Berkeley’s emergency powers to profile
and report from Berkeley on new rules adopted ahead of a far right rally — and why the community turned out to express their opposition.
WITH THE far right planning to return to Berkeley’s streets on August 5 — and with anti-racists organizing to counter their message of hate and violence — the City Council voted overwhelmingly on July 31 to give the Berkeley City Manager emergency powers over “unpermitted street events.”
The justification for these powers is to keep people safe from the threat of violence, which white supremacist groups instigated during their mobilizations in Berkeley last year.
But we know from experience that authorities will use the emergency rules to profile anti-fascist counterdemonstrators as “threats” to safety — and to curb the rights of antiracists to confront the Nazis’ violence.
It was clear from Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s stance at the meeting that passage of the emergency powers had been decided in advance.
Arreguín stated that the Council would vote for the regulations because “Berkeley is fundamentally against hate.” But the reality that these powers are also aimed against counterdemonstrators became clear when Arreguín tried to drive a wedge among anti-racists by commending the “peaceful protest at the Civic Center Park last year.”
Arreguín said that Berkeley police “will be given a very narrow set of tools.” But he then made a fairly clear allusion to Antifa activists, who have attempted to physically confront the far right in the past, by saying “some people showed up to the peaceful protest clearly not trying to be peaceful.”
The City Council vote was 8 to 1, but it didn’t take place without strong opposition from the community. A total of 14 community members addressed the meeting, and all but one opposed the emergency measures.
Some speakers criticized city officials and police for making a false equivalency between fascists and anti-fascists. One speaker was arrested at the protest march against the fascists in August of last year for carrying picket signs.
Opponents of the regulations say that they are designed to divide the community when the priority is to have “Berkeley United Against Hate,” as last year’s slogan put it.
Berkeley’s police chief denied accusations of collaboration between police and the far right, before saying: “I recognize First Amendment speech can and should be loud, it should not be tamped down. But we should ensure safety.” This “neutral” stance can only emboldened the bigots.
WHEN THE far right planned a rally in Berkeley last August, both the city administration and the University of California implemented similar measures that were used against counterdemonstrators.
By the morning of the counterprotest, the original gathering site, the West Crescent Greenway, had been sealed off with concrete barricades, and police set up a single checkpoint to enter through. The cops prepared to search protesters and confiscate banned items, including backpacks, liquids except water in sealed, clear bottles, sticks, signs bigger than 30-inches-by-30-inches, face masks and more.
Organizers recognized that this would present a safety hazard for several thousand attendees — and slow the gathering of counterdemonstrators to a crawl as they attempted to get through the checkpoint.
So organizers decided to spill out into the street, and a truck bed was pulled up to serve as a mobile soundstage. Garbage trucks blocked oncoming cars — an obvious fear after the murder of a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia, two weeks before when a Nazi drove his car into anti-racist marchers — and the police were powerless to intervene.
City Council members made it plain that the organizers’ initiative was the reason for expanding emergency powers to include “unpermitted street events.”
This wasn’t the first time that “safety” became an excuse in Berkeley for profiling left-wing activists. Earlier that spring, when university officials locked down the campus in response to protests over a canceled speech of a conservative writer, the list of banned materials was even longer, and the only person arrested was a Latino graduate student, Jorge-David Mancillas.
The City Council’s effective curbing of protest rights is even more hypocritical given its 5-to-4 vote the week before to allow Berkeley police and firefighters to continue participation in Urban Shield, a weapons expo and SWAT team exercise involving law enforcement from around the world. The struggle by community groups to keep Urban Shield out of the Bay Area has been an ongoing struggle since it began in 2007.
COMMUNITY MEMBERS and organizations from around the Bay Area still plan to confront the far right with a gathering at Ohlone Park in Berkeley. The time of the counterdemonstration had been set for 2 p.m., but with the reactionaries moving their start time to earlier in the day, organizers say people should check the event page on Facebook for any updates.
The right’s mobilization in Berkeley is one among several this weekend and next, where the fascists who were pushed back last year after their Charlottesville violence hope to reassert their strength. The Proud Boys are organizing another rally in Portland, Oregon, on Saturday, and they and other groups say they will come to Berkeley the next day.
In the Bay Area, outrage at the right has heightened after the horrible murder of Nia Wilson in Oakland last week. The need to organize the largest possible opposition to challenge racism couldn’t be more urgent.
As the coalition SAFEBay, one of the organizers of the counterdemonstration, said in a statement:
We think that it is time to get together, celebrate our differences, show our solidarity and speak out against the hateful currents in American society. In that spirit, we are meeting at Ohlone Park to reject white supremacy, speak to each other about the world we want, and reclaim our city, our campus and our democratic rights. Join us, bring signs, bring friends!
The larger our numbers on August 5, the safer our communities and streets will be.