Southside 'Cleansing' Shows A Darker Side of Local Police

Jason Meggs is a Southside resident. Respond to him at [email protected]

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Ross Clippinger's "Behind the Badge," in which he says he was disgusted by the Reclaim the Streets Party and Protest of Globalization in May 1998, is unfortunately based on some serious misperceptions.

Clippinger says his disgust stems from having police for parents, which sensitizes him to the fact that police are people, and he felt that the "effective crowd control" that night by police did not warrant the treatment that police received (from a handful of people in the crowd). I do agree that police used effective and overall, humane crowd control.

For once, the police did not instigate a riot, and they accommodated the protest in a commendable manner. (Although it would have been better had they not participated at all.)

On the other hand, Clippinger is way off base in his characterization of the others present and fails to recognize that the protesters should be commended for keeping the peace and containing their actions. He also fails to recognized that he uses the same unfair method of prejudice against them that he so objects to when it is used against the police, namely, blaming the many for the actions of the few. Finally, he ignores the serious everyday discrimination by police on Southside.

Clippinger focuses on a small scene at the end of the night. He claims that a car had been burned, that protesters screamed at and threw bottles at police, and that police contained themselves despite only having two video cameras on the scene (as if that is a small number). Sounds ugly. He goes on to suggest that police should have clubbed and pepper-sprayed the protesters, and his writer's description says that he is armed and dangerous - which only damages his credibility in my opinion.

The crowd he is criticizing consisted of approximately 30 people facing about 15 riot police. Police did in fact shove with batons. At this point, protesters chanted "Army of the rich!" repeatedly. One bottle was thrown, which broke the window of a bookstore. (Organizers of the protest offered to pay for this act even though it was committed by an unknown, lone individual). It is also true that earlier, some little kids threw bottles at police. I personally confronted them and demanded they stop. (They were later arrested).

The group of four or five kids, and the group of 30 who later stood before the police line, do not represent the 800 or more people who participated in the successful demonstration that night. While Clippinger says that the banner lied, that it was not "a playground." In fact, it was. There were circus acts, musicians, chalk art, dancing, kids playing (thanks to the rare gift of a safe street) and yes someone donated their car to be symbolically and I must add, playfully, smashed (but not burned). The crowd that night could have smashed and burned every shop on Telegraph Avenue, but this demonstration was organized as an expression of joy, not hate.

In truth, as protests go, that night was a happy story, but unfortunately it does not end there. While the police did handle themselves well, what ensued in the months following exemplifies the very real human rights abuses by police in Southside.

The event was capitalized on and used as an excuse to launch a campaign of repression for profits. Operation Avewatch resulted in the city spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on police overtime. Southside, which makes up just 2.5 percent of the city's area, already had 20 percent of the Berkeley police presence, not including the university's private army, the UC Police Department.

The campaign was designed to rid the area of the "undesireables" and resulted in daily police harassment, inappropriate drug enforcement, and more. It brought the everyday repression in the Telegraph Avenue area to a new level. I'm not talking about your parents. I'm talking about the overall effect of the Berkeley and UC police on Southside.

In contrast, the biggest threat to public safety in Southside - the private automobile - remains untamed, and a driver's license remains a license to kill. Police fail to enforce stop sign laws, speeding laws, signal laws, crosswalk violations, right of way violations, blockage of bicycle lanes, and more. Every time a person walks or bikes in Southside, they wear a target too. This is an area where the majority of residents do not own cars, yet more than 50 percent of the land is devoted to cars. Our city suffers pedestrian and bicycle injury crashes at twice the state's average. That's one of the many reasons that Reclaim the Streets is anti-car, and why one of the participants donated a car to be smashed.

Did the repressive Avewatch campaign work? If the goal was to "cleanse" Telegraph Avenue and make it a shopping-only zone, I think it has failed its purpose. Profits went up just 4 percent during a year when the economy is booming. The attraction of Telegraph has been diminished for those who enjoy it for its rich and diverse urban character.

I'm not saying that all police are personally bad, they aren't. I'm not saying that the harassment from (again, a small number of people) who aggressively panhandle or do other unacceptable things to passersby is not real. I am saying that the level of intolerance and selective enforcement in Southside is absolutely inhumane; it is racist; it is classist. Those few protesters who shouted, "Army of the rich!", had a reason to do so. As someone who has been harassed by dishonest and dishonorable Berkeley and UC police, yet could not get their help at times when people (especially minorities) were in serious need, I can understand the frustration. The sooner that people like you can realize that protesters are people too, the better.


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