Police responding to demonstrators in Berkeley.
Last night, for the fourth night in a row, hundreds of people marched through Berkeley and Oakland to protest the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. (All told, the night ended with dozens of arrests, a blocked highway 24, a canceled Berkeley city council meeting, major BART delays, and little in the way of a resolution.) In the interest of putting these events—and the underlying issues—in context, we spoke to Luis Fernandez, an expert on social movements, social control, and surveillance. A professor at Northern Arizona State, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Policing Dissent and Shutting Down the Streets. The following exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
San Francisco: The protests here in the Bay Area seem, counterintuitively, to have been more robust and more long-lasting than those in New York or Ferguson. Why do you think that is?
Luis Fernandez: I'm not sure this premise is fully correct. That is, I think if you count the first set of demonstrations in Ferguson, right after the shooting, those lasted much longer. I think it was three weeks or more of demonstrations. So this is a kind of second round for Ferguson. However, if we look just at this second round, Oakland and Berkeley do seem to go on a little longer. My guess is that part of it has to do with left-leaning culture in the Bay Area—but that's not the entire story. As I see it, the revolts in Ferguson were part of a cluster of demonstrations that started with the Oscar Grant killing in Oakland. That is, with Oscar Grant, we see some of the first signals that people are fed up with police killing young Black people with impunity. This sentiment is carried over in the Occupy Movement, where folks in Oakland Occupy were connected to the Oscar Grant issue from the start.
So the Oscar Grant killing is still reverberating?
Yes, but then the feeling that police don't care about black lives caught fire again with the killing of Trayvon Martin. The mobilizations following Martin's killing were more wide-spread, and included marches in the Bay Area. So, when the police Kill Michael Brown, there is already a kind of boiling point under the surface throughout several populations in various cities. This includes Oakland and Berkeley. In addition, Oakland and Berkeley have their own particularly strong history of police brutality. For instance, see how the Oakland Police reacted to the Occupy Movement. It was brutal, perhaps some of the strongest reaction in the nation, setting up the stage for this round of demonstrations. That is, people still remember being beaten by the police. And of course the communities in Oakland are brutalized in a regular basis.
Is the tone and trajectory of this round of protests precedented? Or are we seeing something new happen here?
Yes and no. No in the sense that in the last 20 years, I have not witnessed too many movements that look like this. We can think of this as the reemergence of "riot", which I put in quotes because there is a kind of disparaging connotation to this word. However, I want to suggest, along with other scholars, that riots are nothing more than one kind of contentious politics that arises under certain circumstances, including when there are no other avenues for showing deep rage. In this sense, the U.S. has not witnessed too many of these in the last couple of decades. However, there were many, many riots in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this sense, these kinds of mobilizations are common, when looking through a longer timeframe.
Do you think this kind of mobilization is becoming more frequent?
It's a bit early to tell, but it seems like the politics are playing out in that way. It will depend highly on how the elite respond. If they double down on police militarization, unfair police protection in the criminal justice system, and the unapologetic killing of more black and brown people, then the chances are that we are in for a long ride. Add to this the acute accumulation of wealth, and we have the makings of strong confrontations.
There's always this question of tactics—how far to go? Is it effective to do things like block the freeway or the BART station?
The effectiveness of tactics is a really complicated question, one that I generally try to stay away from. It is really difficult to measure effectiveness, since much of what is happening occurs on a long time scale. The question also assumes a clear set of outcomes or goals, which I am not sure movements like this have at the start. That is, the goal is for the police to stop killing black people. What actions will lead to this? It's hard to say. So what we have is people being so angry about it that they see no other alternative than to stop traffic, to disrupt business as usual. At one level, one can say that this may not stop the killings. However, stopping traffic and disrupting malls and burning things down has gotten you to ask me questions about what is happening. This means that at one level the tactics are working: They are forcing the issue on the agenda.
How about the question of property damage and violence? It's pretty common both to see a black bloc emerge that embraces that, and for another group to move to isolate them. Do the more violent factions exist as a part within the larger movement, or a separate entity that's severable from it?
The question of violence is a complicated one. We should be thoughtful about the use of the word 'violence', since it has multiple meanings and definitions. In the U.S., we tend to group property destruction and physical harm to a human being together under the idea of violence. But some would question this connection. One of the most remarkable things I read about Ferguson was an individual suggesting that if the police did not care about the the lives of black people, then they were not gong to care about a few buildings burning down. In this moment, it seems to make sense that human life is not equal to a building or a window, and I think this is what is showing up in the streets of Berkeley, Oakland, and Ferguson.
Do you think there's a racial dimension to how these fault lines play out?
It seems that some demonstrators are yelling at other protesters who are engaging in storefront vandalism, which is nothing new. What is new is the racial makeup of the interaction. It seems that white protesters are scrutinizing, and acting with hostility toward, young black protesters, who are more confrontational with police and private property. This points to an important contradiction in both the movement and the society—mainly that the immediacy of the moment for some young black people is more intense than for some white folks. And the ideology of nonvioence will start to ring a little falsely when the police continue to kill with impunity.
Any books people should read on this set of topics?
Well, a good one for understanding the policing protest is Shutting Down the Streets (I says sheepishly). A classic and one of my favorites is Poor People's Movements by Francis Fox Piven. Well worth the read. I would recommend Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing by Lesley J. Wood, as well as Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop.