Berkeley’s major commercial districts are awash with plywood — some of it covers broken glass, some has been erected as a preventive measure to protect vulnerable windows.
Many of the protests that have taken over Berkeley streets this month, in response to police-involved killings of unarmed black men, have remained peaceful. Others have culminated in smashed storefronts and blazing trashcans.
Merchants’ reactions to the destruction run the gamut from patience and praise of the peaceful majority, to criticism of the hands-off approach taken by the Berkeley police Sunday, Dec. 7, the night local businesses sustained the most significant damage.
Most of the affected merchants were on Shattuck and Telegraph avenues. Many of the businesses hit that night were branches of banks and major corporate chains, including Radio Shack, Bank of America and Chase on Shattuck Avenue. But a determined group of demonstrators also smashed the windows of several small local shops.
The worker-owned Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative on Shattuck was among those vandalized Dec. 7. The collective’s members quickly fixed the two panels of glass that were broken, and preemptively put up plywood to protect the windows during the nights following the destruction.
“We were mostly just taking the precaution of putting plywood up, but we don’t feel like we were really targeted in the first place,” said member Danita McGinnis, who declined to comment much beyond the statement the collective posted on its website, which expresses gratitude to the marchers who intervened to prevent anyone from taking bikes or entering the shop on that Sunday night.
Next door to Missing Link, McDonald’s is covered completely in plywood after windows were smashed there on Dec. 7. Police scanner communication suggested that employees at the burger chain locked themselves inside upstairs and called for police to respond after 1 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 8, to assure them it was safe to leave. Looters did not go inside the restaurant, according to the Berkeley police radio traffic.
At True Value, new windows and a handwritten sign of support from neighbors have replaced the broken glass. But it didn’t come cheap. Three window repairs — two damaged by demonstrators and a third broken in unrelated circumstances — cost the merchants $3,200, and their deductible is $2,000, said the store’s manager, Godfrey Wong.
He said he wasn’t worried about repeat incidents, a sentiment that many local merchants have expressed, according to Downtown Berkeley Association CEO John Caner.
“I visited with most of the merchants and businesses that were damaged, and they were sort of taking it in stride,” said Caner, who began emailing protest advisories to DBA members following the events of Dec. 7.
“Berkeley is very supportive of First Amendment rights,” he said, “and a lot of people are sympathetic, including the merchants, to the cause and a need to deal with the problems that have arisen in Ferguson and elsewhere. And it’s a small faction that has caused the problems. Clearly if people own and operate a business in Berkeley, they understand what the Berkeley communities and values are about.”
But that’s not the case with many out-of-towners who have avoided shopping or dining in Berkeley due to the protests, Caner said.
“When you start having people come in from other areas, they might not understand what’s going on, or have different thresholds for dealing with uncertainty,” he said. “Downtown Berkeley is open for business, and we need to support our mom-and-pops. It’s unfortunate that they’re sort of collateral damage in this.”
Since the first major Berkeley protest on Dec. 6, Bistro Liaison, at 1849 Shattuck Ave., has received 50 canceled reservations, said chef-owner Todd Kniess.
“I support everybody’s right to protest,” Kniess said. “What I don’t support are people damaging businesses and intimidating people. Even if it’s 2 percent of the protests, it’s still there. It scares people away from downtown Berkeley.”
Other merchants say a temporary decline in business is a blow they may be willing to take to support the “black lives matter” protests.
“When you are trying to raise awareness, or bring justice to certain issues, there are sometimes sacrifices that are going to be made in the name of that,” said Games of Berkeley managing owner Erik Bigglestone. “For me, I’d be happy to shut down my business when the protests are going by in solidarity, but I can’t make that sacrificial decision for my employees. They gotta work, they gotta eat. I really do have very mixed feelings.”
Until December, sales at Games of Berkeley, which is at 2151 Shattuck Ave., were averaging a 12.5 percent increase in sales in 2014 compared with the previous year, Bigglestone said. This month, sales have been down 5 percent compared with last December, which he partially attributes to the bad weather, but assumes is a consequence of the protests, too.
From Bigglestone’s vantage point, the vandalism looks like a “crime of opportunity” committed by “infiltrators” latching onto a bigger movement to accomplish their own goals.
In some local protests, organizers have advised demonstrators to keep peaceful. At the beginning of a march led by the UC Berkeley Black Student Union on Saturday, Dec. 13, Cal junior Alana Banks instructed protesters to “disrupt business as usual,” but refrain from physically disrupting their surroundings.
Later, speaking through a megaphone to merchants in the Elmwood, she said, “We’re not here to destroy your shit. We’re here because black lives matter.”
At the Monday, Dec. 8, Berkeley protest, UC Berkeley student Melissa Hossain, who had been in attendance when businesses were damaged the previous night, said her impression was that most of the vandals were unaffiliated with the cause.
“It’s white anarchists who are taking over this protest,” she said. “They’re setting trashcans on fire, they’re vandalizing buildings, and this is not part of the cause. They’re here for their own purposes.”
Other organizers, including those affiliated with the group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), have argued that it’s necessary to disturb the peace to capture the public’s attention and effect change.
“We can’t have business as usual when it comes to … saving people’s lives and stopping the police from murdering,” Yvette Felarca of BAMN said at the protests on Dec. 7. She said “it wasn’t until there was that kind of action” that the officer who killed Oscar Grant in Oakland was arrested.
On the night of Dec. 7, protesters argued among themselves about whether to vandalize shops. That night, Berkeley police, acting on an order from City Manager Christine Daniel, took a deliberately hands-off approach during the protests. The previous night, officers had used tear gas on demonstrators and shot non-lethal projectiles at them, which concerned some city officials. Police made 11 arrests over the course of the weekend.
Meanwhile, city staff were working actively during the protests, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko, who was in the police emergency command center during some of the protests. Economic development staff have been in close contact with affected merchants, and public works staff have worked throughout the nights cleaning debris and garbage, and bringing plywood to board up damaged windows.
“It’s hard to get a contractor to come out at 2 in the morning,” Chakko said.
Downtown merchants expressed appreciation for the DBA advisories, which included details on known protest plans and tips for businesses not to leave out loose items or trashcans that could be used by vandals. But Bigglestone said he had trouble getting his trash picked up quickly, despite the advisories’ promise that special pickup could be arranged if cans were kept inside on trash night.
Roland Peterson, who heads up the Telegraph Business Improvement District, said he had warned merchants in advance of protests, but only on the occasions when “he had consistent, solid information that a protest would occur and begin at Telegraph and Bancroft.”
“I have also had a fair number of conversations with merchants who have asked me questions like, ‘Should I board up my windows?’ or ‘Should I close?' ” he said. “Of course, in advance I can’t really answer either one of those questions for them. Mainly I have tried to be a reliable source of good information.”
Due to the lack of police presence Dec. 7, some merchants and residents took it upon themselves to monitor the streets.
A row of regulars at Caffe Med on Telegraph stood vigil in front of the famous coffee shop, along with owner Craig Becker.
Stewart Johnston, owner of Johnston Medical on Shattuck in South Berkeley, stood guard outside that same night and helped put out a trashcan fire. He said there were no police to be seen, but a resident came out and successfully instructed the protesters not to destroy any more small shops in the area.
“We’ve never once gotten a warning from the police,” Johnston said. “But I have no criticism of the Berkeley police. It’s very difficult to know how to handle it. It seems strange to be breaking windows and looting and call it a protest.”
At True Value, Wong said he was grateful that the police exhibited some restraint on Sunday even though his windows were broken.
“The police should keep calm in those situations, otherwise [protesters would] be more wild,” he said.
Bigglestone said videos and photographs of the protests on Saturday make him think the police “overreacted” that night. One of his customer’s kids was bruised trying to help a protester knocked down by an officer, and another was arrested and let go after three days without charges being filed, he said.
“But it’s not my job to protect and serve, so I can’t say,” Bigglestone said. “In the face of big-style vandalism like we saw on the 7th, it’s kind of difficult to say.”
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