Protests a reminder: We can’t whitewash the past

Jeff Chiu/AP PhotoA protesters raises his arms as California Highway Patrol Officers stand in front of him as protesters block traffic on Highway 80 in Berkeley

Jeff Chiu/AP PhotoA protesters raises his arms as California Highway Patrol Officers stand in front of him as protesters block traffic on Highway 80 in Berkeley

Two black men were killed and, in the aftermath, protests have raged across the country. These protests have been called riots, and now some people have stopped listening.

The need to reform police after the deaths of two black men, Eric Garner in New York City and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., is a discussion worth having. Here in The City, the names of the officers who shot and killed Alex Nieto, a young Latino man, will soon be released. Accusations of racism continue to swirl around the March 21 Bernal Heights shooting. We need a frank discussion on race now more than ever, nationally and locally.

Yes, violence erupted in recent Berkeley and San Francisco protests. But it's important to consider why they contained elements of violence, and whether we are listening to the voices of the disenfranchised.

Across the social-media sphere we see people tuning out.

“The violence works AGAINST everyone!” tweets Twitter user khwalz, one of countless similar examples, “The peaceful protests were much more effective! You'll lose the country's sympathy!”

One particularly egregious argument claims Martin Luther King Jr.'s protests were entirely nonviolent, a counterexample to the current riotous Ferguson protests.

“This is a sanitized, mythological view of the civil rights movement,” said Tarik Farrar, 62, chair of City College of San Francisco's African American Studies Department. “It's a narrative that doesn't see the reality.”

In Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, sanitation workers marched in a strike for higher wages. King arrived to find the massive crowd of thousands in chaos, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia. Shops were looted, and a 16-year-old was shot and killed by police, who later teargassed a church.

Though no one should openly advocate for violence, Farrar said, mass outrage played a key role in shaping history, and he defines the phenomenon as “urban rebellion.”

“[Urban rebellions] happened year after year, summer after summer, during the civil-rights movement,” he said, and helped spur needed civil-rights policy reform from President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Many of us argue the merits of the Ferguson protests on Facebook endlessly, tuning out those who disagree. While engaged in these digital debates, I often think of my childhood friend who went on to join the Police Department. As a first-year officer, he has risked his life to save others, one time nearly drowning to save someone attempting suicide. Police put their lives at risk every day, and I can see why they feel attacked in these conversations.

Science further complicates the debate. The UC Berkeley sociology project Deciding Force is analyzing data from police actions in Occupy protests nationwide. Early findings show police with military gear tend to spur more violence in protesters, while those who dress as traditional officers are met with more peace.

Criticizing the police can often seem unfair to those that don't experience daily injustice, but living through racism everyday is also unfair.

D'Paris Williams, 21, was tackled by plainclothes officers in the Mission's Valencia Gardens housing complex in November of last year. They were in search of weapons, and Williams had none. A brawl ensued. Williams said he feels his episode was similar to what happened to Mike Brown and Eric Garner, but different in one way: Williams lived.

He said that walking down the street, he often feels the burden of watchful eyes, fearing him and his blackness.

“No one wants to touch me, speak to me or be near me,” he said. “I get that a lot.”

“It's horrible,” he said, to watch people giving him a wide berth on a sidewalk, or walk across the street after casting him a wary eye. He's been stopped by police more times than he can count.

“A conservative may say those neighborhoods experience more crime, and therefore its justifiable to have more police there,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi said. “But the numbers of people of color stopped and frisked are still disproportionately off. Those enforcements don't bear fruit. You cannot justify the higher arrests of black Americans.”

“Burning crosses have evolved,” Williams said.

I asked him to describe what it's like to be shunned, daily.

“It tenses you up with every step you take, it builds and builds,” Williams said. “You feel anger. Why are people treating you like this? You wonder what they're saying. It's so many mixed emotions, I don't know how to explain it.”

But that turmoil is often discounted by those with privilege, especially when protests spontaneously become urban rebellions.

“These are not planned things, they're explosions,” Farrar said. And historically, they've had impact.

Hopefully we can start listening to the protesters in our own backyard, and strive for change, together. Or we could just keep arguing endlessly on Facebook, and howl into the digital ether.

On Guard covers issues concerning San Francisco's political left. It prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at

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