OAKLAND — Morning Star Gali was born into social activism.

Her first breath came 30 years ago in the basement of the American Indian Movement organization in Oakland, and she was nurtured on social causes.

Her father, the late Isidro Ramos Gali, was imprisoned for his involvement with the Third World Liberation Front during the group's battle to bring an ethnic studies program to San Francisco State.

Gali, now with three children of her own, has engaged in anti-war protests, Native American rights actions, reproductive justice issues, and the infamous tree-sit at UC Berkeley, a futile 21-month effort two years ago to protect an oak grove from being chopped down to make way for a sports training center.

"I've been involved in protests, direct actions and marches my entire life, and I think we accomplished a lot at Cal, even though the trees did get cut down," Gali said.

With its vibrant history of social activism, the Bay Area is almost daily the stage for some sort of protest, ranging from large-scale rallies that attract hundreds — such as Saturday's May Day rallies for immigration reform — to a handful of sign-toting activists picketing a fast-food outlet's use of a clown to hawk fatty foods to children.

The many demonstrations — which often draw the same groups of protesters — might raise questions about the ultimate effectiveness of grass-roots social justice and whether "protest fatigue" and the occasional violence that can erupt hampers the activist message.


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Yet Gali and others who have dedicated their lives to activism say they provide a vital voice that ultimately leads to change.

"If there wasn't this grass-roots base organizing in the streets, if there wasn't a cause that we're shining light onto, then there wouldn't be these campaigns that are being taken to the federal level and the international arena," she said. "It's the firsthand voices that are fighting on the front lines on behalf of their people."

A range of tactics

Medea Benjamin agrees that using an array of strategies to inspire change is the most effective approach. As co-founder of the anti-war group CodePink and the fair-trade advocacy group Global Exchange, Benjamin, 57, has been involved in her share of high-profile protests, and now splits her time between the Bay Area and Washington, D.C.

"I don't think protesting is good as an isolated tactic," Benjamin said. "It gives visibility to other tactics that might be behind the scenes but are otherwise more effective. ... You have to show people in elected positions that their constituents — business leaders, religious leaders, heads of community organizations, union leaders — are united on this."

The sheer numbers of high-visibility activists can give rise to terms such as "professional protester." Local activists bristle at the term, which they say implies insincerity and that a protest exists for the protest's sake.

"I don't really buy this category of a 'professional protester,'" said Henry Norr, 64, of Berkeley. "I do it — and I think all the other people do it — because we believe in the causes."

Norr was a reporter and technology columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle for five years before he was let go in 2003 after he called in sick to take part in a protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and got arrested in the process.

He is involved with the International Solidarity Movement and has been a source of information about Tristan Anderson, the 39-year-old former Berkeley tree sitter who was shot in the head with a tear-gas canister in March 2009 during a West Bank protest and remains in a Tel Aviv, Israel, hospital in serious condition.

"One hopes that a demonstration will put some pressure on the people with the power, whether it's a politician or a company," Norr said. "Even when there are just 50 people at a protest, it's still worth doing because it shows there is a constituency that cares enough about this to take time out of their day to carry signs and chant slogans."

Crossing the line

Still, protests can escalate beyond signs and slogans.

Consider the protests after the death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, who was unarmed when he was shot in the back Jan. 1, 2009, by a BART police officer. A rally and march against the shooting devolved into a near-riot in Oakland, where cars were burned and store windows were smashed. Months later, outrage over University of California fee increases and other issues has led to a host of violent actions, including a late-night march on the chancellor's on-campus residence, where protesters broke windows and caused other damage. Other campus events have led to building occupations and vandalism.

And on March 4, those claiming to be part of an anarchist group ran onto Interstates 980 and 880 in Oakland, snarling rush-hour traffic during what were otherwise peaceful rallies against education cuts.

Some groups have taken to the Internet to promote extreme actions. A few days before the March 4 events, an anonymous listing posted on the online message board IndyBay.org, a Bay Area-based media site, encouraged people to "Occupy everything. Fight everywhere."

Another group passed out fliers this year before a protest related to the Grant case, encouraging people to "mask up, bring the paint, bring the ruckus" and engage in "black bloc" tactics, in which individuals wear black clothing, ski masks and helmets with padding to avoid being identified.

One 28-year-old man who would not give his name but identified himself as an anarchist during the March 4 freeway disruption defended the vandalism. "What's some property damage compared to the violence being perpetrated by the police every single day?" he said.

Others argue that extremism merely creates a backlash.

"The occupation of the freeway, for instance, was unacceptable, and indeed monstrous," said John Searle, a UC Berkeley philosophy professor who was a faculty member active in the Free Speech Movement at Cal in the 1960s. He said he witnessed the effectiveness of those demonstrations 50 years ago, but says many protests today, especially student protests, are misguided and therefore ineffective.

"It is ridiculous self-indulgence to think that the protest is more important (than the message)," he said.

The freeway occupation "was an event of self-indulgent imbecility," he said. "However, this should not distract from the many, maybe thousands of people who were seriously trying to communicate something to Sacramento."

One of the most vocal and organized protest groups in the East Bay is By Any Means Necessary, taking the famous Jean-Paul Sartre/Malcolm X quote to the extreme. The group claims to be building a new "civil rights movement" and usually has protests, marches or demonstrations several times a month. Primarily a student- and youth-based organization, the group formed in 1995 in response to the UC regents' decision to ban affirmative action in the university system. By Any Means Necessary says its protests helped persuade the regents to approve a mostly symbolic resolution reversing the regents' ban in 2001, although state anti-affirmative action laws remain in effect.

Ronald Cruz, 32, is a staff attorney for By Any Means Necessary and has been involved with the group since he came to Berkeley as an 18-year-old undergraduate. Cruz said group members were involved in the November protest on the UC Berkeley campus, in which about 40 people occupied Wheeler Hall to protest a 32 percent student fee increase.

"If one is going to have any influence on the direction that our country is going, students and (the) community have to organize themselves collectively," he said.

Benjamin of CodePink says it's rare for protests to turn violent.

"Ninety-nine percent are peaceful protests," she said. "Sometimes there's property destruction, but it's oftentimes exaggerated in the media. Hundreds of thousands of people will be out there, and a dozen people will break windows. That's what gets the attention."

Message's resonance

Still, a peaceful group of people joining for a cause does have power, said state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. She and her husband, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, have seen hundreds of protests over the years, and Hancock feels demonstrations are essential to send a message to legislators.

"Even during my time in the Legislature I've seen peaceful demonstrations make a difference," she said. "Just recently, the students occupying the UC buildings in Santa Cruz and L.A. — those were peaceful and they got the devastating situation of higher-education funding (cuts) on the front pages. And the governor did subsequently say he would try to restore some of the funding if possible.

"Of course, the actions are not effective when the tactics become the focus of attention," she said. "Then, the message gets lost."