What began as a march for peace in Palestine on Tuesday at approximately 5:00 p.m. ended in an ugly standoff between protesters and the Berkeley Police Department at Fourth Street and University Ave some five hours later.
About 600 protesters participated in the march, which caused the closure of University Ave between San Pablo Avenue and Fourth Street near the onramp to I-80.
“We’re marching because there is no military solution to the Middle East conflict,” said Amir Terkel of Jewish Voice for Peace.
“The only way for there to be peace is for Israel to stop its 35-year occupation of Palestinian land.”
David McClure of Students for Justice in Palestine said both sides of the conflict should want a peaceful solution.
“This isn’t a Jewish vs. Arab or Jewish vs. Christian issue. It’s a U.S. foreign policy issue,” he said.
He said that March has been the deadliest month for Palestinians and that 1,200 Palestinians and Israelis have been killed since the Second Intifada.
“It’s our job, because it’s our money,” said McClure.
Penny Rosenwasser of the Middle East Children’s Alliance agreed. “We have to tell them where we want our tax dollars to go,” she said.
“Lots of American people feel that it’s important that the U.S. get involved, send monitors, get them to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. We want to make this visible,” she said.
The event began with a rally at the Downtown Berkeley BART station. As the protesters marched down University Ave, people out walking their dogs and riding bikes joined the procession. Drivers in their cars honked and gave the marchers thumbs up.
The protesters were allowed to proceed down University until they reached Sixth Street at about 6:30 p.m. Up until this time, there had only been a handful of bicycle cops onhand to control the crowd. Their ranks, however, multiplied drastically by backup BPD and the California Highway Patrol dispatched to the site for crowd control and forming a line across University Ave to block the procession.
Around 8:00 p.m. every on-duty officer for the BPD waspresent to maintain that line at Fourth Street, according to Capt. William Pittman. Pittman was the officer in charge.
During the maintaining of the line, tensions between the officers and the protesters apparently peaked and resulted in one woman’s arrest for battery on a police officer.
But 28-year-old Xochitl Johnson, of Berkeley, said the only physical contact she had with the police occurred while her arms were locked with three other women, and she was shoved in the chest with a baton by BPD officer Lindenaugh. After being pushed, she said she fell forward and at this point was taken down by several officers.
Several protesters, interviewed independently of each other, reported a very similar situation.
Don Najita, also of Berkeley, said he was standing within four feet of Johnson moments before her arrest.
“I saw several officers being very aggressive,” Najita said. “They were shoving the crowd back away from the line. One officer shoved her with the baton, she fell back, then forward and they arrested her. Then the crowd went crazy.”
“Within 15 minutes, they let her go,” Najita added.
Johnson said while she was sitting in the back of the police car she heard officers saying they did not have the numbers to control the crowd.
“One woman cop said to me, ‘If we let you go, will you promise to go home? And I said ‘no.’”
It was unclear last night where the protesters wanted to end the march, or why the holding pattern lasted so long.
Several protesters reported that they were displeased with the aggressive nature of the police department, but they also stated that the march was pretty disorganized and that they too were unsure why the standoff on Fourth Street continued.
“I’m protesting in solidarity for the people of Palestine, I’m staying until the police disperses,” said one protester.
“We’re angry,” said another, adding that some agreement had been made that the crowd would disperse if Johnson was let go and were angered because there was an assumption that she would not be charged.
Pittman said he was not aware of any agreement between BPD and protesters.
“There was no agreement — that’s just what happens — you are charged, then released.”
Our priority is to maintain this line safely, he added.
Johnson said the continued presence was in solidarity with the people of Palestine.
“People are out here for Palestine not me — look at what is happening in Palestine. There are walls stained with the blood of children,” Johnson said. “That’s why I’m still here because I can’t stomach it anymore.”
“I’m hoping that people on Ramallah in the West Bank can see this. I know they probably can’t because they’ve cut most of their electricity. But I wish they could see that we held the streets tonight,” she added.
However, she also said that she welcomed everyone to show up at her April 23rd court date at 2120 Martin Luther King Way in Berkeley to protest her what she considered a bogus charge.
No protesters were interviewed by the police department last night regarding the battery charge.
Pittman said it was customary to take the accounts of witnesses if there was an opportunity.
“This is not a situation that presents that opportunity. The protesters will not even engage in conversation with us,” Pittman added.
The order to disperse came in shortly before 10 p.m. and at that point both protesters and officers left the scene without further incident.