As calls for systemic, antiracist change rang throughout the nation last summer, Berkeley resident Karen Cagan knew she had to do something.
Then, an idea emerged.
Cagan, who had been apprehensive of attending regular rallies because of the COVID-19 pandemic, proceeded to organize a series of socially distanced vigils to support the Black Lives Matter, or BLM, movement.
“It seemed very clear from the beginning that there were a lot of people who were thinking the same way we were,” Cagan said.
In response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, among many others, Berkeley residents from every walk of life took action. While some attended vigils, others organized and marched in the streets, calling for an end to police violence.
As a result of the movement, both the city of Berkeley and Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, have taken steps to help address systemic racism. However, many feel there is still a lot of work to be done.
“(The pandemic) created a collective experience of both grief and trauma,” said Michael McBride, local activist and pastor. “Being inside together allowed people to come outside together.”
More than 200 people attended the first vigil, during which they stood in silence for almost nine minutes to recognize Floyd’s death.
For Cagan, inclusivity at the vigils was of utmost importance, and she worked to ensure that they were safe for people with disabilities and individuals who did not feel comfortable attending other protests due to the pandemic.
“Everybody felt really good, not only that we were there to support the Black Lives Matter movement, but we supported it consistently,” Cagan said, noting hopes of resuming the vigils in the near future. “People showed up. It was moving.”
In addition to the vigils, which garnered a wealth of community support, thousands of Berkeley residents took to the streets, drawing attention to police violence and demanding change through protests.
One of the protests, organized by BUSD students, amassed about 850 participants at its peak.
Berkeley High School senior and protest organizer Isadora De Liberty added that many took to social media to provide information on places to donate, resources to become better informed and petitions to sign.
“The term “performative activism” was used at an all-time high as people came to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, posting infographics on social media wasn’t going to single-handedly get the job done,” De Liberty said in an email.
As a result of the movement, the BUSD Board of Education passed a resolution June 10 in support of the BLM movement, recognizing the prevalence of racial injustice both nationally and within education, according to BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott.
She added that the district has also committed to engaging in self-reflection and antiracist education, among other concrete actions.
“We at Berkeley Unified must recognize the role of our own schools and structures in perpetuating this reality,” McDermott said in an email. “We will not be silent.”
Following the series of protests, the city of Berkeley also expressed a commitment to change.
According to Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, the city has taken steps to develop BerkDOT, a reimagined traffic enforcement system designed to address racial injustice.
Applications to the city’s “Re-imagining Public Safety Task Force,” led by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, are also being accepted, Arreguín added.
“Last summer, people across Berkeley and our nation have made their message abundantly clear that we need to transform our approach to public safety,” Arreguín said in an email. “Berkeley has a long history of leading changes as a result of social movements, and the Black Lives Matter movement is no different.”
Although several Berkeley-based institutions have expressed an interest in changing their ways, many feel more needs to be done.
In order for movements such as BLM to maintain their success, De Liberty added, the community cannot solely rely on allies, but rather, must listen to those who have been oppressed based on intersections of race, gender and sexuality.
For McBride, the movement’s success is contingent on its ability to elicit institutional, systemic and policy change. This change, he added, “does not require Herculean lift but political will.”
McBride added that despite seeing a decrease in momentum within the city, he hopes it will take on a more progressive stance in reimagining public safety.
“Whenever there are moments around environmental justice, there seems to be consensus and expedience. When the call was put out for the community to address bullying, there was consensus and expedience,” McBride said. “When it comes to addressing racial profiling, police misconduct, there seems to be lots of paralysis and slow walking.”
According to McBride, it is also essential for the city to cultivate younger leadership within the Berkeley Police Department, while also funding mental health services, violence prevention efforts and youth programs.
Despite a widespread, expressed commitment to addressing racial injustice, several activists, including McBride, warn that “Berkeley continues to rest on the laurels of its progressive past” and that many place too much hope in the city’s historically progressive stances.
“I feel as if there was a period of time where the Bay Area being progressive was taken for granted as opposed to being upheld by the actions we associate with progression,” De Liberty said in the email. “We don’t get to sit back and enjoy our activist legacy with BLM signs in our windows and Bernie stickers on our cars—we have to stand up, make change, earn our legacy, and continue the cycle of change for the better.”