“I’ve been told by people on the ground that Berkeley is no longer safe. All patriots should leave now.”—Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman
A friend of mine is constantly reminding me that 2017, rather than being a relief from horror-saturated 2016, has spiraled down some rabbit hole of political absurdity and surrealism. My mother, a long-naturalized immigrant from Zimbabwe, responded to the election of Donald Trump with a panic and fear that I had never seen from her before. She was born in Zimbabwe while it was still under colonial administration: growing up in Rhodesia meant subjugation by white settlers, fear and humiliation as second class non-white people (even as native people), suppressive violence by the state. Trump reminded her of Ian Smith, she confessed to me, the Rhodesian prime minister and terroristic white nationalist (a redundancy) of her formative years. Her fear should have been a foreshadowing of the absurdities that would follow, but while I comforted her, I still dismissed her. Nine months later, I am on the street protesting against neo-Nazis.
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I spent the morning of the would-be Berkeley rally in the downtown park where it was supposed to be held. Because the far-right tends not to care for legalities and often assembles regardless of whether or not they receive permits from a particular city, I sat in anxious wait for their arrival. I circled the park, I photographed everything that made sense to photograph. Between the Berkeley Police Department’s nervous anticipatory movement in enforcing the unconstitutional martial law-adjacent limits on assembly passed days before by city council and members of the far-right live-streaming every moment of their small but emphatic assembly in counter-protest, I felt like an unmasked sitting duck — the criminalization of face coverings was one stipulation of the protected zone within the park, a stipulation they enforced with gusto. I was unsettled with the amount of attention the media was giving to members of the far-right, clearly the stars of any show. The media thirstily (and irresponsibly) thrust microphones into any and every space hoping to pick up sound bites of their commentaries for evening news chatter and clickbait fodder.
The media’s careful curation of racist diatribes made under the guise of free speech and multi-positional debate translated into red-baiting articles with headlines like the Washington Post’s “Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley,” the “peaceful right-wing demonstrator” in question being a young man in a Pinochet t-shirt that was attacked shortly after pepper spraying anti-fascist protestors. Journalists particularly loved Colombian-born Juan Cadavid (aka Johnny Benitez) for his Danny Vinyard good looks and charisma — just as they not-so-secretly love all apparently trend- and norm-breaking “dapper white nationalists” — as well as the “novelty” of finding token non-Anglo spokespeople for the white nationalist cause, a pedestal he shares with Latinos for Trump’s Irma Hinojosa (they also shared a getaway vehicle).
The counter-protestors amassed in the numbers we did in order to prevent the increasing violence accompanying far-right assemblies both in Berkeley and across the United States over the past year, particularly in the wake of Charlottesville nearly two weeks ago. First Amendment protections of hate speech are transparent justifications made by some far-right contingents when it is glaringly apparent that others simply use these rallies as an opportunity to enact race war-posturing violence upon non-white people, and, secondarily, race traitors (like Heather Heyer). Despite the outward brutality of many members of the far-right, even more attend these rallies to enjoy state-sanctioned safe space for consequence-less hate speech: a circle jerk of unfounded ethnoracial superiority, if you will. But the First Amendment ostensibly protects one from government censure and censorship: communities mobilizing to hold speakers both individually and collectively responsible for articulating and/or aligning themselves are not the government. Anti-fascists are certainly not the government, your speech is not protected from us.
I have seen many comments to the effect that the black bloc moved like a violent gang, and that it was unfair for hundreds of anarchists to gang up on a small handful of members of the far-right. A few things here warrant clarification. Many of the ultra-violent people planning on attending the rally prior to organizer Amber Cumming’s “cancellation” of the event simply did not come, and many of the ones that did were either chased off by counter-protesters earlier in the morning or were arrested by the Berkeley Police. Perhaps Mayor Jesse Arreguin’s stay away calls and city response made their ethno-political militancy unsexy, especially after the embarrassing defeat of Joey Gibson’s cancelled Patriot Prayer rally the day before — Gibson was one of the thirteen people arrested in Berkeley, and Kyle Chapman, the person that called for rightist factions to unite around the anti-Marxist rally, was unable to attend per the conditions of his bail release. The energies were blunted not only by the cowardice of leadership, but by the overwhelming showing of leftists willing to use any means necessary to refuse to allow further encroachment of neo-Nazism, Confederacy commemoration and apologia, violent American patriotisms (another redundancy), and these blatantly unacceptable white nationalisms in our communities; fighting white supremacy in its totality, though (and especially in the Bay Area) is another battle altogether.
I did not want to be there on Sunday, but I forced myself to be. Beyond the ideals and self-assigned political obligations that ground my actions, I was scared shitless because I had no idea what we would encounter or what we would see, particularly given past far-right violence in Berkeley. And I was afraid of, once again, confronting my own intergenerational traumas of whiteness: of staring down neo-fascists and baton-happy police the same way my mother and grandmother and ancestral line stared down occupying British forces whose colonial entitlements spawned these contemporary ideologies. But, out of fear of sounding like I am declaring some kind of premature victory or sounding naïve (I am neither), there was something hopeful that came out of Berkeley.
Shortly after a coalition of counter-protestors, the one including the black bloc, arrived at the park, the Berkeley Police Department promptly hid themselves behind their riot gear and poised to shoot rounds of tear gas into the crowd. The black bloc put their hands into the air in a now rallying gesture and continuously and necessarily confrontationally yelled “put the gun down!” at the officers. Had the officers shot the tear gas at the crowd, multiple people would likely now be dead or injured: not only would the police have probably killed the frontline anarchists that their canister-loaded weapons were trained upon, but people would have also been killed or injured in the panic of a tightly packed crowd of hundreds of people trying to escape the eye and throat-burning gas. The police lowered their arms and absconded their posts in the park shortly thereafter: both masked and unmasked protestors jumped over police barricades and assembled throughout the park, a people’s park.
Media commentary has forced me to understand our collective [mis]definition of violence as we constantly grapple with “well-reasoned” responses to far-right politics and urgently reinscribe the state’s monopoly on legitimate forms of force to undermine the legitimacy of self-defense. Community members were implored to stay away from the spaces where fascistic forces assemble, while the media actively normalizes their politics by positioning functionally genocidal politics as “controversial” albeit legitimate opinions within a robust marketplace of ideas. Violence is the state’s white supremacist militarization, like Urban Shield, in the name of “community safety”; it is my constant articulation that, as a black anarchist and member of the left more broadly, my defense of self and community (and other communities) in the face of existential threats, is not “violence.” Antifa (anti-fascism), a coalescence of left politics in resistance to fascist creepings, is not violence because this kind of community self-defense cannot be violent.
As the counter-protest leaders shouted their gratitude to the black bloc and that it should be thanked and protected (Tur-Ha Ak of APTP later defended the swiftness and decisiveness with which fascists were removed from the area), I almost started to cry. Despite a wide embrace of a diversity of tactics, the bloc is perhaps the one that elicits the most outrage or disagreement because of perceptions of “outside agitator” escalation, its whiteness (how interesting is it that collective anonymity and a disagreeable political tactic is necessarily synonymous with whiteness), the space it consumes. But the bloc, and the wider anti-fascist politic within which it is anchored, represents a notion of community that is both terrifying and exhilarating: a community that supports and defends itself without the interventions and incursions of a violent carceral state the violent machinations of which we have become conditioned to accept. These community resistances, among other acts, remind me that other worlds are possible. And that possibility makes so many otherwise terrifying things worth doing.