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Berkeley: Toying with police accountability

January 29, 2017

by Dave Welsh

It was the first time I’d ever attended a Police Review Commission meeting in Berkeley, a university town near San Francisco. Together with nine other community members, we went to express our opposition to three terrible policies of the city government and its police department:

  1. Repeated police raids on homeless encampments, forcing people out of their tents into the cold, rainy winter, causing several recent deaths from exposure.
  2. City participation in the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and its domestic spying operation, coordinated nationally by the FBI. This was used locally to spy on Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
  3. City participation in the Urban Areas Security Initiative, aimed at militarizing – and possibly eventually federalizing – local police forces under the baton of the Department of Homeland Security.

The homeless tent city set up in late 2015 by First They Came for the Homeless in front of Old City Hall in Berkeley, called Liberty City, followed draconian new restrictions on homeless residents adopted by the Berkeley City Council. After a few days and nights, police busted up the camp. Since then, First They Came for the Homeless has established many tent camps for homeless people in Berkeley – all of them broken up by local police. Personal belongings of the camp residents are routinely confiscated by police.

Several homeless people testified to the brutality – and smugness – of BPD officers as they repeatedly broke up the neat and well-regulated tent encampments organized by First They Came for the Homeless, a direct-action and advocacy group – confiscating property belonging to homeless camp residents.

One notable feature of the meeting was the presence of Acting Police Chief Andrew Greenwood and three other grim-faced officers, at a special table. Any time the chief wanted to speak, he just started talking and the chair yielded to him, for as much time as the chief wanted. In contrast, we community members had two minutes each at the start of the meeting – under “public comment” – after which we were expected to shut up and listen.

As for the commission itself, a majority supported the police on each of the three important issues before it. I thought to myself: What if 50 or 100 community people came, took over the rigged meeting and let the people speak?

A flashback to the freedom struggle in South Africa

After the meeting, I went for a beer with a friend and described my first experience with Berkeley’s Police Review Commission. It reminded him of something from the history of the African National Congress, at a time when they were fighting to free South Africa from settler colonialism.

There was the famous reaction of ANC and South African Communist Party militant Govan Mbeki, after serving on the augustly-named Transkei Territorial Authorities General Council in the apartheid-era South Africa of 1941. The ANC described the council as “a government-inspired creation which had elected members, such as Govan, and nominated chiefs, which had very limited administrative powers in the Transkei.”

Govan Mbeki himself likened the Transkei council to “a toy telephone – you can say what you like but your words have no effect because the wires are not connected to any exchange.” Similarly, the toothless Bantustan “parliaments” set up by the settler regime were referred to contemptuously by ANC activists as “toy telephones” – giving the appearance but not the reality of participation in governance.

Berkeley has a proliferation of “commissions,” designed to allow community input and advise the city council on various policy matters. Sometimes the commissions can play a useful role, and the people will righteously make use of them to push for needed changes. Still and all, if Govan Mbeki were around today, I bet he’d put our Police Review Commission squarely in the “toy telephone” category.

Liberal Berkeley gets a tank

Recently, Berkeley emerged from an election with a new mayor and a new City Council majority identified as progressive. A few days after they were installed in office, the new City Council debated whether to purchase a bullet-proof armored personnel carrier for the BPD, a $205,000 vehicle of which Berkeley would have to put up $80,000, with Homeland Security funding the balance.

Some 20 people spoke against the purchase, including Veterans for Peace member Daniel Borgstrom, who exclaimed: “Call it what you want, it’s an urban assault vehicle. That’s a tank. And we don’t need a tank!” VFP member Gene Bernardi wondered why the city was collaborating in a DHS-sponsored police militarization program, especially in light of the recent national election.

Other residents deplored the use of military equipment against Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock, N.D., and wondered if the new tank might be used against Black Lives Matter protesters in Berkeley.

In the end, the new city council decided that the armored vehicle was something the BPD really needed. Only one member voted against it.

Dave Welsh, a retired letter carrier and delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, is an organizer with the Community-Labor Coalition to Save the People’s Post Office and writes on many issues. He can be reached at sub@sonic.net.

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