Who was the real threat in Berkeley?

September 7, 2017

Alex Schmaus, who helped to organize last month's Bay Area Rally Against Hate, counters the complaints of liberals and conservatives alike about anti-fascist protesters.

A DELUGE of denunciations of Antifa and the Black Bloc followed the successful anti-fascist mobilizations in the San Francisco Bay Area on August 26 and 27.

Donald Trump set the tone a few days earlier at a Phoenix speech in which he echoed the talking points of the neo-Nazi terrorists who murdered Heather Heyer by focusing mainly on the alleged violence of anti-fascist counterdemonstrators. "They show up in the helmets and the black masks," Trump said. "And they've got clubs and they've got everything--Antifa!"

But the torrent of public criticism intensified when Democratic Party leaders and liberal pundits adopted the Trump line after the counterprotests in San Francisco and Berkeley vastly outnumbered the handful of right-wingers who showed up.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin declared: "I think we should classify them as a gang. They come dressed in uniforms. They have weapons, almost like a militia, and I think we need to think about that in terms of our law enforcement approach."

Arreguin went further, threatening anti-racist demonstrators who did not participate in Black Bloc actions that involved some clashes with right-wingers. "We also need to hold accountable and encourage people not to associate with these extremists because it empowers them and gives them cover," Arreguin said.

Berkeley police on the streets during protests against the alt-right
Berkeley police on the streets during protests against the alt-right (Thomas Hawk | flickr)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, was even more blunt in a statement backing up Arreguin on August 29. "Our democracy has no room for inciting violence or endangering the public," she said. "The violent actions of people calling themselves Antifa in Berkeley this weekend deserve unequivocal condemnation, and the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted."

Corporate media outlets predictably followed suit, with, for example, neoconservative commentator Marc Thiessen writing in the Washington Post that Antifa "are no different than neo-Nazis." The San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial that sermonized, "the hate and the violence [that anti-fascists] exhibited were despicable."

Even some segments of the left piled on. Truthdig published an August 27 commentary by author and journalist Chris Hedges in which he wrote that anti-fascists and the Black Bloc are motivated by "the same lust for violence" as the neo-Nazis of the alt-right.

ALL THESE words may have terrible material consequences for anti-fascist and anti-racist activists--in the form of escalated repression.

On September 1, Politico reported that the Department of Homeland Security formally classified Antifa activities as "domestic terrorist violence" as early as 2016.

After an earlier confrontation between anti-fascists and the far right in Berkeley on April 15, the only person charged was an anti-fascist, who faces four felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon and one misdemeanor count of wearing a mask to evade identification. Internet trolls from the 4chan website supposedly identified the counterdemonstrator as the masked person caught on video striking a far-right demonstrator with a bike lock.

As for the most recent confrontation in Berkeley between anti-fascists and the far right on August 27, 13 people were arrested in total--and 11 were anti-fascist and anti-racist activists. The only one to be charged so far is a San Francisco State University student who faces two misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.

The legal repression exposes anti-fascist and anti-racist activists to further harassment or worse from the far right. National Lawyers Guild members Nina Farnia, Rachel Lederman, and Meredith Wallis explained exactly what this looks like in a September 6 San Francisco Chronicle commentary:

Our volunteer attorneys, legal workers and clients have received death threats and their personal information publicized to promote harassment, as a result of our defense of Antifa activists. One attorney was stalked inside the courthouse by a man with a swastika tattoo and a shaved head wearing quasi-military-type attire. He then left, and shortly thereafter she received threatening messages and had to seek protection at a safe house. A group of men wearing military-like attire, and one with a swastika tattoo, was seen waiting outside Santa Rita Jail for arrestees to be released. National Lawyers Guild phone lines have been inundated with hate calls.

THE TIDE of criticism of left-wing violence following the counterprotests in Berkeley obscures four basic facts that need to be remembered.

First, the political violence deployed by the far right has been much more extreme than anything the left is responsible for.

It was James Fields and the neo-Nazis of the so-called alt-right who murdered anti-racist activist Heather Heyer and injured several dozen others during the "Unite the Right" demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12.

It was Jeremy Christian who--days after attending a far-right "free speech" rally--murdered Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best when they defended two young women of color on a train in Portland, Oregon in May.

And it was a member of the Facebook group "Alt-Reich: Nation," Sean Urbanski, who murdered African American student Richard Collins III on the University of Maryland campus days before.

Nothing remotely comparable has happened to the alt-reich.

Second, the disrupted far-right demonstrations in San Francisco and Berkeley weren't "free speech rallies." Rather, they were planned attempts to bully and intimidate poor and oppressed people, liberals, and the left.

The far-right forces that were ran out of town in the Bay Area were led by violent goons like Kyle Chapman, a 41-year-old Daly City resident who was recently charged with felony possession of a leaded stick. Chapman, known as Based Stickman by supporters, became notorious after being caught on video striking anti-fascist activists over the head with his stick at a previous far right demonstration in Berkeley in March.

Third, the vast majority of anti-fascists and anti-racists who mobilized to defend the Bay Area on August 26 and 27 did nothing more violent than hold a protest sign and weren't part of any group of counterdemonstrators that clashed with individual right-wingers.

