Tables Turned, ft. The California Highway Patrol

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That’s me (@NickGeisler) attempting to shake hands with police

A few nights ago, my roommates and I went down to protest. The time honored tradition of “activism” called us — by us I mean us white, privileged kids — to the streets, so we donned bandanas and black T’s and left for the Berkeley’s I-580 highway. None of us believed that protesting could change anything. But we went anyway. Protesting is fun!

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you have a handle on the events of the last few weeks. We aren’t exactly the top hit on Google for #berkeleyprotest, or #blacklivesmatter. Two grand jury non-indictments, murders of 12 year-old kids, and growing dissent in major US cities (and India, thanks guys!) have the people demanding accountability. If you’ve been listening to our podcast, you know I’m not going to argue with you about this. We need to fix our police system, and that’s that. Black lives don’t matter in America, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Still, I’m not sure if old-school protesting (people in the streets, picket-signs, marching) is the way to bring about change. But I also don’t think I can  talk about it without participating first hand. Protesting didn’t keep us out of Iraq, and it didn’t reform Wall Street. In many ways, protesting feels more like an activity than a real outlet for reform. Something privileged liberal-arts types do for fun. As I picked out the right shirt to demonstrate in, I was acutely aware of my hypocrisy.

But maybe I was wrong. My first night in the protests I marched several miles through downtown Oakland with a few hundred people. I somehow ended up with a rain slicked banner in my hands, and my voice growing more confident as I joined more and more chants. Police surrounded us on the sidewalks, and cop cars drove ahead of us and behind us. They heard every “killer cops have got to go,” and every “no justice, no peace,” loudly and clearly. They hardly budged.

The Bay area has long been a hub of activist movements, but protestors are not the only ones that know how to prepare. The cops here, unlike those in Ferguson, know how to deal with dissent. In a time when anti-cop sentiment is running rampant — why deal with the problem head on? After all, protestors are easily riled up, violent masses. They’ll implode like they always do.

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Tucci (@TuccinotMatt) of Table Turners at Berkeley Protests

As long as someone gives them a push.

Undercover, plain-clothes cops are a real thing. Just look at this Berkeley (edit: this is a CHP officer, thanks to user “tpb” for the correction) cop pulling his gun on protestors last week. The incident says a lot about how cops treat protests — not as moments of discussion, but as cells that need to be infiltrated. Even that might be excused if cops were just around to monitor the situation. But they have more sinister motives at hand.

This is not an isolated incident, as the Berkeley cop might suggest. I’ve seen it myself. In the space of two blocks in downtown Oakland, I watched two plain-clothes cops unmasked, both while screaming to “start the fire” of revolution. Another one tried convincing the protestors to split into two groups, telling the slower group to stop in hopes of spreading us thin. Both times they were recognized, their violent vitriol immediately rooted out and exposed. Both cops immediately left down a side street, pulling off their hoods and nodding to the nearby blues in uniform.

Philosophically, I can’t imagine any more damning evidence of a system that has lost sight of it’s goals. The mission statement “to serve and protect” loses all meaning when undermining your constituents and intentionally sowing discord is the only “problem solving” method in your arsenal. When the people you defend become the enemy army, you’ve lost more than the war.

Like everything else in the world, this statement has nuance. When protestors fall to violent tactics, we damn our own cause even further. Ultimately, the only way to bring about real change is not through body-cameras or stricter juries, though they will help. What we need is to reestablish the human connection between cops and citizens. Division doesn’t change minds, it entrenches conflicting viewpoints. Of course, reforming the system legally will create more trusting scenarios, but those reforms need to come from within to some extent.

So the second night I went out, I went with altered intent. It wasn’t my goal to scream, it was my goal to smile.

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Pedestrian bridge and highway of I-580, protestors shut it down for a few hours

10 minutes after arriving I was nearly arrested. Cops were pushing us off the freeway, backing us down from the road onto a public bike path. But that wasn’t enough. They kept moving us back, while 30 officers with rubber-bullet guns watched us from the high ground. Some of us sat down, attempting to hold our line, but immediately we were snatched up. I will never forget a woman’s cries as they dragged her along the pavement and the police line swallowed her whole. She was sitting right next to me. Someone grabbed me and pulled me back into the protestors as the zip ties were coming down.

