‘Light at the end of this long tunnel’: An overview of Black Lives Matter in Berkeley

BLM Protest Berkeley
Sunny Shen/Senior Staff

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Berkeley’s history of police and police activism has been a long and unique one.

It began in 1973 when the city became the site of the first Police Review Commission in the United States, spanning to protests in late 2014 in response to the acquittal of the police officer who allegedly shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to now, with protests around the city and Bay Area calling for police reform and defunding.

According to Moni Law, one of 11 people who filed a lawsuit against the Berkeley Police Department following alleged excessive force by police officers in the 2014 protests, this summer’s protests are different.

“Little quiet suburbs that are 80% to 90% white have people on the corners with signs saying, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ” Law said. “The increased awareness is really hopeful and provides some light at the end of this long tunnel.”

The recent protests and Black Lives Matter movement have also had some tangible results. Perhaps most notably, the Berkeley City Council recently unanimously passed the “Safety for All: George Floyd Community Safety Act,” which defunds and reforms BPD.

The bill, authored by Councilmember Ben Bartlett, aims to reallocate funding for nonviolent crimes to specialized care units made up of community health workers and to create a “progressive” police academy to train officers in a less militarized manner.

The bill also states that, as the city is facing a loss of more than $30 million, reallocating money from BPD — which takes up about 43% of the city budget — could save $14 million to $15 million.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín also intends to introduce an item July 14 that will begin the process of community discussions around defunding and “reimagining” the police in Berkeley.

“Our community is engaged, they are intelligent, and they are willing to put in the work to make a difference,” Arreguín said in an email sent to city residents June 18. “With all of your energy we can identify what safety looks like for everyone.”

Berkeley Unified School District also intends to make changes in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

On June 10, the school board passed a Black Lives Matter resolution consisting of, among other reforms, improving equity in Berkeley schools, a “Black Lives Matter at School” week and the renaming of Jefferson and Washington elementary schools.

At its next meeting June 24, the board will discuss a resolution calling for the city and district to “re-envision” the role of police at Berkeley High School and “re-invest in racial equity.”

While many discussions and policies are underway, some still do not think this is enough.

Local activist Pastor Michael McBride said he would like to see BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood step down immediately after his comments at a recent City Council meeting. When asked what police could use instead of tear gas, Greenwood responded by saying police officers could “shoot people.” Greenwood later apologized for the statement.

McBride is also a proponent of “Bring the HEAT,” a pledge for police departments to take, promising to reform hiring, equipment, accountability and training.

“We don’t want our police officers to be in a warrior mentality,” McBride said. “We want them to be there to solve crimes and to help people, not to hurt people.”

The George Floyd Community Safety Act, which plans to address these issues, passed in City Council, but aspects of the legislation still need to be approved to be finalized in the city budget, such as divesting BPD funds to specialized care units and hiring a data analyst. The budget will be decided July 14.

Bartlett urged Berkeley residents to put pressure on officials to implement the legislation by emailing and calling council members and the mayor, in addition to attending the July 14 meeting.

“Everyone’s eyes are focused on state violence against Black people, but this window will not stay open long,” Bartlett said. “The power of bureaucracy and the gravitational force that is bureaucracy will reassert itself really quickly, so we have to do this right now.”

Contact Clara Brownstein at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @clarabrownstein.