A lull in Berkeley and Oakland, where protests are steeped in tradition

Protesters of police brutality planned another march one recent night, but whether because of rain or passage of time since the latest provocation, only about 50 people came.

They projected video of previous protests onto a concrete wall in a downtown plaza. They smoked joints and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon and Jim Beam.

“It’s been really intense here,” one man said, “so showing footage is a way to reflect.”

The occasion followed several days of relative calm in Oakland and Berkeley, a lull after protesters in recent weeks blocked freeways, smashed windows, looted stores and chained themselves to a police headquarters’ doors.

Yet tension persists. Plywood-covered windows line Broadway Avenue. Demonstrations are planned for later this week, part of an ongoing response to grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men in New York and Ferguson, Mo.

“What I’ve heard is they’re planning to do something, if you can believe, on Christmas Day,” said Tom Bates, the mayor of Berkeley.

His city is accustomed to unrest, with a protest tradition dating back to civil rights, the Vietnam War and sit-ins at UC Berkeley.

Robert Cohen, a New York University professor who co-edited the book “The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s,” said that decades after civil rights uprisings it is “depressing to see that we’re still kind of dealing with the same issue.”

“It shouldn’t be necessary for people to be stopping traffic or holding demonstrations to get an indictment for someone who killed somebody,” Cohen said. “That’s a sign of things being dysfunctional and not functioning properly. Something’s wrong.”

Across the country, protesters over the weekend demonstrated at the Mall of America outside Minneapolis, and two police officers were killed in an ambush in New York.

The city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, called on protesters Monday to stop demonstrating until after the officers are buried. Meanwhile, protest organizers condemned the killing and moved to distance the movement from it.

Cat Brooks, a protest organizer in Oakland, said protesters here will continue with “militant, disciplined, nonviolent civil disobedience.”

She said, “I think that we are either in the beginnings of or on the precipice of the next large social justice movement in this country.”

Protesters have expressed any number of goals for that movement since the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. There are calls for justice, but also more specific, and seemingly achievable, policy appeals – body cameras for police, changes to the grand jury system.

“That’s good, because that’s something that authorities can respond to, and those are things that campaigns can be built around because they’re concrete,” said Lynne Hollander Savio, the widow of Mario Savio, one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement.

But protests then were accompanied by long periods of negotiation with authorities, Hollander Savio said. She feared the current protesters might damage their cause with their “very quick rush to civil disobedience.”

“Now it’s time for people to think really strategically,” she said. “Is it good strategy to sit in the middle of highways and alienate people who might otherwise be on your side?”

John Searle, a philosophy professor who joined with students in the Free Speech Movement years ago at Berkeley, suggested it is not.

“The problem is that the message that gets across is the wrong message,” he said. “The message is that we’ve got to do something to stop these people from shutting down the freeways.”

If protesters are seeking social justice, Searle said, “then I would say, for example, you might vote in congressional elections ... You achieve more by actually getting power than you do by just running around in the streets.”

To protesters, the disruption is purposeful. Breaking windows generates headlines, but it also offers commentary on the significance of property in the American judicial system. Blocking a freeway or an intersection affords a degree of power to people who have little, and the inconvenience forces passers-by to pay attention.

“It’s to disrupt business as usual and say there will be no business as usual until there’s an end to the police being able to act as judge, jury and executioner with absolute impunity and zero accountability,” said Mollie Costello, a community organizer in Oakland.

Costello said that while “it seems like for most of America the tipping point was Mike Brown or Eric Garner, here in Oakland we’d already gone through (it)” with the police shooting deaths of Oscar Grant in 2009 and Alan Blueford in 2012.

Now, said Costello, a friend of Blueford’s mother, “the time has come once again when the people are uniting and rising up.”

In Oakland on Friday night, the crowd was racially diverse and skewed young.

As the film played, protesters updated Twitter and talked about how “the lines are being drawn” between police and protesters.

“Riots are a form of political negotiation,” one of the protesters said.

But on this night there was no riot. The film ended and the protesters left the plaza, several for pizza.

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.