Police, protesters must examine messages they communicate during demonstrations

After the smoke from tear gas deployments cleared, many in our community were rightly outraged by police use of force during protests over the last five nights — particularly the first. The demonstrations, however, compel us to assess not only the actions of police but also the messages communicated by protesters, city officials and the media.

On Saturday night, dozens of students and community members were tear-gassed, and some were pelted by rubber bullets or hit with batons. Berkeley Police Department justified the actions by saying officers were injured after objects were thrown by demonstrators. At the same time, we know multiple rounds of tear gas were specifically used after police declared an unlawful assembly and told the crowd to move south on Telegraph Avenue.

There could be times at which such force is necessary, although we neither know nor have the expertise to know where that line should be drawn. But we know a line was crossed Saturday night. The force exercised by Berkeley police and many agencies assisting them was premature and inappropriate on that first night.

Police indiscriminately tear-gassed the crowd, which included peaceful protesters and journalists. The eyes and throats of students who came to observe and concertgoers returning to their cars were burned. Tear gas seeped through windows left ajar into Telegraph apartments.

There are extremely limited circumstances when tear gas and rubber bullets should be used — and almost never at the same time. On Tuesday night, California Highway Patrol officers aimed and fired less-than-lethal guns into a crowd of protesters whom they were standing over on a highway ramp. We feel extremely uncomfortable by the idea of bullets — even rubber ones — being fired into a crowd.

Still, we understand the role police play. Stopping protesters from entering a bustling freeway is rational for police to do, just as it is understandable for demonstrators to want to occupy the freeway to draw attention to their cause.

When more than 200 protesters were detained after a march on Interstate 80, they were arrested on suspicion of varying offenses ranging from “obstructing a public place” to “creating a public nuisance.” Moreover, only those in the first of two groups that entered the freeway were actually arrested and booked to jail.

The lack of transparency into how police have conducted their affairs has paralleled how some municipal officials reacted in the wake of the protests.

When Mayor Tom Bates canceled Tuesday’s City Council meeting in anticipation of increased attendance due to the protests, an avenue of public discourse was shut down. By postponing the council meeting and vital city business — swearing in new council members and centralizing services for homeless youth — officials, save two council members, abandoned their posts and the hours dedicated to the citizens of Berkeley. Similarly, inviting only certain members of the media to a press conference with top fire and police department authorities due to possible capacity concerns makes the city appear even more opaque.

These are our elected leaders, and if they have space or occupancy worries, they are more than capable of finding a larger building.

It is quite possible that the real reason behind canceling the meeting lay in safety, not capacity, issues. Two nights prior, the door of the civic center was shattered. Similar incidents of vandalism and skirmishes among some protesters and toward police have given the demonstrations a destructive and violent tone at times.

So to the anarchists and other individuals within the crowd who smashed bank ATMs and looting electronic stores: Your actions do not just hurt the businesses whose windows are shattered. Collateral damage means low-income workers and the city’s cleaning ambassadors are left tidying up the mess the following day.

Watching businesses be destroyed and looted on some nights begs the questions: Who is really running the movement, and whose voices are heard? It is clear that instead of cooperating as allies, some fringe groups are co-opting the protests for their own causes.

Furthermore, we have seen how easy it is for the messaging to slip from “black lives matter” to “all lives matter.” If these are issues of race and one race’s experience, it is not the job of white people — whose lives society already values — to flood the demonstrations and take the lead.

Many peaceful demonstrators have been rightfully upset at the media, which tends to emphasize shattered glass and wastebin fires over peaceful marches. Even our newspaper included a headline on the first night of the Berkeley protests that specifically highlighted looting and vandalism, even though only a small group participated in such actions.

Monetary damage and stolen inventories are easier to quantify than poverty and injustice. But ultimately, vandalism is not serving a point. It’s not the message that so many protesters are trying to disseminate. It’s making some individuals watching from home want more hardline police patrolling their streets, not fewer.

It is crucial that when an injustice happens, it is brought to the forefront. We understand the need for civil disobedience. A delayed commute is a minor inconvenience compared with the ways black families in U.S. cities are systematically discriminated against.

The driving force behind not just Berkeley’s protests but those across the nation has been a demand for justice for black and brown lives. Racism isn’t a just law enforcement issue — it’s a societal one. We simply see latent racism more clearly through the actions of police because they have the authority to use force, and when they misuse it or act with prejudice, their actions have physical consequences.

These are conversations we’ve been having for more than a century. They stretch back before the civil rights movement and will continue long after the Berkeley protests have subsided. With recent injustices fresh in mind, protesters should continue, city by city, to spark conversations and demand the end to racial inequality but bear in mind the messages their actions convey.

Editorials represent the collective opinion of the Senior Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.