When the police line finally stopped moving, the protest gathered with an angry energy. But anger can’t last forever, and slowly the noise subsided. So we tried something new. I extended my hand to the cop in front of me, and just asked him to shake it. Not to quit his job, or to renounce his profession, but to make a small, human connection with a person he swore to serve.

I left my hand there for 5, 10, 15 minutes, but he hardly moved. “We aren’t here because we hate you, we’re here because you’re our brothers too,” I said, over and over. New Age-y, yeah. But also true. This war between police and constituents is, at it’s core, a war of perception. Police need to realize that skin color does not signify someone’s threat level. We are all people, all Americans. We are on the same side, we’ve just forgotten it.

Instead of shaking my hand, he began to cry. Real, tragic, and powerful tears. His eye contact never broke, even when his superiors asked him if he wanted another cop to take his place. He held my gaze for 20 minutes, his fingers still on his baton. But his eyes said everything.

I will never, ever forget that moment. Not because of the sadness it inspired, but the hope. Riot shields can’t guard you from yourself.

Even sadness can only last so long. Both sides tired, our negative emotions spent, it shouldn’t have surprised me when humor took over. I started babbling about my day, about my life, about the protests, trying desperately to find some human connection.

And then I got a laugh. Talking about breakfast cereal, my delicious 5lb bag of “Mini-Spooners,” the generic Mini-Wheats, I saw a young officer laughing in the background. Suddenly the whole protest was cheering and smiling. The energy only grew, as jokes started piling up and more and more hands extended for shaking.

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See the terror in her eyes, her screams of “help” still echo in my head

“Two peanuts were walking down the road, and one got a-SALT-ed! ……… Too soon?””Hey, 20128 — what’s your name? Timmy? Yeah you look like a Timmy.”
“I’m a canvasser — I’m used to people not shaking my hands all day, Tubby”
“Awww don’t call him Tubby, he looks…. nice!”

And on and on, as small smiles grew on the faces of several officers.

Eventually, several shook our hands or waved. I was ecstatic. The robot cracked! There WAS a human being under there! First, one cop waved. Another extended his hand. A cop nick-named Robert Romano (for his striking resemblance) came from the back to fist-bump us. We were asking for something human, for the smallest show of solidarity against a system they should want to reform more than anyone else.

Because we cannot forget that being a cop does not make you a bad person. Cops are not Nazis — where the office workers engage in the “banality of evil” each day. The police are not the problem, the police system is.

We need to work together to fix that, and the first step to working together is acknowledging each others shared humanity.

I will never pretend that I “made a difference” at these protests. I, Nick Geisler, am not that important and I did not enact real change. But I took one step towards understanding the power of protest. In many ways, my actions were selfish — walking away from that protest, I was happier than when I arrived. And I was hopeful. Because street demonstrations are about real people, in the flesh and blood, fighting for change.

If even one cop went home and rethought about the reason he joined the force, and his ability to make change, then I am a happy man this morning. Luckily, I know there is change a foot. Not thanks to me, but thanks to people like the Richmond police chief.

Many of my criticisms about demonstrations — their idea that participating enacts change, their trendiness, their questionable empirical use — haven’t changed. Taking a black and white stance on them, however, puts me in the same boat as those that I’m trying to reform.

Demonstrating in the streets won’t change things on its’ own, so keep working #Anonymous (much love to hacktivism, a front where we can actually go toe-to-toe with those in power), and the Berkeley art activists (ART IS PROTEST!). Together we’ll make real change. Cliche, I know. But most true ideas are.


Table Turners: Episode 2 

Full recount of our time at Berkeley Protests

Follow @TableTurnRadio

Photos by Soraya Matos
//

9 thoughts on “Tables Turned, ft. The California Highway Patrol

  1. There is a lot in this article I can relate to. As a white person, I had not experienced how it feels to be treated like an animal versus human by authority figures until I recently started protesting. During my first head on clash with police, in which myself and fifty other protesters were kettled, held for twenty minutes and then arrested, I was taken aback at the level of disconnect between us and them. We were the so called peaceful protesters, as most of the looters left right before the cops came. We stood together quietly and calmly trying to figure out what was going on. The hundred cops in attendance did not say a single word despite our repeated attempts of inquiry. Were we under arrest? We had no idea. Then they silently came and grabbed people one by one, four cops to one protester. Never looked us in the eye or said a word. It wasn’t until we had zip ties around our wrists that they talked to us like people. Which made me think; imagine the potential of being treated like this and much worse everyday solely based on the color of my skin. I probably wouldn’t have lasted a year into my teenagehood. No wonder people of color mistrust the police; it’s not just the murders that happen but the every day interactions. Cops are trained to be robots in some ways. It’s how they survive emotionally.