Because of the media attention on the relatively small number of people in and around the Black Bloc, some might be surprised to learn that tens of thousands people demonstrated on August 26 and 27. The estimated crowd of anti-fascists in San Francisco on August 26 was as many as 15,000, and 5,000 in Berkeley on August 27. There were solidarity demonstrations in cities across the country--some 2,000 in Chicago, 1,500 in Seattle and more elsewhere.

These were among the largest mobilizations of their kind in the U.S. this year--second only to the mass anti-racist mobilization against the far right in Boston on August 19. In Berkeley, the counterdemonstration against the white supremacists was the largest public demonstration of any kind since fall 2011.

Fourth, the actions of city officials, University of California administrators and the police were the greatest threat to the safety and free-speech rights of the majority who mobilized that weekend, especially in Berkeley.

The author of this article was one of the lead organizers of the Bay Area Rally Against Hate, the largest of the anti-racist demonstrations in Berkeley on August 27.

The Bay Area Rally Against Hate was planned months ahead of time and was endorsed by more than 100 student, labor, and community organizations, as well as liberal and left political groups. It was promoted from the beginning as a peaceful event taking place at the crescent lawn on the edge of the UC campus in downtown Berkeley, near the far-right rally site, but not directly adjacent.

NONE OF this stopped Arreguin, the Berkeley City Council and campus officials from attempting to deny our rights to free speech and assembly.

At a special meeting on August 18, the City Council approved an "urgency ordinance" granting the city manager arbitrary powers for the rest of the year, allowing the city manager to issue temporary regulations for large public events in a zone of the downtown area that included the streets around our proposed rally site.

The regulations involved a list of banned items, including wooden picket sign sticks of any size, beverage or food cans or containers, dogs, eggs, skateboards, balloons and any item that partially covers the face.

Also on August 18, Arreguin urged Berkeley residents to stay away from our rally site in a blog post and on his Facebook page. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and other school officials urged the campus community to stay away from our rally in an e-mail sent on August 25.

The day before the counterprotest, the UC Police Department erected concrete barricades around the perimeter of the crescent lawn where the rally was to take place. Police left open only one narrow passage in and out of the crescent lawn, and threatened to search everyone who entered.

The UCPD issued an even more draconian list of banned items than the city of Berkeley. In addition to the items forbidden by the city, UC banned backpacks and bags, balls, fruit and vegetables, umbrellas, bicycles, scooters, wagons, carts, tents and liquids other than water in factory-sealed, clear plastic bottles.

Faced with a barricaded rally site on August 27, we were forced us to hold our demonstration on Oxford Street, even though this exposed a few thousand demonstrators to an increased risk of vehicular assault.

In obvious attempts at intimidation during our demonstration, Berkeley police officers rode motorcycles through our rally space and threatened to arrest the driver of the flatbed truck that served as our soundstage.

The police did nothing to protect our demonstration from the small groups of far-right provocateurs--one of whom appeared to have a handgun in his pocket--who intermittently harassed our rally. Indeed, we suspect that some of these provocateurs were police themselves.

We had to organize our own safety teams to defend the perimeter of our demonstration and expel the provocateurs who were able to enter our space.

DESPITE THE attempts at intimidation by the police and the far right, we successfully demonstrated what a real "free speech rally" looks like.

Some 4,000 people assembled to express their opposition to the far right and their support for a politics of solidarity. They brought handmade signs, chanted political slogans, and listened to speakers and musicians.

One of the most emotionally resonant moments was when 95-year-old Warsaw Ghetto resister and Holocaust survivor Ben Stern climbed onto our flatbed truck stage to speak. "It's unbelievable what the united people can accomplish," Stern said. "Today, you prove that we stand together against the threat of racism and Nazism."

When Arreguin, flanked by two BPD officers, approached our stage demanding to speak, we said no.

After the anti-hate rally ended, a large group of demonstrators marched down Center Street toward Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, where the far right had said it would assemble. Not only did police endanger demonstrators again by driving motorcycles through the march, but they arrested one of our safety team members who was trying to respond to a provocateur.

When the march arrived at the intersection of Center Street and Milvia Street, we faced a concrete police barricade blocking our direct path to Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

At this point, police outfitted in riot gear lined up around us, blocking three different paths forward. Police snipers could be seen watching us from the rooftops. Arreguin himself, again flanked by two Berkeley police officers, watched the confrontation from an upper-story window of the Civic Center building.

THE DEMOCRATS and campus bureaucrats governing Berkeley, the police dominating our public spaces, the far right that has been only temporarily routed--these are the threats to free speech and public safety, not anti-fascist demonstrators.

As a socialist and an anti-racist activist, I believe the best way to confront and drive back the far right is through the building of a mass movement of resistance, involving a broad array of forces, from labor to students to community organizations, that have a stake in defeating the fascists.

With numbers, we can be more effective in driving back the far right than with a strategy that prioritizes confrontations carried out by a small number of committed activists. We need committed activists, but we need them to help provide discipline, direction and clear political perspectives.

However, the attack on Antifa and the Black Bloc since Berkeley, from liberals as well as the right, has nothing to do with any debate about strategies to fight the far right more effectively. It is merely an attempt to scapegoat and victimize anti-racists.

In response, I'll give the last word to Black clergy members Michael McBride, Traci Blackmon, Frank Reid and Barbara Williams Skinner, who wrote in a New York Times commentary:

The civil rights movement was messy, disorderly, confrontational and yes, sometimes violent. Those standing on the sidelines of the current racial-justice movement, waiting for a pristine or flawless exercise of righteous protest, will have a long wait.

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