The far right goes on a rampage in Berkeley
The liberal San Francisco Bay Area city of Berkeley has become the prime target for violent far-right individuals and organizations emboldened by the reign of Donald Trump.
Their latest provocation on April 15 shows the physical threat that the far right represents as it gains confidence–and underlines the urgent need for all those who oppose bigotry and reaction to mobilize in large numbers to show that the racists will be opposed whenever they try to claim the streets.
While thousands joined Tax Day marches in cities across the U.S. to oppose the billionaire president and demand he release his tax returns, several factions of the “alt right” and “patriots movement” mobilized up and down the West Coast to bring 150 or more goons to the so-called Patriots Day rally organized by the local Berkeley Liberty Revival Alliance.
Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza and the area around it, adjacent to the municipal administration building, police headquarters and Berkeley High School, was transformed into a bloody battlefield as the racists clashed with a smaller number of anti-racist demonstrators, mainly those who call themselves “antifas.”
The far right’s rally was ostensibly called to protest supposed violations of the free speech rights of conservative speakers in Berkeley, famously the site of the mid-1960s Free Speech Movement struggles at the University of California at Berkeley.
The UC Berkeley administration did cancel two speaking events organized by the College Republicans to feature notorious right-wing provocateurs Milo Yiannopoulos and David Horowitz, and there is controversy now over whether Ann Coulter will be allowed to speak in late April.
But in the best-known of these conflicts, Yiannopoulos’ speech was called off on February 1 by UC officials after a 2,000-strong demonstration ringed the site of the speech to show that Berkeley students and the community oppose his reactionary rants.
Right-wingers have been looking ever since to take revenge in Berkeley, not so much against the UC administration as the larger number of people who had the courage to show their revulsion for the right’s one-time hero Yiannopoulos. As David Neiwert of the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out, organizers of the April 15 rally referred to it on social media as “the Next Battle of Berkeley.”
On April 15 itself, the true intentions of the far right–to target liberals, the left and oppressed people for violence and intimidation–were exposed by their words and their deeds.
“I don’t mind hitting,” Stewart Rhodes told the Los Angeles Times when asked about his attitude toward left-wing counterdemonstrators. “In fact, I would kind of enjoy it.”
Rhodes is the founder of the Oath Keepers militia, reportedly composed of former law enforcement and military personnel. Rhodes claimed to have brought about 50 militia members with him from Montana to the Berkeley rally.
Members of the Proud Boys, a bizarre masculinist and Western chauvinist fraternity founded by Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes, were also looking for a fight.
Days before the Berkeley rampage, McInnes introduced a new initiation ritual for the Proud Boys that involves getting in “a major fight for the cause.” “You get beat up,” McInnes reportedly said, or “kick the crap out of an antifa.”
Unlike the mass protest against Yiannopoulos in February, the majority of the counterdemonstrators against the far-right goons were individuals who consider themselves part of the “antifa” current, which sees physical confrontations with the right a goal of its mobilizations.
There are several problems with their strategy, but one of most obvious became evident on April 15 when the antifas were apparently outnumbered by a much larger-than-expected turnout by the racists. The antifas used some of their usual tactics in engaging the right-wingers, but were generally overwhelmed and pushed back.
The media treated the entire event as a street brawl with victims on both sides, but videos of the confrontations and accounts of people who were there show that the right was on the offensive, while police intervened with pepper spray and violence of their own directed at both right-wingers and counterdemonstrators.
Nathan Damigo, founder of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, was caught on video punching a counterprotester in the face.
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was also punched while acting as a street medic. “Some random person ran up out of nowhere and clocked me in the face,” Albert (not his real name) said in an interview. “I chipped my tooth and had a black eye.”
“I’d say we had half as many folks as them, maybe a bit more than half,” Albert said. “We were definitely outnumbered, they were definitely more organized and much more militant.”
Another DSA member joined the counterdemonstration with some friends to show that there was an opposition, but they didn’t come to fight. “Once the brawl got into the street, [the right wing] had weapons,” said Lucy (not her real name). “People hit each other with poles and sticks and bike locks. One old boy had a gun in his pocket.”
Lucy recalled how “we just kept getting pushed farther and farther back” for several city blocks. “I was scared sometimes when the streets were filled with smoke bombs and tear gas, and everyone was running. You couldn’t tell who was who, and you just kind of ran.”
“I saw a guy wearing a shirt that said he provided legal justice aid for incarcerated people get pummeled by a zillion guys,” Lucy said. “It was a lot of head punching.”
The police reportedly arrested 21 people, but a Mother Jones writer reported that most of the right-wing fighters “walked away scot-free and full of pride about this supposed victory.” Eleven people were injured, with six hospitalized.
There was an earlier street battle in Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza on March 4 when local right-wing activists organized a smaller demonstration on a day Trump supporters were encouraged to rally and show support for the president. The right wingers were outnumbered that day.
But this was nothing like the mass protest on February 1 against then-Breitbart News contributor Yiannopoulos, who planned to give a speech on campus sponsored by the Berkeley College Republicans.
It was rumored that Yiannopoulos would be launching a campaign to target undocumented students and their supporters on sanctuary campuses like Berkeley. But he and the College Republicans were unable to carry out this plan after they were confronted by some 2,000 or more students and community members chanting, “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!”
The February 1 protest was inaccurately portrayed in the media as violent because a contingent of 100 or so masked Black Bloc activists carried out their own unannounced action–starting more than an hour after the much larger picket had begun–setting off fireworks and smoke bombs, pulling down police barricades, breaking windows and starting fires.
Reports of small numbers of far-right Yiannopoulos supporters trying attempting to intimidate protesters were ignored in almost every mainstream media account. Eventually, university administrators canceled the event, citing safety concerns.
As Berkeley law student Mukund Rathi, an organizer of the larger protest, wrote at SocialistWorker.org, “[T]he tactics of the Black Bloc minority…purposefully sideline the majority of the protesters and foreground their actions, giving everyone from the university administration to the corporate media to the right-wingers themselves an excuse to ignore the issues raised by the wider crowd, and shift their attention to the ‘violence’.”
Now the far right has gotten its revenge, and it won’t abandon Berkeley where it has had an attention-getting success. But our side is weaker–in part because the Black Bloc tactics that attract so much attention of their own don’t function as an effective deterrent against the right.
The far right has shown what it is capable of in mobilizing for a riot in Berkeley on April 15. There is an urgent need to confront them before they gain any further confidence.
The left needs to rebuild the mass popular opposition that turned out several thousand people back in February. We can show, using our strength in numbers, that the far right won’t go unopposed.
This article originally appeared on SocialistWorker.org.