Berkeley erupts in violent protest over police, racism, and 'whaddya got?'

A friend far more plugged in than I to the scene in Berkeley warned me Friday to stay away from campus and downtown Saturday, starting at 5.  A demonstration was being planned, she told me, and trashcans were already being removed from the streets so as to prevent them from being hurled through windows. Absolutely nobody but people living in a dream world expected there to be no violence.

And sure enough, after the sun went down and a brief interval passed, I heard the sound of helicopters whirring over Berkeley (where I have lived nearly 3 decades just a bit beyond a stone’s throw from campus), a sure sign that major police and media resources were being deployed. Live in Berkeley long enough, and you soon learn to gauge the Helicopter Index, first calibrated 45 years ago*, when then Governor Reagan deployed helicopters to tear gas the violent so-called “Free Speech Movement” (oh the irony! The last thing the Left today wants is free speech. Speech codes are now the party line on campus).

I could tell that this was going to be about 7 on a scale of 10, and so was not surprised to read in such media accounts as currently exist at this early morning hour that windows were smashed, police cars and other vehicles vandalized, and tear gas and flash bang grenades were deployed. One police officer was injured and treated at a hospital for a dislocated shoulder after being hit by something thrown at him, and demonstrators offered accounts of being hit with billy clubs. But there was no arson, and no shots were fired.

The demonstrations lasted about nine hours, beginning at 5 PM in Sproul Plaza on the UC Campus, and ranging over a wide area of the city.  Marchers went  about 2 miles or so down University Avenue, smashing windows and breaking (and stealing?) wine and beer bottles at a Trader Joe’s store along the way, to a commercial district at San Pablo Avenue with many stores serving an Indian clientele, where windows were broken on a Wells Fargo Bank branch.  There was a gathering on Shattuck Avenue in the city’s downtown area, where people leaving concerts and theatres were hit with tear gas. And Telegraph Avenue, the shopping district that begins at Sather Gate, just off Sproul Plaza, site of the first violent campus riots 50 years ago, also saw action, including the smashing of store windows.

The most complete account can be found in Berkeleyside, a website focused on daily events in Berkeley, which provided updates from 5 PM to 2:43 AM. Notable in it are many assertions that the overwhelming majority of protestors were peaceful but that a comparative handful were intent on mayhem and property damage. The video below, taken by Tom Goulding, is notable for a bit of dialogue that can be heard toward its end, in which two people off camera discuss the violence, with one of them angry that police were deploying force (flash bang grenades and tear gas) and the other patiently explaining that when you start hammering and vandalizing police cars, you have to expect a response and you lose the moral authority. The video, only a bit over a minute and half long, is worth watching and listening to.


My general impression is that many of the protestors had little grasp of either the details of the incidents in Ferguson and New York, or of the violent intent of the revolutionaries who seek to spread chaos and unrest. They were probably genuinely surprised to learn that police could and would lawfully deploy force and declare a gathering illegal once violence was used by demonstrators.

But in mass gatherings, the initiative always lies with those willing to use physical means. And in the wave of demonstrations currently underway, a well financed and organized core of people are exploiting the fates of Michael Brown and Eric Garner to sow violence. A couple of years ago, it was the alleged sins of Wall Street and the “one percent” that were exploited. And next time, it will be something else. The classic expression of this sort of ambient rage and rebellion was committed to film 61 years ago, in The Wild One, where a motorcycle gang leader played by Marlon Brando was asked what he was rebelling against, and answered, “Whaddya got?”


I am certain many of last night’s demonstrators assumed that their own hearts were pure, as exemplified by this young woman quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle’s account of the night.

Protester Kelly Osajima, 24, of Emeryville said she had to speak out because “black lives matter. ... How can I stand by while this is happening?” she said.

The conviction that a wave of unjustified police violence against innocent young black males is what left has got right now.

*Thanks to a commenter who pointed out that Gov. Reagan's tear-gassing took place in 1969, not 1964 in the Free Speech Movemnet demonstrations, 50 years ago today.

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