By: Anthony J. Miller
In the cool and drizzly weeks of December 2014, Berkeley was on fire. For several days between December 6 and December 11, hundreds of residents in the East Bay took to the streets in protest of police brutality and the non-indictments of officers responsible for killing unarmed black men—Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in particular. And while I respect and encourage the protesters’ cause (I too participated in the protests and recognize the issue of institutional racism across the United States), I must also be critical of these specific protests and the tactics of civil disobedience—and uncivil disobedience—engaged throughout. To do so, I present community organizer and author Saul D. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (c. 1971) as a lens to view the successes and failures of the Berkeley protests.
There are three critical mistakes made during the Berkeley protests: the lack of a central organizer, the use of irresponsible protesting tactics, and a failure to consolidate interest and goals.
In regard to organizing successful protests, Alinsky writes “the organizer, in his constant hunt for patterns, universalities, and meaning, is always building up a body of experience…Since one can communicate only through the experiences of the other, it becomes clear that the organizer begins to develop an abnormally large body of experience.” The most successful civil rights and social justice movements have had a single face and voice to represent the cause: MLK, Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mario Savio are a few examples. These are people who personally related to their respective movements and attempted to unify individuals through social progress. The organizing coalition behind the Berkeley protests, BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), lacks the same symbolic single representative that Alinsky finds necessary for successful social movements. Instead of consolidated leadership, the protests often felt like wild shouting matches between people with megaphones wherein the loudest person assumed the leadership role. This lack of single representation lead to confusion during protests and an overall lack of organization and unity.
The second mistake made during the protests is the irresponsible tactics employed throughout. Aside from the looting of stores in downtown Berkeley and the destruction of police vehicles, several groups within the protest took the “By Any Means Necessary” approach literally and would rather have seen destruction than unification and progress (such as the several people who attempted to light large trash containers on fire in Emeryville.) Unfortunately this irresponsible use of tactics–which often isolates moderate protesters—is simply too radical for creating social change. Alinsky writes about the organizer, saying “he will view with strategic sensitivity the nature of middle-class behavior with its hangups over rudeness or aggressive, insulting, profane actions.” Successful movements need moderate tactics that encourage participation rather than isolate individuals who would otherwise be active participants in the movement.
Lastly, the Berkeley protests tried to accomplish too much in too little time. In one of the marches I participated in, I recalled hearing chants against racist officers and institutional abuse while also hearing protestations against tuition increases and Wall Street banks. Do I think that these are all issues important to confront? Yes, absolutely. Do I think that combining several causes into one protest is effective? No, and neither does Alinsky. He writes “remember we are talking about revolution, not revelation; you can miss the target by shooting too high as well as too low.”
Moving forward, successful protests must engage rather than isolate its participants, encourage consolidation of its goals, and present a single representative who can energize and communicate on behalf of the movement. To end, in the words of Alinsky, “when Americans can no longer see the stars, the times are tragic. We must believe that it is the darkness before the dawn of a beautiful new world; we will see it when we believe it.”