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When the “Robo-Cops” Came to Berkeley

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This may be what a Homeland Security takeover looks like, as experienced in Berkeley last December when out-of-town riot police moved in and commandeered a residential street for use as their staging area. City officials stepped back, allowing them to do it. That was during the nationwide protests against police impunity in Ferguson and Staten Island as well as locally here in the Bay Area. Nightly demonstrations took place in Berkeley, some evenings involving 1,000 to 3,000 people.

There are numerous articles, reports, testimonies, videos and photos of those demonstrations. What’s received less attention — none at all from the corporate media — was the seizure and lockdown of the 2100 block of McKinley Avenue, a residential street near the Berkeley police station.

“It all began on Friday, December 5,” a McKinley Avenue resident wrote in an email to city officials, “when we woke up to find posted outside our front door ‘NO PARKING / TOW AWAY’ signs for a ‘SPECIAL EVENT‘ that would begin at noon on Saturday [December 6].”

These mysterious signs left some folks thinking they’d missed an invite to a block party. One woman, out of curiosity, went to the police station and asked about it, but the officer on duty didn’t know. So she asked a parking enforcement officer. Same answer. At the permit office they didn’t know either. Likewise at Planning, and then at Parks. Finally she encountered a secretary who’d seen an email explaining that “it was necessary because of planned demonstrations.”

The 2100 block of McKinley Avenue, the neighborhood which was about to experience this “special event,” is a quiet, middle class residential street lined with well kept homes, some of them Victorian. Although it’s the street behind the Berkeley City Hall and police station, it is nevertheless fairly isolated from the hustle-bustle of the nearby downtown. The block is rather secluded, but handy and strategically located. The signs were also posted on nearby cross streets.

Saturday came. Cars belonging to residents were towed. Hundreds of militarized riot police from Hayward, San Mateo, Fairfield, and Dublin as well as from other cities and agencies descended upon the neighborhood. They moved in, set up barricades at both ends of the 2100 block and used it for their staging area, their base camp. The residents were ID’d as they attempted to enter the area or even walk on the sidewalk outside their houses. “Keep your hands out of your pockets!” the out-of-towners would yell at them.

The “robo-cops,” as McKinley Avenue residents called them, made themselves quite at home, freely littering the street and sidewalk with wrappers, cups, pizza boxes, and partly eaten food, leaving it for the unhappy residents to clean up. The “special event” had begun.

Residents appealed to city officials. One wrote in an email: “we have been living in an armed camp after dark. Our block has been barricaded at both ends each night, with police officers requiring identification from residents. [. . . . . .] It was as if they were afraid that I was a suicide bomber. For four nights there have been armored vehicles covered with robo-cops who sit with motors running, glaring at us if we leave our houses. Ranks of robo-cops actually marching, then later high fives and laughter as they debrief on the sidewalk outside our living room. . . .”

“We were subjected to a complete nightly lockdown for five nights. We were denied access and egress via our cars except for one entry early in the evening. We were barricaded in and couldn’t drive in or out.” wrote Robin McDonnell in a formal complaint to the Berkeley Police Review Commission which, along with other statements and emails to city officials, was presented at a PRC hearing on Jan 14, 2015.

People living on nearby cross streets were also affected. A resident of Addison Street wrote, “My street was blocked off, and police officers refused to let me pass the barricade to walk home, even when I offered to show ID to prove I lived there. I wound up spending an entire week walking in a big circle each night to creep up the end of Addison where fewer officers were.”

“Am I going to get shot?” One McKinley resident wondered when police screamed at her, ordering her to halt.

Nevertheless, as invasions go, it was relatively benign, certainly nothing like the U.S. Army brining freedom and democracy to some village in Afghanistan. None of the McKinley residents was shot, clubbed, tear gassed, or arrested, not even when they expressed dissatisfaction. For example, one evening when the robo-cops were especially noisy and a group of neighbors got together and asked them to be more quiet, the police didn’t get violent, they merely glared at the residents as though they were being disloyal.

The McKinley residents had previously enjoyed good relations with the Berkeley Police Department (BPD), and the style of this invasion was quite a surprise. Now they suddenly found themselves being treated to a modified version of Stop&Frisk by cops they didn’t know. They tried to contact their BPD liaison person, Ms. Stephanie Polizziani. One resident wrote: “Dear Stephanie, After thirty years of being a neighbor to the Berkeley Police Department, I was shocked and saddened to see how bad your department’s relations with its immediate neighbors are.” Another resident, in a similar tone, reminded the liaison person, “My family has always been supportive and cooperative with the local police.”

The BPD did not respond. Commenting on the official silence, a resident wrote, “Our neighborhood actually has a liaison person, Polizziani, who is supposed to take care of our concerns [. . .] We not only heard nothing, we continue to hear nothing.” The resident listed some of the abuse and insults he and his neighbors had endured, calling the situation “a foul and ironic echo of the sort of treatment being protested each night.”

Still another, also writing to city officials, said, “This is all totally unacceptable and unfortunately a little view into the disrespect police departments seem to have for their citizens. I believe this is what the protests are actually about.”

That was the situation in Berkeley during that second week of December 2014. The out-of-town robo-cops had absolute, total, uncontested lockdown control of the 2100 block of McKinley. The Berkeley cops had seemingly ceded control to the outsiders. The rest of the city’s officialdom also seemed to withdraw from the picture.

It was during those five days in December that Mayor Tom Bates took the unusual step of canceling a city council meeting, that of Tuesday, December 9. That was ostensibly to avoid overflow and possibly disruptive crowds. Instead of the scheduled council meeting, Mayor Bates held an invite-only news conference. Even some of the council members were excluded, locked out. None of that is the way things are normally done in Berkeley.

There was also the wild night of December 6, the evening the out-of-towners showed up and seized McKinley. Riot police attacked protesters. Live-stream videos showed police using tear gas in residential areas, and KTVU ran a video of an officer clubbing a news photographer with a baton. The Daily Kos posted an article titled “Berkeley Witnesses a Police Riot,” and the Society of Professional Journalists wrote the city a letter protesting that a number of reporters were struck despite clearly displaying press credentials.

One might think that with all those militarized riot police in town, the entire city would’ve been reduced to a state of dead quiet, that even the mice would be trembling in their holes, perhaps leaving Berkeley for good. Actually, quite to the contrary, each evening over a thousand protesters continued to gather near the university campus, then march down to the I 80 freeway, and shut it down. Many of the stranded motorists on the freeway cheered the protesters. The protest against police impunity was a popular cause with wide support.

Despite their blustering abusiveness, the riot police seemed rather inept, more effective at stirring things up than at quieting anything down.

Then, after five days, the local Berkeley police suddenly reappeared to McKinley Avenue residents. Captain Andrew Greenwood met with them on December 11th, introduced himself as their new BPD contact person, and apologized profusely for the department’s abandonment of them and expressed a determination to set things right. “We totally fell short on communicating to you guys what was going on and why,” Greenwood reportedly told them. He also explained his view of what had happened, that the department was overwhelmed by the unprecedented magnitude of the demonstrations, which he said were “historical in terms of size and scope.”

So it appears that the BPD was rendered dysfunctional by a couple thousand of mostly peaceful protesters. The city council was likewise forced to cancel a meeting due of an overflow crowd. Clearly, it doesn’t take much to throw Berkeley into a state of confusion and paralysis. Really? Or could there be some other explanation?

Daniel Borgstrom’s work can be found at http://danielborgstrom.blogspot.com/.

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