Thousands of people flooded the streets of Berkeley on Sunday, August 27 in response to a “No to Marxism in America” rally that was scheduled to occur in Civic Center Park before its cancellation on August 26. The No to Marxism organizer, Amber Cummings, released a message stating that she would attend the rally alone, and asking supporters not to come.
Berkeley and Bay Area residents went ahead with counter-protest activities to condemn what they characterized as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi invasion of the local community.
At gatherings throughout the city, counter-protesters practiced different forms of resistance.
One major event was the Bay Area Rally Against Hate, held near UC Berkeley’s Crescent Lawn. According to the event’s Facebook page, over eight thousand people planned to attend. The crowd consisted of members of labor unions, religious organizations and political organizations, local elected officials, and citizens from around the Bay Area. The lawn was barricaded off, so most attendees filled the streets, where organizers spoke from a parked truck before leading a march down Center Street.
Participants chanted, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” and “No hate, no fear, Nazis get out of here,” among other refrains. They carried signs with messages such as “End white supremacy,” “We are sanctuary,” and “Drive Trump out.” Some carried signs stating that “Berkeley stands united against hate,” twenty thousand of which had been printed by the Mayor’s Office a few days earlier.
Others congregated around Civic Center Park, prepared for a direct confrontation with any “alt-right” organizers who turned up. Among them were members of By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a radical left wing group.
Around noon, tension between left and right wing protesters escalated in Civic Center Park, and several right wing protesters were escorted out of the park by police. Later, over one hundred self-identified anarchists pushed past barricades and assaulted at least three people. The large majority of protesters remained peaceful.
According to a City of Berkeley press release, the Berkeley Police Department made thirteen arrests for charges including assault with a deadly weapon, felony assault, and city code violations. Six people sustained injuries, two of whom were hospitalized.
In the run up to Sunday’s events, opinions differed over how best to respond to “alt-right” ideology and possible violence. Originally, the Mayor’s Office asked community organizations to develop alternative events to engage concerned community members in constructive activities away from Downtown Berkeley.
Local activist contingencies argued over this suggestion and about how best to balance direct confrontation of the No to Marxism rally with public safety concerns. Many opted to publicly promote their progressive values at peaceful events, such as the Rally Against Hate, where District Five Councilmember Sophie Hahn was in attendance.
“I’m here to support the message that we do not tolerate hate in Berkeley and that we stand for love and inclusion and a fair society,” Hahn said.
She clarified that the City never intended to deter peaceful protesters from expressing their beliefs. She said, “The City has coordinated very carefully with all the organizations that contacted the City … and coordinated with the university very closely to try and make sure that everyone who wanted to come out today to express their opinions would be able to do so in a safe and protected manner.”
Reverend Liz Techenor of All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley expressed hope that the Rally Against Hate and other counterprotest efforts would bring about peaceful dialogue.
“I want people to be able to say what they believe, even if I disagree with them, but I want to be able to have conversation … where we can actually hear one another with the possibility that [minds] … may be changed by the interaction,” Techenor said.
BAMN organizer and Oakland teacher Adi Hoag was also at the Rally Against Hate, but she didn’t intend to stay. She passed out flyers about BAMN’s counter protest in Civic Center Park. Hoag said that alternative demonstrations were not sufficient to counter bigoted rallies, and that hate groups must be physically prevented from gathering in public.
Referring to “alt-right” protesters, she said, “Their intent is to make people feel unsafe for having the color skin that they do, for expressing love towards their partner in public. They need to feel unsafe expressing hate in our community.”
Hoag said that the best way to avoid violence would be to prevent any “alt-right” event from occurring.
After the protest, Mayor Jesse Arreguin released a statement praising peaceful counter protesters for standing against bigotry and racism and for diversity and tolerance. He denounced protesters who participated in violence, urging against “fighting hate with hate.”
As local officials and community members reflect on last weekend’s protests, discussions on how to respond to future events are already underway.
The California Patriot, a conservative UC Berkeley student magazine, has invited Former White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon and conservative commentators Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter to speak at the university this September as part of a campus “Free Speech Week.” Conservative author Ben Shapiro is another September invitee. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ has asked students to work on strengthening their community through respectful discussion.
Similarly, Natasha Beery, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program and Community Relations, said she hopes the BUSD community will be fortified in the face of local and national divisions.
As the school year begins, she said, the district is working to keep students physically safe and emotionally healthy while facilitating important conversations about hate.
Teachers were sent resources from organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League to supplement their classroom discussions. The district may also distribute a similar toolkit to parents in order to help them have conversations with their children about racism and bigotry.
Overall, the administrators’ focus is centered around promoting both preparedness as well as unity. To be living in the City of Berkeley at such a politically-charged time as today, Beery said, is “Sort of like living in earthquake country.” She closed by saying, “At some point, you have to put your toolkit together.”