Bay Area resistance scares away the alt-reich

Luke Pickrell reports on how weeks of anti-racist organizing forced the bigots to change its plans--another step forward in the nationwide fight against the far right.

Thousands turned out in Berkeley, California, to counter the far right (Josh On | SW)Thousands turned out in Berkeley, California, to counter the far right (Josh On | SW)

WHITE SUPREMACISTS and neo-Nazis were forced to cancel two long-hyped events in San Francisco and Berkeley this weekend after the anti-racist majority made it clear that they would mobilize and stand up to hate and violence.

Instead of the far right's ugly message of hate getting a hearing, the streets of the Bay Area were clogged with jubilant counterprotesters on August 26 and 27, who celebrated turning the racists away.

Since July, when anti-racists learned that two far-right groups were coming to the Bay Area, they have been organizing to mobilize numbers large enough to drown out their ugly bigotry, including a Bay Area Rally Against Hate that pulled together dozens of unions, student and community groups, socialists and other organizations in a show of strength against the fascists.

After the white supremacist murder of Heather Heyer at a counterprotest in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, Bay Area activists intensified their organizing--and found an audience eager to make their voices heard. This sentiment was affirmed again when some 25,000 people turned out to march against the far right in Boston on August 19.

On August 26, a San Francisco rally called by the group "Patriot Prayer" was canceled by its founder Joey Gibson, who cited "safety concerns." The group tried to replace the canceled rally with a "news conference," but was sent packing a second time after the city closed off Alamo Square Park in anticipation of massive protests.

Gibson slinked off to hold his conference in Daly City alongside Kyle "Based Stickman" Chapman, who was arraigned the day before on a charge of felony possession of a billy club.

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ON SUNDAY, all eyes turned across the bay to Berkeley, where the bigots were planning a "Say No to Marxism in America" rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

Throughout this year, Berkeley has become a target for far-right groups and white nationalist organizations like Identity Evropa and Proud Boys. At past rallies in Berkeley, these "suit-and tie Nazis" have mingled with Trump supporters and traditional skinhead groups. The result in April was an orgy of violence and hate by thugs who rampaged through the streets.

Gibson and Amber Cummings, who called Sunday's rally in Berkeley, want to provide cover to the far right by claiming to denounce white supremacists--while in reality, they welcome them to recruit at these demonstrations.

All of these groups cynically rally in the name of "free speech," but their actions in Portland and Charlottesville show what they're really about: violence and terror.

On her Facebook event page, Amber Cummings, a transgender woman known as "Based Tranny" by her supporters made clear why the hatemongers are targeting Berkeley:

Berkeley is a ground zero for the Marxist Movement and we need to speak out and say NO to Marxism. This event is our chance to speak out and expose the plan of purging our nation from a free nation to a communist nation. We will not tolerate this in America. So we are asking people to come stand against Marxism.

But just like in San Francisco the day before, Cummings canceled the August 27 rally, citing safety concerns for the right-wing protesters. In a bizarre statement, Cummings told supporters not to show up, but that she would go alone.

Opponents of racism turned out, however--in large numbers. Thousands of counterprotesters took to the streets of Berkeley several hours before the far right's canceled rally was scheduled to begin.

The Bay Area Rally Against Hate pulled together an impressive coalition of more than 100 endorsing organizations in the lead-up to the day of protest, including the International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Berkeley Federation of Teachers, Labor for Standing Rock, SEIU 1021, AFSCME 3299, the Alameda County Labor Council, Alameda for Black Lives, the Muslim Student Association and many more.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and other city officials urged residents to stay out of the streets and ignore the right on August 27, but organizers stood strong, issuing a statement in the week before the event that stated: "[T]he most effective response to the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups is responding to them with the widest possible numbers in a broad multi-racial coalition."

In the end, Arreguín, who tried for weeks to disorganize the anti-racist protest, had to reverse his stance and welcome a show of opposition against hate.

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IN THE lead-up to the rally, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley was granted emergency powers, including the right to ban items that city officials decide can be used as weapons. This gave the police the go-ahead to arbitrarily harass and arrest anti-fascist demonstrators.

As rally organizers foresaw, these powers for the police were "an actual attack on the right to free speech for our side as well. We are also concerned that the authorities may use their expanded powers to target the oppressed, not the far right. This concern is brought to the forefront as there have been numerous reports of white supremacist organizations infiltrating police departments."

By early morning on Sunday, some 200 counterprotesters had gathered at the edge of the University of California (UC)-Berkeley, where police erected concrete barriers around the original location for the Bay Area Rally Against Hate, barring anyone who didn't abide to a draconian list of rules.