    The next time I got kettled by cops, the night of the first big protest in Berkeley, I became enraged. I did NOT want to be trapped and held by cops again. We asked repeatedly to be let go, but were only met with silence. I started screaming at them, top of my lungs. I was genuinely terrified. One of them told us to back up, and I yelled “where do you want us to go? We can’t back up, the cops behind us won’t let us through!” He said “You need to back up now” and we all screamed “we can’t!” “Just back up!” And on and it continued until we were pushed back. Once we got to the police line behind us they let us through. Why couldn’t they have just told us that we could go in the beginning? Why were we refused information? Would it have been so hard to tell us we were free to go?

    I wanted to tell then to use their words. That’s what I tell the preschoolers I work with. You need to use your words. You need to communicate. You cannot just show up with a gun and baton and teargas and push people around. If they want something from us, they can get it if they start treating people like human beings.

    And that’s not even getting into what happened later that night, when cops broke protesters bones and heads while firing teargas over and over.

    Later on, while walking alone towards downtown I saw an armored vehicle with cops hanging off the sides and back drive past. I was still so angry that I did something I never thought I would do, especially not while alone: I stood there, clearly visible, flipping them off. And you know what? They all ignored me except one, who smiled and waved. And my first thought was, “finally, a cop that acts like a human”. I felt a bit relieved even though I knew he was being sarcastic.

    A few days later I called 911 for a homeless man bleeding from an assault (after asking many times if he was okay with potentially being harassed). The cop who responded was nice enough. At one point the homeless man said “you’re a cop, you don’t care!” The cop responded “yes I do, I do care!” and seemed to mean it. It made me cry heavy tears. In that moment I mourned the loss of what I had always believed: that cops are the good guys. I want to believe that he meant it, and that cops do actually care, but I know better now. I don’t trust them for a second. And until they begin to acknowledge black people as humans, I will not trust them. Until they stop executing unarmed men and women they are not to be trusted.

    I am glad you had the experience you did. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

  2. Hey, I’m the girl in the picture, I’ve found 3 pics of that moment, this is the fourth, THANK YOU
    I was terrified, and they beat me and the guy in that picture BADLY right after they pulled us from you.
    Our court date is January 6th at 9am.
    Feel free to message/email me 🙂

    Like

    • Hey Alison,
      I would love to share your story. Would you have interest in bringing it to the world here? I cant pretend to understand what you went through, and I cant pretend to know how to fix this. Your story and ideas would help.

      Many thanks,
      Nick

      Nick

      Like

  3. Wow. I’m glad to see you had a life changing experience by getting some policeman to shake your hand.
    But you obviously missed the point of these protests. It’s good that you understand that police brutality is a problem and recognize that the system works in your favor based on your skin color and class position, but your apathy to systemic oppression is unforgivable. The fact that you came from this smiling and joking with police officers AFTER SEEING THEM BEAT A WOMAN RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU just demonstrates that the meaning of these protests was lost on you.

    And you know what, fuck you for trivializing these protests in such a way. “Oh, I almost got arrested once, but overall cops are good people, I had a laugh with a few and took a selfie with one and posted it on Instagram so everyone in my hometown would know I was on the 580.” Maybe, as a “privileged liberal-arts type,” this is was what YOU do for fun, but for everyone else there it was the boiling point after generations of first hand experience with police violence. This was a passive activity for you because you don’t give a shit. And honestly, your personal growth that came from the experience isn’t worth anything because your attitude is still sympathetic to a system that oppresses people. You still don’t give a shit because police brutality and racism doesn’t happen to you on a daily basis.

    Also, fuck you for saying that these protests have no power to illicit change. You cannot expect people the fight a system that oppresses them by working within the confines of said system. You have no right to tell people that they need to express their discontent in a particular way when the system works in your favor. You’re right, you didn’t (and don’t) make a difference. Your apathy and ignorance only perpetuates the problem.

    Like

  4. Pingback: Table Turners – Episode 2 | High Meadows Productions

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