I Was There in Berkeley Too — What the Media Got Wrong

Many at the August 27 mobilization have been surprised by the media’s portrayal of events. Articles like  What the Media Got Wrong About Last Weekend’s Protests in Berkeley gives a more nuanced perspective. As one of the organizers, this is mine.

I Was There in Berkeley Too — What the Media Got Wrong

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Sunday was my birthday. I spent most of it on the back of a flatbed truck that was leading the mobilization to Resist Racist Violence and Hate in Berkeley. It was a fitting way to mark the day. There would be time for celebration later. In this historical moment, I felt it was important to show up and let white supremacists know that we would not tolerate their presence in our community.

When these forces first announced they were coming to the Bay Area, there was debate among progressives and liberals about how to respond. “Just ignore them,” seemed to be a common mantra. “It just emboldens them even more.” Then there were the arguments about free speech and that racists and fascists were protected under the First Amendment.

This was not an issue of free speech, despite their attempts to frame it this way. As civil rights attorney Dan Siegel pointed out, “Arguing about the free speech rights of Nazis, fascists, and KKK members is a trap. The issue is not speech, it is violence. The fascists do not want to argue with us, they want to kill us.”

I wondered if this is what folks felt like in 1930s Germany as a fringe group of fanatics began to stage rallies and marches until eventually their leader, Adolf Hitler, took power. We know where that led.

For those of us who are part of SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice is more than just our name. It’s a commitment. Sometimes showing up can be uncomfortable but not that hard — like attending a workshop on gentrification or making a donation to fund a Black-led community group. But sometimes, it means taking risks. In fact, it’s one of SURJ’s organizational values: “People of color take risks every day by living and moving through the world. We commit to challenging ourselves to be outside our comfort zones when doing this work. While we take on real risk, we know that the risk is always greater for people of color.”

We decided to forge ahead, calling for people to join us on Sunday, August 27 to say no to racism and hate, to stand strong for Black lives and racial justice, and shoulder to shoulder against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, trans/homophobia and the scapegoating of immigrants. Not across town, but right there in the heart of Berkeley. How disgraceful that white supremacists who believe in the genocide of Black people would dare to gather in a park that bears the name of the great civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So be it. We would gather across the street from them and drown out their hate with our love, chants, and songs.

Then came the events in Charlottesville. The vile hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, and violence of white supremacists and fascists was on full display. Social justice activist Heather Heyer was killed and many others injured while marching peacefully for racial justice.

One instance in Charlottesville stood out to me. Scholar and author Cornell West talked about an incident he was involved in as he stood arm-in-arm with 20 clergy members and social justice activists singing This Little Light of Mine. Military-style units of white nationalists began shouting and cursing in their faces. “Some of them were screaming and spitting slurs [as they] physically shoved clergy aside with their shields.” West says it was antifa — antifacist protesters — who protected the clergy from being “crushed like cockroaches” by white nationalists. “They saved our lives, actually… I will never forget that,” West said.

We were determined to show up on Sunday. Yet there were also serious implications given that we knew the white supremacists and fascists were capable of violence. The far right had demonstrated just that in their previous Northern California rallies, in Sacramento in 2016 and in April 2017 in Berkeley. People who came out to oppose the white supremacists had been beaten and even stabbed. We’ve witnessed these forces emboldened and protected by the Trump administration as they attacked vulnerable communities of color, queer and trans people, mosques and synagogues. We had to do what we could to insure people’s safety.

A coalition of Black and immigrant, interfaith, anti-racist, anti-fascist, LBGTQ, and civil rights groups came together. We contemplated what it would take to build a strong, unified front, made up of a broad spectrum of political leanings and tendencies. We knew we had to be prepared. After all, we had no idea how many white supremacists and Nazis would actually show up.

We also knew we could not rely on the police to protect us. The constant barrage of videos showing the police murders of Black and Brown people was a wake-up call for many white people in this country but were nothing new for communities of color long subjected to police repression and terror.

