Chants of “Black lives matter,” booming music and the names of people who have died at the hands of police — all of these could be heard in the Berkeley streets this weekend as thousands of protesters reacted to the death of George Floyd.
The events, which began Friday, were hosted by a variety of groups and were sparked by Floyd’s recent death, which incited public outrage after a video surfaced of a Minnesota police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck. The groups also spoke about Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in her home in Kentucky, and Kayla Moore, a transgender woman who died in the custody of the Berkeley Police Department in 2013.
An ad hoc group of Berkeley seniors held a physically distanced vigil Friday on the UC Berkeley campus to express solidarity with the Black community and other communities of color, according to Karen Cagan, one of the organizers.
Cagan noted that the vigil was specifically meant to offer an opportunity to a “vulnerable group” of people who have been unable to attend protests because of concerns about being unable to properly maintain physical distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We knew other people in the area were feeling the same way as we did and were looking for a way to express our outrage about how communities of color are treated in this country,” Cagan said in an email.
Cagan added that nearly 250 people attended the vigil, including many seniors and families. As the vigil occurred, passing cars showed support for the event.
The UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program chapter of White Coats for Black Lives, or WC4BL, a student-led group promoting racial equity in health care, also organized a demonstration, which took place at 10 a.m. Saturday at the intersection of Berkeley Way and Walnut Street.
At its peak, there were more than 600 people gathered, with many in medical scrubs and coats. Many also held signs, including some reading “Racism is a pandemic,” “Health care inequality is violence” and “Fighting racism is an essential business.” The organizers of the demonstration said at the event that they did not expect so many people to attend, a statement that was met with cheers from the crowd.
Speakers highlighted the history of racism in medicine and the intergenerational trauma, which they said has quantifiable negative health outcomes.
“Differences of health outcomes are a result of institutionalized racism in health care, not genetic differences,” said Aminta Kouyate, founder of the Joint Medical Program chapter of WC4BL and one of the organizers of the demonstration, at the event.
The demonstration also emphasized calls to action specific to the medical field, including advocacy for the development of a diagnosis to describe the effects of institutional racism and for the elimination of the use of race as a pre-diagnosis factor in medicine.
Kouyate added that she thinks medical professionals have a duty to advocate against the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters across the nation.
“It is a physician’s duty to improve the health of all in the community,” Kouyate said at the event. “These medical professionals have a responsibility to speak out.”
The same day, students from Berkeley High School, or BHS, held a sit-in at 1 p.m. by BPD headquarters.
Participants held signs with phrases including, “We’re not trying to start a race war, we’re trying to end one,” “Fund Schools, Defund police” and “White people: we need to suck less.”
Event organizer and BHS student Gisele Souza spoke about her experience as a Black American.
“To be Black in America is many things, one of which is to be frustrated,” Souza said at the event. “I’m frustrated it takes a viral video to take action because what about the ones we don’t know about?”
Souza also said she thinks Black people are not yet free in the United States and added that the Black community has lost too many people.
Another speaker, BHS student Syrak Micael, urged people to intervene when they see racism in the community.
“Send in the police, send in the National Guard. People won’t stop,” said event organizer and BHS rising senior Suhera Nuru at the event. “We won’t stop because (Floyd’s) life mattered.”
The crowd spent nine minutes in silence to commemorate Floyd, which was also done at the WC4BL protest.
At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, City Councilmember Ben Bartlett held a “New Orleans-style” family-friendly march, called the “Bury Racism Funeral Procession,” from Malcolm X Elementary School to Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. Protesters gathered at the intersection of Ellis Street and Prince Street. At its peak, the march consisted of about 8,000 people.
“We’re going to proceed on our burial march to finally lay to rest this ghoulish monster of racial terror,” Bartlett said at the event.
The fifth event held in Berkeley this weekend was a protest organized by the Cal Black Student Union, or BSU, and Berkeley-based clothing company Everything. The Brand.
The march, which started at Grove Park, had roughly 4,000 protesters in attendance at its peak.
“America is nothing without the contribution Black people have made to this community,” said BSU chair Maya Hammond at the event.
Hammond called for the city and campus to divest from BPD and UCPD.
She added that the BSU supports replacing the police with “community practices” and that it thinks funds should be redistributed to education, marginalized communities, mental health initiatives and efforts to address homelessness.
“We need to look at the idea of shifting money out of the police budget towards more mental health response and public health,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín. “We need to make sure that the right people are responding. When police respond, sometimes, they escalate the situation.”
The gathered crowd also led chants while marching to BPD headquarters, including “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “No justice, no peace, no racist police” and variations of the chant “Say their name,” referring to Floyd and Taylor.
The BSU crowd eventually merged with the family-friendly procession, putting about 12,000 people at Civic Center Park.
“I’m out here because I’m a Berkeley resident and I’m against police brutality, police terror and all the other ‘-isms’ there are in the world,” said Dominique Walker, a Moms 4 Housing activist. “I’m here to make a statement that we are no longer living in fear and we’re going to fight back.”
The protest ended around 7 p.m., soon after which most of the crowd dispersed.
No arrests were made at the protests, according to BPD spokesperson Officer Byron White.
Maia Alviar, Naomi Birenbaum, Kate Finman, Mattias Hoz and Maria Young contributed to this report.
Contact Catherine Hsu and Sebastian Cahill at [email protected].