Who Baited Whom at Berkeley Rallies? 

Protesters allege brutality, but bystander says activists hectored cops while hiding behind children.

At the March 13 hearing of the Berkeley Police Review Commission, tearful and angry antiwar protesters claimed local cops knocked them down, stomped them, and otherwise misbehaved during recent rallies protesting the war in Iraq and the presence of military recruiters in town. One activist decried "belligerent riot squads who use batons and arrests ... to silence political speech." Another claimed that "the youth of Berkeley ... were being beaten," albeit providing no specifics. Still another accused the cops of doing "everything they could to facilitate a right-wing hatefest."

But who was really inciting the hatefest? At the February 12 rally, this reporter saw high-school students confronting cops, calling them "cocksuckers," and shouting profanity unprovoked at elderly Marine supporters. Berkeley Unified School District spokesman Mark Coplan said he saw members of the antiwar group World Can't Wait deliberately hiding behind students while poking at police officers. "The police had kids screaming at them with adults behind them encouraging them," Coplan said in an interview about that rally. "I told the kids, 'The Berkeley police are not your enemies. When they tell you to move back, you have to or you'll be arrested.' ... I felt tortured watching what those officers went through that day."

The Police Review Commission was discussing a petition from members of World Can't Wait, Code Pink, and Berkeley Copwatch. The petition decried "Berkeley Police Department conduct in response to demonstrations related to the Marine Recruitment Station." Video clips of three February rallies aired by protesters depicted baton-clutching cops thronged by bandanna-masked crowds banging on metal newsracks and chanting "This is what a police state looks like!" alongside downtown Berkeley's cafes and beauty salons.

Interestingly enough, the police themselves went unrepresented at the hearing. Commissioner Victoria Urbi announced that she had sent Chief of Police Douglas N. Hambleton an invitation three days earlier, but that given the short notice he had declared himself unable to attend. It was unclear whether other officers were invited to the hearing. Had police attended, they would have offered a different viewpoint. In an e-mail about the February 22 protest, Sergeant Mary Kusmiss said it was the crowd that was spoiling for a fight:

"A couple members of the march group had bullhorns, a violation of the conditions of the special permit issued by the city. ... A decision was made at about 4:11 pm to detain and cite a primary instigator with a bullhorn. ... The male protester refused to comply, pulling away from the officer. The crowd then surged and encircled the two bike officers and closed in on them. Some of the crowd were kicking them and their patrol bikes. ... The officers made a safety/skirmish line to hold the crowd back. The crowd was pushing, yelling, and shoving. Some force was used to control/manage the crowd. The concern was that the crowd was attempting to incite a riot, [free] their friends from police custody, injure officers, and become a threat to public safety. Another male protester tried to force his way through the skirmish line a couple times and was eventually arrested. ... Minor injuries to a few officers. ... No reports to us as of yet of any protester injuries."

At the hearing, one protester from the February 12 rally said police shoved him into the mud. "One of the cops took my sign and stomped it into several pieces, inches from my head," he said. "They stomped me hard in the chest." The audience applauded after he described an emergency-room visit and a chest-wall-contusion diagnosis.

Only one in the night's long series of speakers was heckled: From the moment she identified herself as "Marca Lamore, US Army," the former captain faced titters and jibes. Throughout her commentary — during which she accused protesters of "inciting riots" — an activist stood tauntingly behind Lamore, holding a "No War No Torture" sign.

The presence of Berkeley High School students at the protests was much praised. The crowd seemed unperturbed that students had protested during school hours.

BUSD's Coplan said that while he personally approves of antiwar protests, World Can't Wait is not permitted on campus because it advocates truancy. "We will never be able to work with a group that encourages kids to walk out of classes." He said the group uses free shirts and bandannas as tokens to recruit supporters who are "fourteen, fifteen — literally babies" and then urges them "to line up against the cops, telling them, 'The cops can't make you move. You have rights.'" Coplan said the group deliberately seeks "to create disruption, to incite some type of negative response from police ... and they count on kids to do that. That's the saddest thing."

A fixture at antiwar events nationwide, World Can't Wait was founded in 2005 by activists associated with the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, whose web site RevCom.us endorses World Can't Wait in missives such as this one from RCP Chairman Bob Avakian. "The youth ... can be a very powerful force, in relation to the objectives of World Can't Wait," wrote the Berkeley-bred Avakian. "And, of course, from the standpoint of our party, they have a strategically important role in relation to the revolution."

The revolution also had some help from the mainstream media. On February 4, 2007, Nickelodeon's "Nick News" aired "Rebels With a Cause," a segment lauding fourteen-year-old Berkeley High School freshman and World Can't Wait organizer Micah, who was shown wearing an orange Guantánamo jumpsuit and black hood at street protests urging the impeachment of George W. Bush. "Being ready to rock the boat takes courage," host Linda Ellerbee told her viewers as the segment began. Coplan said Nickelodeon personnel told him they were excited to find Micah "because he was young enough to relate to their viewing audience."

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