Protesters force cancellation of Netanyahu talks here

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Hundreds of protesters shouting "Support the Palestinians, choose a side" and "No free speech for war criminals" forced the cancellation of a scheduled Berkeley speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday evening.

Waving banners reading "Zionism=Nazism" and "End U.S. aid to Israel," the crowd outside the Berkeley Community Theatre was estimated at more than 500 by the Berkeley Police Department, at 200 to 250 by observers.

With only a fraction of the throng bursting through understaffed police barricades and blocking the gate leading to the theater, the event was effectively doomed.

Additional talks scheduled Wednesday and Thursday in San Mateo and San Rafael, respectively, were subsequently canceled.

By 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, 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, who is recovering from a heart attack in late October. Netanyahu was a replacement speaker.

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 to 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's recommendation, Netanyahu and event promoter Bruce Vogel opted to call off the lecture.

"I guess the atmosphere is too inflamed for this kind of event," said Vogel.

Ticket-holders were understandably frustrated by the cancellation. Some questioned the irony of canceling 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. Some demonstrators 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 [canceling the speech] was probably not productive. I think Netanyahu should have spoken."

Amid the pro-Palestinian protesters, several pro-Israeli Jews circulated, hoisting signs reading "Jews needs 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 '96…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 Palestinian 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.

"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.

Lopes said that the 50 to 60 police on hand were the most the department could muster on short notice. That count includes members of a SWAT team and a bomb squad, meaning even fewer were dealing strictly with 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 [Netanyahu's appearance]," 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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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.