1989: The Anarchists Riot In Berkeley

1989: The Anarchists Riot In Berkeley

This story originally appeared in the August 2, 1989 issue of the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

I was hanging around passing the time of day with my friend Al when a Berkeley cop walked in the front door.

Al’s been a legit businessman for years, but he’s had a checkered enough past that you’d expect him to flinch at least slightly at the close proximity of uniformed authority.  But the visitor got the same broad smile Al greets everyone with.  Well, almost everyone; there’s this nasty old lady who comes in almost every day and invariably tries to weasel out of paying.  Al has been known to be less than completely friendly with her.

“Are you the manager here?” the cop wanted to know.

“Yes I am,” Al assured him.

“Well, we’re advising merchants in the Telegraph Avenue area that a group of anarchists are planning a march through here this afternoon.  It’s possible there might be some violence or property damage, so you might want to take appropriate precautions.”

“Today?  You serious?”

“We can’t be sure, of course, but this group has a reputation for violence and pointless vandalism.  Apparently it’s an annual event with them, in a different city each year.  It’s part of the anarchist convention they’re having over in San Francisco.  Have you heard about that?”

“I seen something about it on TV yesterday.  Why are they coming to Berkeley?”

The cop sighed.  “Doesn’t everybody?  It’s supposed to be something about the homeless.  Here, this is a pamphlet they put out that tells about their plans.  Anyway, I’ve got a bunch more stores to cover, so consider yourself warned, and good luck.”

“Oh man, I got a date to go to the race track this afternoon with this woman I just met,” Al moaned.

“You also got about $5000 worth of plate glass wrapped around this place,” I pointed out.  Al’s shop is one of those modern mall-type constructions; two of the walls were nothing but glass.

“Don’t tell me about that; it cost me three hundred bucks to replace that door where the burglars got in.”  He picked up the pamphlet the cop had left.  “You heard of these guys before?”

As a matter of fact, I had.  I’d read the pamphlet a few days earlier, over at the anarchy convention, which I’d haphazardly and half-heartedly attended.  Actually, “attended” seems to imply participation; all I’d done was hang around and gawk at people and gossip with the ones I knew.

The march, or “Day Of Action,” as it was billed was supposed to be secret, so it struck me as funny that the cops were handing out copies of the plans.  Well, send some anarchists to organize things, what do you expect?

Telegraph Avenue has already had a couple riots this year.  Some merchants have revived the 1960s practice of keeping large sheets of plywood in the store to mount over the front windows at the first sign of trouble.  With the amount of glass in his shop, though, that wasn’t a realistic option for Al.

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“I’m going home and get me a baseball bat, and if those clowns get near here I’m gonna chase their asses right back where they came from.”

The first night I laid eyes on Telegraph Avenue, in June of 1968, I walked straight into a full-scale riot.  Cars and buildings were burned, tear gas was everywhere, hardly a window was left unbroken except for a couple places like Cody’s Bookstore, whose owner was considered sympathetic to the radicals.  That riot went on for three nights, and there was another one like it two months later.

The citizens of Berkeley were understandably upset, but by no means unanimous in their disapproval of the rioters.  Many of them blamed the cops for using excessive force, and there was a certain built-in sympathy for the longhairs who frequented the Avenue because they were identified with the antiwar movement.

Times have changed in Berkeley.  Many of the 60s radicals are now part of the city government.  A few are even on the police force.  Cops no longer tear gas crowds of innocent bystanders or make club-swinging charges into the first available group of people.  I’ve heard complaints from street people and from the new generation of radicals that inhabits Telegraph, but the handful of dealings I’ve had with Berkeley police in recent years have been reasonably pleasant, even the time I got that much-deserved speeding ticket.

And though Berkeley still suffers from typical urban problems like homelessness, drug wars, greedy businessmen, and the pervasive spread of yuppiedom, most people who live there are pretty happy with their city.  There’s a climate of tolerance and an encouragement of diversity that has disappeared from most other Bay Area communities, if in fact it ever existed.

So why were the “anarchists” coming to smash up this relatively benign environment?  The answer could be found in their pamphlet, in the section about what might happen to those who were arrested: “Berkeley is one of the most liberal and progressive cities in America.  You’ll probably get released on your own recognizance, and they might even end up dropping all the charges against you.”

