Public Comment

Berkeley Police and Abraham Lincoln: A Modest Proposal

By Jean Damu
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 09:59:00 AM

The Berkeley police and Abraham Lincoln? What the...? What’s the connection? Hang with me a minute. I’ll explain. 

On Friday Oct. 10, I was walking down South Berkeley’s Sacramento Street and passed my niece and two nephews who were walking in the opposite direction. One nephew was on a bike. They were on their way to the store. 

Several minutes later on my return trip my nephew on the bike was waiting outside the store for his sister and cousin who were inside. I had plans to go to the store also. 

But as I approached the store unmarked Berkeley patrol car number 1522, driven by an Asian female officer and her partner, a white male, pulled up to curb next to my nephew on the bike, and got out to approach him. 

As I walked into the store they were merely talking to him and I didn’t pay real close attention to what they were talking about. But when I returned to the front of the store, after having picked up a few items toward the rear, I saw that the white officer was restraining my nephew by holding onto his wrist. 

“What’s going on here?” I said. “Has he done something?” 

“No we just want to talk to him,” responded the white cop. 

Then my niece came out of the store. 

“Why are you treating my brother like that? He’s not on any paper (not on probation or parole.) You have no right to treat him like that.” 

At that point the female officer told my niece to keep out of it. Then words escalated and the woman cop grabbed my niece and shoved her against the wall of the store and told her to keep out of it. 

It looked as if thing were going to get out of hand, people were yelling and a crowd was beginning to gather. The clerks came out of the store to see what was happening. I bolted down the street to inform my sister that half her family was about to be arrested. When I returned the female cop asked me what was my interest in all this. I told her that I was the uncle of all the three youths. 

Then she responded, “Well, get the fuck up out of here.” 

I was shocked. “What did you say?” 

“You heard me, get the fuck up out of here.” Twice. Wow. 

As my sister approached they jumped into their patrol car and drove off. 

Then the store clerk emerged and said, ”That was outrageous. They always confront kids who don’t sell drugs, and never the ones who do.” 

A valid observation in my opinion. 

This was the third time in a week I had seen Berkeley police attempt to line up and search black youths and then walk away without making any arrest, while at the same time never once, as far as I know, confronting any of the men who are older and bigger, who hang around a business down the street, who I know to be armed and carrying drugs. 

Berkeley has a gang problem all right, gangs of unsupervised, poorly trained police roaming our neighborhoods intimidating and harassing black youths under the color of law. 

For the past 35 years I’ve lived in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco and I can’t remember ever seeing a more poorly handled interaction between police and the community. It was a great example of how riots start due to the arrogance and ill-tempered nature of police. Can you imagine nearly starting a riot because you claim to want to talk to kid because he’s riding his bike on the sidewalk? Terrible policing work, in my opinion. 

Afterwards I though about the policewoman’s suggestion that, “I get the fuck up out of here.” Hmmm, maybe she’s on to something. 

Buried deep in the multi-volume collection of John Hay and John Nicolay’s seminal collection of the papers of the Lincoln administration is a record of an intriguing moment in U.S. history. 

On the eve of the Civil War, just after moving into the White House, Lincoln called to his office a New Jersey contractor. 

How much would it cost, Lincoln wanted to know, to move all the black people in the United States to Texas? What an inspiration! Give Texas to the blacks. Of course the Texans would have objected but when you consider than only 1,500 Texans participated in the state-wide vote on whether to secede, opposition to Lincoln’s plan would have been minimal, most likely. 

The contractor said he’d get back to Lincoln on that one, but if he did his response is not recorded. No need to dwell on what happened afterward. 

So my modest proposal is this: Since Berkeley police and other various agencies of the Berkeley city government have made it abundantly clear that it would be preferable if there were no blacks in Berkeley, why doesn’t mayor Tom Bates, and other deep thinkers on the City Council, emulate “the Great Liberator” and see if some scheme can be hatched to get black folks “the fuck up out of here”? 

Here’s one option. For most of the 20th Century, California has been beset with debates, from time to time, on whether the state should be divided into two. Well, why not three? 

Give one-third to the whites, one-third to the Latinos and one-third to blacks. And the Asians can vote on where they want to live. I’ll bet the government in Mexico City would go for it. How about you? 


Jean Damu is a Berkeley resident.