Unfazed, anti-racist protesters left the confines of the sidewalk with chants of "Whose streets? Our streets!" By mid-day, some 3,000 people had gathered in the streets, with garbage trucks blocking oncoming cars and the police powerless to intervene for the moment. Handfuls of right-wingers attempted to harass the large gathering, but they were kept at bay by marshals and eventually expelled.

One of the anti-fascist demonstrators was a young man named Thao. "These are important times," said the Oakland native. "These events will go down in history like the '60s and '70s, and your kids will ask about it."

Helios, who was also from Oakland, said that unity can push the Nazis back. "Ignoring them makes them stronger, and facing them makes them weak," Helios said.

It was a promising sign for future organizing against the right that so many union locals added their names to the list of endorsers, but they missed an opportunity to mobilize members to turn out in large and organized numbers.

There were a few noticeable labor contingents, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which drew a loud cheer at Saturday's counterprotest in San Francisco, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose members voted to organize a work action against the fascists on Saturday. Mainly, though, union members attended the protest as individuals.

UC Berkeley students also took to the streets. Anna, who is from Barcelona, said she was concerned that the neo-Nazi movement would grow globally. But she expressed optimism that counterprotests would take shape during the upcoming school year, when the university plans to host Steven Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos during "Free Speech Week."

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WHEN THE police lines pushed the Bay Area Rally Against Hate out of its original site, speakers nevertheless climbed onto a mobile soundstage to address the growing crowd.

Alpana Mehta of the ISO, who had marched in Boston the weekend before, brought solidarity greetings from the other side of the continent. "Just like in Boston, just like in San Francisco, we now have fascists on the run in Berkeley," she said.

Akua Ofori, a member of UAW Local 5810, crystallized the message of defiance, even in the face of a far right that is mobilizing and growing in strength: "We will not be silent in the face of intimidation and violence. Mass action is our best weapon."

Kathryn Lybarger, president of AFSCME Local 3299, representing 2,500 UC Berkeley workers, then led the crowd in the chant, "No hate, no fear! Nazis get out of here! "

Solidarity was the theme of the program, as speakers from religious organizations, unions and community groups emphasized how the alt-right and white supremacists target all of us. "An injury to one is and injury to all" was the slogan of the day.

Speakers from three socialist organizations closed out the presentations. "It's no secret why they are coming after Marxists," boomed Bianca Misse from La Voz de los Trabajadores. "We are the ones who stand with the oppressed. The ones who tear down barriers when they build them. The ones who denounce wars. The ones who hold rallies without checkpoints so people can bring their children and banners!"

Molly Armstrong, chair of the East Bay DSA declared: "Solidarity is knowing that another person's humanity is inextricably linked to your own."

Finally, the ISO's Mukund Rathi reminded the crowd that the liberal establishment must be opposed as part of challenging the white supremacists, whether they are in the street or occupy the White House.

In the audience was Susan Bell from Berkeley, who said the mobilization of "people promoting hate" drove her into action. Bell and her companion said they were in the streets for to make sure the next generation doesn't grow up in a world of hate.

Also present, surrounded by family and supporters, was 95-year-old Holocaust survivor Ben Stern, who lived through nine different concentration camps. His grandson, David, said they were all out to fight white supremacy.

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AROUND NOON, a part of the rally began marching toward City Hall and the right-wing rally site, where a small handful of bigots had collected.

The marchers were cheered on by onlookers from the sidewalk, some of them young children, who waved and danced to the beat of drummers leading the procession. A massive "Trump, Grand Dragon of Racist White Supremacy, Out Now" sign moved through the crowd.

At Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park itself, police had a massive presence to try to head off any clashes between right-wing and left-wing demonstrators. A smaller group of anti-fascists had gathered from early on in an attempt to physically confront the fascists who turned up. Eventually, they were able to break through the police barricades, where a few individuals of the far right faced the anger of the crowd.

The police, who were armed to the teeth with crowd-control gear, including gas masks and armor, attacked the anti-fascist demonstrators. More than 10 people were arrested.

Nevertheless, the march back from the Civic Center park back to the original rally site was celebratory--an acknowledgement that the far right, which had had its way in several demonstrations this spring, had to retreat this time in the face of a large anti-Nazi mobilization.

Mainstream media reports focused on the images of tear-gassing and street fighting--this is what they would like us to think of when they talk about anti-fascist opposition in the Bay Area. But this is only a part of the opposition to the far right.

The full story of the Bay Area last weekend is the many thousands of people who turned out to confront the right on Saturday and Sunday--their actions will lay the basis for the even larger numbers who will need to come out the next time.

The far right wants to make Berkeley--the home of the Free Speech Movement--into its battleground, hiding behind the banner of "freedom of speech" that they have twisted for their own purposes.

But in the Bay Area this weekend, the anti-racist majority finally had the chance to speak out--and the alt-reich was forced to turn tail and flee.

Elizabeth Schulte contributed to this article.