Berkeley protesters prevent speech by Netanyahu
By Joe Eskenazi, Jewish Bulletin Of Northern California
JPOST (November 30) - BERKELEY - Hundreds of protesters shouting "Support the Palestinians, choose a side" and "No free speech for war criminals" blocked the gate leading to the Berkeley Community Theatre Tuesday evening, forcing the cancellation of a scheduled speech by former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Additional talks by Netanyahu that were scheduled Wednesday and Thursday in San Mateo and San Rafael were subsequently cancelled.
Waving banners reading "Zionism=Nazism" and "End U.S. aid to Israel," the crowd was estimated at more than 500 by the Berkeley Police Department and at 200 to 250 by observers. With only a fraction of the throng bursting through understaffed police barricades, the event was effectively doomed.
By roughly 7:15 p.m., about 45 minutes before the scheduled speech, at least 2,000 subscribers to the Berkeley Speakers Series had formed a massive line near the Berkeley High School campus, where the theater is located. More than a few showed up expecting to hear a speech from former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, for whom Netanyahu was a replacement speaker. Kissinger is recovering from a heart attack in late October.
At that point, a portion of the protesters tore through police tape, massed in front of the chain-link gate leading to the campus, and moved up and down the long line of ticket-holders, engaging in dialogues, handing out leaflets and shouting slogans through bullhorns. Berkeley police chained the gate shut, preventing the entry of protesters and ticket-holders alike.
The 50 to 60 police officers made no attempt to separate the ticket-holders from the protesters or clear out a path for the ticket-holders. There were no reported arrests or injuries.
"At the point that people busted through the barricades, [cancellation] was a done deal," said the Berkeley Police Department's press officer, Lt. Russell Lopes. "They began to mingle with the legitimate ticket patrons. The only way
we could get anyone in would have been to forcibly clear out the area. That carried the undoubted risk of injuries."
By 8 p.m., Netanyahu who never made an appearance in the vicinity of the protests, was contacted at his hotel and told of the situation. At the police department recommendation, Netanyahu and event promoter Bruce Vogel opted to cancel the lecture.
Ticket-holders were understandably frustrated by the cancellation. Some questioned the irony of cancelling a talk in the city that spawned the 60s Free Speech Movement.
"Free speech is dead in Berkeley, that's a quote you can take to the bank!" said ticket-holder Robert Cousins, laughing. "I came here to hear Kissinger, you see how it says Kissinger on the ticket? But he's sick, so I came to hear Netanyahu. I don't agree with Netanyahu, but nevertheless I wanted to hear what he had to say. But there's no free speech any longer.
"I think the protesters' hearts are in the right place, but their brains are not."
The protesters, predominantly white, included some Arabs. A number handed out copies of the Worker's Vanguard, a Marxist biweekly.
Even some of the more hardened protesters agreed that causing the cancellation of the speech was not necessarily a productive move.
"I believe in free speech," said Joe Webb, who angered more than a few ticket-holders and even fellow protesters by carrying a large sign depicting a swastika embedded within a Star of David. "I think Netanyahu has every right to speak and people have every right to listen, just as we have every right to be out here protesting the same. I think [cancelling the speech] was probably not productive. I think Netanyahu should have spoken."
Amid the massively pro-Palestinian protesters, several pro-Israeli Jews circulated, hoisting signs reading "Jews need a homeland," "Stop killing my cousins," and "Barak=War Hero, Arafat=War Criminal."
"I'm here because I disagree with a lot of the signs I see reading 'Viva Intifada' or equating Jews with Aryan Nazis," said Dan Donoho, a student at College Preparatory High School in Oakland. "I'll admit that I hated Netanyahu when he ran against [Shimon] Peres in 1996, |I was in Israel at the time and I hated him. But now I think his attitude toward the Palestinian struggle has changed.
"It's important to stand in solidarity with Israel even if you don't agree with all their views. The other side says "Netanyahu is the face of occupation, and I think that's even more wrong. That saddens me."
Ticket-holders and protesters alike were puzzled by the modest police presence, but Lopes claims the department was not properly informed by the organizers. He said the department only learned of Netanyahu's scheduled
appearance late in the evening of Nov. 22, six days before the event, and was "absolutely never" contacted by Vogel.
"The only way we found out is that one of our sergeants is a season ticket-holder [with the Berkeley Speakers Series] and he got a notice that said instead of Kissinger it was going to be Netanyahu," said Lopes. "That we should find out in such a fashion shows extreme negligence."
Lopes said that the 50 to 60 police on hand were the most the department could muster on short notice. Many of them were at the theater on the bomb squad and a SWAT team, leaving an insufficient number available for crowd control.
In order to do a proper job, Lopes claims around 120 would have been needed for crowd control.
"We called the State Department, and they didn't even know about it," said Lopes. "The possibilities of what could have happened if Netanyahu had shown up and things had gone wrong could have been horrible."
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