By Steven Tavares.
Berkeley is facing an unprecedented and highly-coordinated effort by extremists groups to repeatedly turn the city into a battle ground, Interim Berkeley Police Chief Andy Greenwood told the City Council Tuesday afternoon.
With large plywood shields and rudimentary weapons used recently by protesters splayed on the city council chamber floor, an amendment to the Berkeley’s use-of-force policy allowing police to deploy pepper spray when protesters attack law enforcement and the public was approved Tuesday evening by the City Council.
The council voted, 6-3, to include an amendment to the city’s 20-year-old policy on the use of pepper spray. Councilmembers Cheryl Davila, Kate Harrison, and Kriss Worthington opposed the proposal backed by Mayor Jesse Arreguin.
“There were extremists on the left and right in our city. That is the reality,” Arreguin said of recent protests. The statement was met with a chorus of boos inside the council chambers. “We want to make sure that violence is not allowed and anyone can come out who wants to demonstrate.”
Since February, Berkeley has become a violent crossroads between anti-fascists protesters, white supremacists, and neo-nazi groups, all scuffling in sometimes bloody confrontations in downtown Berkeley.
To restore order, Greenwood sought approval to begin using over-sized pepper spray canisters at protests. He maintained, along with Arreguin, that the use non-lethal weapons would only be used in a defensive manner to protect officers and civilians attacked during protests. Often times, using the type of confrontational language who might hear during wartime planning, Greenwood characterized the most violent protesters as a “large, armed threat,” and one the Berkeley Police Department is ill-equipped to confront.
Numerous public speakers, though, criticized the omission of alt-right and neo-nazis from the Berkeley Police Department’s council presentation and for its apparent focus on antifa counter-protesters. Davila remarked, “I don’t understand why that wasn’t part of your presentation and why are we defending the freaking neo-nazis anyway?”
Sunsara Taylor, a member of a group from New York City calling themselves Refuse Fascism said right wing extremists groups are targeting Berkeley to take apart its progressive agenda. “What happens in Berkeley sets the tone for the country,” said Taylor.
A vast majority of public speakers voiced strong opposition to the pepper spray proposal. “A police solution to a political problem is not a good one,” said Sarah Kushner. “When you argue over tactics, then you weaken your ability to stop fascism.”
Councilmembers Linda Maio and Susan Wengraf reiterated their support for maintaining public safety in Berkeley. Both viewed the use of pepper spray as means for helping law enforcement do its job.
Councilmember Sophie Hahn also supported the new policy, but downplayed its overall significance, at least, in comparison to opposition heard from the public Tuesday afternoon. “In some sense we are doing very little,” said Hahn, but merely reaffirming an existing ordinance. “What is being done here is not as big as people think.”