Berkeley Mayor: Better Communications Needed With Protesters

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Berkeley police officers advance on protesters during a Black Lives Matter demonstration last December.  (Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

As Berkeley gets ready for a third night of protests arising from the police killings of African-American men in Missouri and New York, Mayor Tom Bates says he'd like to see some sort of communication between city officials and march organizers to head off the kind of unrest the city has seen the past two nights.

The disturbances -- in which small numbers of marchers among the larger, nonviolent crowds have vandalized businesses around downtown Berkeley, thrown objects at police and fought with other protesters -- have resulted in about a dozen arrests. Protest organizers have criticized police for an aggressive response on Saturday night that included batons, tear gas and the reported use of "less than lethal" munitions such as rubber bullets or beanbags.

Bates said in an interview with KQED's Tara Siler on Monday that in protests during the Vietnam War era, it was common for protest organizers to have contact with public officials.

"It really makes sense to say, 'Here's where we plan to gather, this is what we plan to do at the gathering, and we're going to march down these streets -- this is the route we're going to take,' " Bates said. "And that way, the police and others can pretty much assure that it'll be safe and there won't be any particular violence."

Bates said that although he's spoken on an "informal" basis with some involved in the protests, he's unsure whether other city officials have had such discussions. He said part of the problem in doing so is that some activists -- such as those in the ongoing Occupy Oakland movement -- aren't interested in engaging with officials.

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"There's a group of people that just wants to disrupt, that just wants to cause problems," Bates said.

Another issue, the mayor said, is that it's not clear with whom the city should be communicating.

"I don't know exactly who to talk to, because it's a roving group of people that are out there. And I know that our people have been in contact, the police and others, have been in contact with a couple of groups, but they all claim they don't speak for everybody. ... It's a random group of people who are out there trying to cause problems."

Responding to criticism from protesters that police used excessive force in using tear gas and batons against demonstrators on Saturday night, Bates said he was "not in a position to evaluate." But he praised the city's police force for its training, performance and diversity.

Asked about a formal complaint from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists about reported incidents of police clubbing credentialed members of the media on Saturday night, the mayor responded:

As far as the society of newspaper people, there was a real issue on Saturday night about credentials, and that was people were showing up and saying they were reporters and they were credentialed, and they had all sorts of different credentials from different agencies. And a lot of the police thought this may not be an authorized person to go through the lines. So after Saturday night, we instructed the Police Department that no, any kind of credential for a reporter would be allowed access, so I think that problem got resolved on Saturday evening.

Bates added that city officials will review videos showing police behavior during the protests.

"If we find somebody acted inappropriately, we're certainly not going to condone that," Bates said. "And we're certainly not going to condone police violence if it's uncalled for, that's for sure."