I pointed this out to Al when he asked me why they weren’t demonstrating in San Francisco or Oakland, where the cops were really bad.  “Or Richmond.  They think they’re bad, I’d like to see them come marching down to Richmond.  Those police be standing at the city limits and just start shooting.”

Al is a product of Richmond, down near the projects, where selling hubbas is a primary source of income, and life expectancy for a black male like himself is something like half that of a white San Franciscan.  He’s one of the few who made it out.  When I met him a few years ago, he was still struggling with the language barrier; his new job on Telegraph Avenue him dealing mainly with white middle class college students who might as well have come from another planet.

But Al was nothing if not smart, and adaptable.  Four years later he was running the shop, and taking his pay in the form of a percentage of the profits.  So he wasn’t about to let any rioters bust out the windows even if they weren’t literally his windows.

I had some errands to run, and told Al I’d see him later.  On the Avenue the plywood was going up and the police were everywhere.  They were especially concentrated around the abandoned Berkeley Inn, a one-time hotel that was supposed to be the protesters’ target.  Their plan was to seize the building and offer it to the homeless as a shelter.  They apparently hadn’t bothered to find out that the city of Berkeley is currently renovating the hotel to turn it into low-income housing.

I ran into my brother, who is always good for a sarcastic comment or two, especially when it comes to broad targets like anarchist conventions (“Did they elect new officers?”) and organized chaos.  We stood against a wall trading quips while awaiting the appointed hour at which the riot was meant to get underway.

It was a long wait.  Anarchists are late for everything.  And when the mighty people’s revolutionary army finally hove into sight, it looked pretty pathetic. You had maybe a couple hundred people, mostly dressed in black, many with bandanas over their faces and helmets on their heads.  A couple hundred spectators trailed behind them.

They marched around the Avenue and the campus for an hour, with the cops keeping their distance.  It began to look as though nothing would happen, but finally one valiant protester struck the first blow for freedom by picking up a trashcan and throwing it into the side of an A-C Transit bus.  Somebody else smashed the front window of the bank and his partner decorated the damage with a spray painted anarchy symbol.

The parade continued its ramble, tipping over trashcans as it went, perhaps heralding the day, once the revolution has come, when we can all throw our trash right into the streets without being oppressed by the state-controlled garbage collection system.

Then things got really exciting. A Coca-Cola delivery truck came rolling down Haste Street.  Somebody sent a brick through its windshield.  The driver jumped out and ran, and the revolutionaries had seized control of their first enemy vehicle.  They rolled it into the intersection and began smashing it up.  Busting open the back doors, they liberated cases of soda pop and distributed them to the victorious street warriors, who manfully attempted to guzzle as much as they could of the soft drink they would normally spurn (corporate, you know).

Their energy redoubled by this successful skirmish, the people’s forces moved back down Telegraph.  The tie-dye and incense vendors had packed up their tables and left, so the mob’s fury was visited on other symbols of the oppressor.  SMASH!!! went the window of a computer game store!  KABLAMMM!!! went the window of the Shakespeare Book Company!!!  A dozen more trashcans fell victim to the people’s righteous wrath!!!  The entire fascist-corporate-state apparatus teetered on the brink of collapse!!!

But victory was short-lived.  The uniformed, helmeted, truncheon-wielding lackeys of the ruling class made their move, forcing the freedom fighters back from their hard-won turf.  Bottles and rocks went flying as the crowd retreated, but there was no denying that the tide was turning in favor of the police.

Then a funny thing happened.  Local people, who had been standing around watching, started cheering for the cops.  They were even helping them by pointing out where the rioters were hiding.

I recognized some of them.  One, in particular, a guy named Che, I’d been seeing on the Avenue for almost 20 years.  I remembered the summer he first showed up, like thousands of other kids during those years, with nothing but a blanket and maybe a hash pipe.  I’d seen him at riots and demonstrations, and never figured him for a cop-lover or a young Republican type.  But he his friends were furious, screaming things like, “Get the hell out of our town you goddam spoiled brats.  We live here.  Go mess up your own city.”

