her mother used to call her attention to acts of racism in the era of Jim Crow laws — such as law enforcement hitting protesters with high-pressure fire hoses. “Nothing has changed, unfortunately,” she said.
“This is the time to be in solidarity, for real,” said Davila, who was brought to tears during the moment of silence. “We can’t go back.”
Bartlett described the protests across the country, while focused on the murder of George Floyd, as also a collective action against police brutality, poverty and systemic racism against black people.
“The collective knees on so many necks have finally given way,” Bartlett said during the meeting, recounting his childhood connections with Black Panthers and the Rodney King riots. “The gig is up, the table is turned over. When the state can kill with impunity, then democracy is dead.”
Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, has been charged with second-degree murder after he pressed his knee down on Floyd’s neck, ultimately resulting in his cardiac arrest. The three other former officers involved in detaining Floyd were charged today with aiding and abetting both second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Councilmember Rigel Robinson expressed his concern for protesters gathering in large numbers with the threat of COVID-19 infections still looming and asked those who are demonstrating to follow as many social distancing measures as possible for their safety. Councilmember Lori Droste, speaking on behalf of queer communities, raised the Stonewall Riots, and how much progress black activists ensured for generations to come.
“It really saddens me to look back and see how little has been accomplished in my lifetime,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf, recounting protests she had attended in the past. Speaking to Davila and Bartlett, she said, “I grieve with you. I share your rage and I stand in solidarity with you.”
Though Berkeley hasn’t seen anti-police brutality demonstrations this week, more than a dozen Berkeley businesses were targeted by burglars over the weekend, concurrent with looting and vandalism observed in cities that have had large protests.
As a result, Berkeley and other cities around the Bay Area have put curfews into place this week, citing public safety.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Davila and Bartlett pushed back against a proposal to extend that curfew, which had been set to expire Wednesday morning, saying it would curtail civil liberties and could contribute to racial profiling. They were joined by council members Kate Harrison and Rigel Robinson in voting against the extension, but it ultimately passed. Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in an interview with Berkeleyside today that he “didn’t want Berkeley to be the only city in Alameda County without a curfew because that leaves us exposed.”
He said there is a possibility the city will lift the curfew early.
Beginning last Friday, some Berkeley police officers were dispatched to Oakland for several days to help police there respond to widespread demonstrations. During some of the protests, police used tear gas on crowds, sparking anger from many in the community.
On Tuesday night, Davila asked city staff what part Berkeley officers may have played in those events. Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said all BPD officers wore body cameras during the response and that footage would be reviewed.
Bartlett said it had “warmed his heart” to hear about Berkeley police officers who kneeled down in solidarity with protesters in Oakland on Sunday night. At one point, a line of Berkeley officers each went down on one knee at the urging of the crowd.
Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani expressed a similar sentiment earlier in the meeting, saying she was heartened by police’s act of solidarity, but Davila pushed back on the idea, saying it was offensive due to the nature of Floyd’s killing. Similar debates have arisen throughout the country as people weigh police brutality and system racism with law enforcement’s attempt to build bridges during the protests.
On Wednesday, Arreguín told Berkeleyside the city is stepping up efforts that had been underway to look at racial disparities on police stops. A group that had been meeting this year to analyze those stops was placed on hold with many other cities bodies amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Arreguín said that the group will begin to meet again next week and that the city’s Police Review Commission will also resume meeting. Arreguín said police in Berkeley have a solid record of serving the community with respect and have undergone extensive training around fair and impartial policing.
But he also said the city will be looking at whether additional training needs to happen, whether procedures may need to change, or whether certain duties should shift to mental health outreach workers in the future.
The police department has already been planning to launch a series of community conversations, the mayor said, and he said he was in favor of that effort moving forward.
“I think we need to continue the work and we need to demonstrate that we’re serious about this,” Arreguín said Wednesday. “We want to move this conversation forward and make meaningful change.”
Update, 5:50 p.m. On Wednesday evening, Councilmember Kate Harrison shared plans for a silent protest from home. The action will begin at 9 p.m., when protesters will step in front of their homes with a flashlight, and shine it at the sky for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck, killing him.
“The goal is to get the entire city of Berkeley to do it, to show that we, the people, can come together peacefully, even when we are forced to be apart,” Harrison said. “Let’s show that we care, and that we do not want more violence, we want change!”
Senior news editor Emilie Raguso contributed reporting to this story.