Within a short period of time, our coalition built a powerful infrastructure for the mobilization. We held information sessions to prepare folks to come out coupled with trainings in de-escalation and security. We assembled teams of medics and legal observers, media spokespersons and police liaisons. We coordinated with other actions planned that same day, in particular with the one organized by the Interfaith community who would congregate at a nearby church and then march to meet up with us in front of Berkeley’s old city hall. A third massive march would come down to the park after a UC Berkeley rally.

Together we forged agreements that included: We agree not to speak nor verbally respond to white supremacists as individuals. We will chant and sing as a group. We agree not to initiate physical contact nor engage in fights with white supremacists. We agree to respect all groups protesting the nazis/white supremacists and agree to not publicly criticize the tactics or politics of these organizations or individuals.

August 27 was a victory, a powerful display of unity. Thousands of people came together — community members, students, trade unionists, the faith community, LGBTQ folks, people of all races and ethnicities, all abilities, young and old — to directly confront hate speech and hate action. The presence of antifa forces are why not one of us was injured, and, thankfully, no one was killed.

The rally was knit together with a spirit of unity, as Isaac Lev Szmonko of Catalyst Project recalled: “The power of the crowd was in its deep unity of purpose. We saw faith leaders thank antifa over the microphone. We saw Holocaust survivors and their descendants declaring, “Hate speech leads to Holocausts.” We saw pastors from Black churches drawing from centuries of resistance to white supremacist violence.”

Thousands of people experienced a hopeful, love-filled, inspiring rally against racism and fascism. Yet across the board, corporate media focused on a few isolated incidents with sensationalist headlines that declared “Violence breaks out at Berkeley Protest” and “Peaceful Anti-Hate Protests Turn Violent in Berkeley.” These reports focused exclusively on our defensive line made up of black-clad anti-fascists. The press amplfied the few incidents where white supremacists were forcibly pushed out of the park. We know the media promotes these narratives to sell newspapers and get clicks. But we also know the framework of white supremacy permeates every aspect of our society, including the media, and fuels narratives that reinforce the status quo.

As Tur-ha Ak of Community Ready Corps (CRC) pointed out, “This moment is not about antifa. It’s about crushing dissent.” By going after the group most vulnerable to criticism, he stresses, supporters of the status quo attempt to establish the parameters of what is “good” protesting and what is “bad” protesting “in the service of establishing a baseline of activity that ultimately supports the maintenance of their power or is easily controllable, defeatable, or ineffective.”

Even Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, who likes to call himself a progressive, seemed to be parroting the Trump line that likens the alt-right to antifa. The day after our march and rally, he said, “I think that it’s time to call out groups like the masked anarchists known as Black Bloc. I think we should classify them as a gang.”

The night of our mobilization, I watched a video made by some of the white supremacist leaders who had been chased out of Berkeley earlier that day. It was clear they did not come to the Bay Area because of their devotion to “free speech.” They talked about this being a war. They talked about violence.They talked about accumulating more weapons, about killing us, those who stand against them.

That same day, their beloved President Trump rescinded Obama’s ban on sending surplus military weapons and equipment to local police departments. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the move the next morning in Nashville at the convention of the Fraternal Order of Police, the body most responsible for upholding the brutal and racist practices of its members.

So let’s be very clear who is the problem here — and who is not. Look closely at the violence, murder, and hatred perpetrated by white supremacists and look at their enablers from city government all the way to the White House. Look at the racism and brutality that permeates the ranks of local, state, and national law enforcement agencies. Look at the role of the media, trying to sow divisions among those who come out to protest by demonizing one sector of the protesters. Look closely and you will see the problem is not antifa.

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Postscript — If you were at the August 27th rally, you can help counter the media’s false narrative. Tweet or share on Facebook your experience using the hashtag #IWasThereBerkeley.