He had it right.  Almost none of the rioters were from Berkeley, and virtually all of them were middle or upper middle class white kids.  You could picture them calling their parents back in Grosse Pointe or Westchester County, saying, “Mom, I’m tired of smashing the state, could you send me plane fare home?  Oh, and I need money for a new leather jacket, too.”

Eventually the cops managed to clear Telegraph Avenue, showing remarkable restraint considering that they were being bombarded with bottles and cans from the looted Coca-Cola truck.  And while the prevailing crowd sentiment was pro-police, there were a few old-time Berkeley radicals on the scene screaming about police brutality.  My favorite was a rotund (“bovine” was my brother’s description) woman who waddled out of the Cafe Mediterraneum, caffe latte in hand, to yell “Fascist!” at a cop who’d just dodged two bottles, then got hit in the chest by a third.

Another guy in his 40s or 50s, a sideways tuft of grayish-white hair adorning the sides of his otherwise naked head, stood on the corner declaiming about how this shocking police violence was part and parcel of the oppressive capitalist system.  For some reason that escapes me now, I tried to reason with him.  I told him to look at what was going on through the eyes of my friend Al, who through hard work and determination had made it out of an environment more hellish than most white radicals can comprehend.

“Well, he’s just part of the petite bourgeoisie, then,” was his answer.

I was tempted to run down the block and get Al to listen to this guy explain why getting a job and moving out of the ghetto had made him a collaborator who was betraying his own people and deserved to get his windows smashed.

“I don’t know what it is about white people,” Al once told me.  “They got a theory about everything, even if it don’t make no sense, and when something comes along that makes their theory look totally ridiculous, they never say, ‘Boy, I sure was wrong about that;’ they just make up another theory that’s even crazier than the first one.”

Speaking of theories, anarchy is a prime one.  It’s got a built-in appeal to anyone who’s ever labored under the constraints of a bureaucratic, incompetent, and corrupt government.  A reasonably mature person might say, “I don’t need a government to tell me not to rob, murder, rape or pillage, and I sure don’t need anyone telling me what I can or can’t drink or smoke or who I can or can’t have sex with.”

But it’s one of those theories that looks better on paper than in practice.  It’s understandable why its greatest appeal would be to the privileged segments of society, insulated by money and social position against most of the injustices men visit on one another.  A white college student might see the government as the oppressive institution that forbids him to smoke pot and sends police to his door to make him turn down his stereo.

A black student, on the other hand, at least one with any sense of history, knows it was government police and troops who made it possible for him to attend many of this country’s schools and universities, to have the right to vote, even to be free from slavery.

It’s not just about race, though.  An AFDC mother, regardless of skin color, may have to subsist on the most meager of crumbs from the corporate table, but without a government to enforce tax collections and income redistribution, she wouldn’t even have that.  Restrictions against pollution and destruction of the environment might be inadequately enforced, but think what Louisiana-Pacific or Maxxam would be doing if there were no regulation at all.

Point this out to a card-carrying anarchist and he or she will mumble something to the effect that everything will sort itself out for the better after the revolution.  But in the meantime, would-be revolutionaries might bear in mind that there are five billion people on this planet that need to be fed, sheltered, and clothed, and if they don’t want governments helping out, perhaps they should start figuring out how they’re going to take care of it.

Sure, anarchy is a great idea.  Even Karl Marx thought so, despite the fact that every regime launched in his name ended up more totalitarian than the capitalist government it replaced.  The nagging question remains: how do we get from here to there without wiping out half the human race in the process?

People who work for a living, are not inherently stupid.  It’s obvious that they don’t have anything to gain from a bunch of spoiled kids coming into their town and smashing things up for a day.  All it means is more work, picking up the trash, replacing the glass, getting their insurance rates raised.  More petty capitalist crap, right?

OK, you tell them that, and while you’re at it, explain to them how else they’re supposed to support themselves and their families. One of the main reasons the “revolutionary” movement has never amounted to much in this country is that it’s the product of a privileged class with a barely concealed contempt for the vast majority of working people.  You want them on your side, show them how you can make their life easier, not harder.  And if you don’t get them on your side, there’s always someone like Hitler ready to make them an offer.

Or as one friend observed, referring to the many government-free millennia that preceded the emergence of modern civilization, “Anarchy?  We already tried that once, and look what we ended up with.”

About the Author