Berkeley approves pepper spray for police use against violent protesters

Xiaoye Yan/Staff

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Berkeley City Council approved the Berkeley Police Department’s request to use pepper spray against violent protesters with a 6-3 vote at Tuesday’s special meeting.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín wrote an amendment Tuesday afternoon clarifying that pepper spray cannot be used to control crowds or nonviolent individuals. Arreguín said during the meeting that his amendment will protect the Berkeley community from a repeat of an incident at UC Davis in 2012, in which pepper spray was used against nonviolent student protesters.

Arreguín also stressed the need to protect public safety.

“We have seen extremists on the left and on the right in our city,” Arreguín said at the meeting. “We need to protect (police officers) just as we are protecting free speech.”

To justify the measure’s rationale, BPD referenced “masked extremists” attacking people at rallies earlier in the year and at the Aug. 27 rally. BPD claimed that pepper spray would have been more effective than the defense tools it used in these instances against extremists, who broke through police barriers at previous rallies.

Unlike tear gas, pepper spray does not contaminate an entire environment and allows for more precise targeting, said BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood at the meeting.

The motion precedes a season of controversial speakers coming to campus. Ben Shapiro is scheduled to speak Thursday, with other speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon scheduled to appear during “Free Speech Week” from Sept. 24-27.

Councilmember Cheryl Davila, who voted against the motion, criticized BPD’s portrayal of the Aug. 27 rally. Davila said during the meeting that the weapons the police were presenting as examples of what counterprotesters used were not actually used at the rally.

“No mention of neo-Nazis in presentation. That’s problematic,” Davila said at the meeting.

During public comment, several residents expressed their support for the measure, including John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association. Caner said pepper spray is a limited but tactical tool and that BPD has shown good judgement in the past. Berkeley resident Christine Schwartz also backed the measure, stating that she believed the police department should be supported in finding a way to deal with violent situations.

Others said the use of pepper spray will only escalate violence in a crowd. Kalar Ensley criticized the department’s presentation, stating that it was an isolated attack on Antifa without mentioning the “white supremacists.”

Some speakers said they do not trust the police to only direct pepper spray at violent individuals. Berkeley resident Lew Williams said during public comment that he lost trust in the police when an officer allegedly hit him on top of the head at a peaceful demonstration June 20 against the police training program Urban Shield.

“Protesting the status quo scares those enforcing it,” said public commenter Jessica Sexton. “We do not need to weaponize this fight any further.”

Contact Hannah Piette and Henry Tolchard at [email protected].