Protesters pose for a picture while holding a sign that says "Hamas" at a rally in El Cerrito, Jan. 6. (Photo/Courtesy)
Protesters pose for a picture while holding a sign that says "Hamas" at a rally in El Cerrito, Jan. 6. (Photo/Courtesy)

Israeli flag burned as pro-Palestinian march in East Bay turns violent

A pro-Palestinian march and demonstration calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war turned violent on Saturday in the East Bay.

Many of the marchers from Albany to El Cerrito protested peacefully, waving Palestinian flags and signs in support of a halt in fighting. Some brought their children, according to videos published on social media.

But the event devolved. Some shouted antisemitic slurs, surrounded and kicked passing cars, and destroyed counterdemonstrators’ Israeli flags and posters condemning Hamas. And one protester assaulted a female pro-Israel counterdemonstrator by pushing her to the ground, taking her Israeli flag and setting it on fire, according to video captured at the scene, a statement from local police and interviews with attendees.

Another pro-Israel attendee was reportedly called a “kike” and punched in the throat, according to a list of incidents compiled by counterdemonstrators. The victim, a man who is not Jewish, had not reported the incident to police as of Monday and J. could not independently verify the claim.

About 100 pro-Palestinian protesters were in attendance, police said. They were met with about two dozen counterdemonstrators, an attendee told J.

In a statement released Monday, the El Cerrito Police Department described a chaotic scene and “many” 911 calls made during the demonstration, which took place between noon and 1 p.m. Demonstrators walked from Albany to El Cerrito, small cities about two miles apart. It was in El Cerrito that the bulk of the clashes took place.

“Many callers reported pushing and shoving, and language they deemed threatening,” the police statement said.

“One incident in particular was clearly of a criminal nature,” the police statement added. “A male protester pushed a woman down to the ground from behind, causing a minor injury, and took her Israel flag from her hands by force. He then burned the flag in the street. This crime was captured on video and is being investigated as a hate crime.”

J. spoke with the victim briefly, but she said that police advised her not to speak to the press while the investigation continues. Police released three photos of the suspect, whose face is also covered by a kaffiyeh, and requested help from the public to identify him.

The incident comes as cities across the Bay Area and around the country continue to see intense and, at times, chaotic demonstrations in support of Palestinians amid the ongoing war. Large demonstrations capturing public attention have shut down major thoroughfares, including the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and New York City’s Holland Tunnel, leading to hundreds of arrests.

Other violent encounters with counterdemonstrators have been reported, including in San Francisco, where the day after Hamas terrorists attacked Israel and killed 1,200, a pro-Palestinian rally downtown sparked face-to-face screaming matches between protesters, who also flung objects at one another across a police cordon. In November, a 69-year-old Jewish man died after a confrontation with a pro-Palestinian protester in Thousand Oaks.

On Monday, a pro-Israel demonstrator at San Francisco City Hall confronted a pro-Palestinian protester and angrily grabbed at his face mask, video posted to X shows.

I misjudged the event. It turned out to be close to a mob. Close to a riot.

Faith Meltzer, a 63-year-old Jewish resident of El Cerrito, said she had heard about Saturday’s pro-Palestinian march in her town on NextDoor, a social media app for neighborhood news. She tried to assemble a pro-Israel contingent to attend the rally “as a counter” so that “our point of view would be heard,” she said.

“I’m absolutely for peace,” she said, “but we need our hostages back.”

When Meltzer got there, she realized that “I misjudged the event,” she said. “I thought it was a hyperlocal event. And it turned out to be close to a mob. Close to a riot.”

She said protesters “put megaphones right up to our faces, right into our ears, trying to get us to move.” They were “taunting us with ethnic slurs,” she said.

In one video posted to social media, a man is seen draped in a Palestinian flag, wearing a kaffiyeh over his face, shouting through a megaphone, “If you want them to go back home, all they’ve gotta do is go back to Europe, where they belong.”

In another photo posted to social media, protesters are seen posing for a photo while holding up a sign that says “Hamas.” Pro-Israel counterdemonstrators said a sign condemning the terrorist group was ripped from the hands of one of their group members.

“People were just screaming that you murder babies, you kill babies, you’re a racist, you’re a white supremacist,” said another Jewish pro-Israel attendee who spoke with J., and who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of being targeted. “It felt futile,” she said.

In a statement to J., the protest organizers, a group called Albany and El Cerrito — Ceasefire Now!, said it was “aware that folks on both sides allegedly interacted inappropriately, which we regret.”

Elena Colomba draws a Star of David at a Thousand Oaks street corner where a Jewish pro-Israel protester, Paul Kessler, was killed during an altercation, Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Jacob Gurvis)
Elena Colomba draws a Star of David at a Thousand Oaks street corner where a Jewish pro-Israel protester, Paul Kessler, was killed during an altercation, Nov. 7, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Jacob Gurvis)

“As organizers of the Rally and March for a Ceasefire Resolution in Albany and El Cerrito we are committed to non-violent peaceful protest,” the statement said. “Our only goal is to save lives on both sides and to get immediate humanitarian aid to victims.”

“We won’t let a few instigators or others spreading lies on social media distract from our message,” an Instagram post from the group added.

The East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America was also present at the event. The DSA did not respond to J.’s email seeking comment.

Meltzer said members of her group made “dozens” of calls to 911 during the event.

“We felt completely and totally on our own,” she said, adding that she was “grabbed” and “pushed” by the same man who took the flag of the alleged assault victim.

“It was just absolutely frightening,” she said. “These are small towns. This is not what I expect in a small town.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.