February 1, 2017. Berkeley, California. Sundown.
At first glance, it looked like a car was burning in UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. That would have been a first.
A few masked protesters dressed in black surrounded the surprisingly large fire, waving black and purple flags and holding homemade shields.
Looking more closely, I could see that it was a spotlight and generator burning — probably Berkeley Police Department property, part of the barricades the cops had set up in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union.
It was not even dinnertime, and the crowd was starting to drift out of the plaza. Most had already achieved what they assembled to do, which was to shut down a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos is a vulgar provocateur, a white supremacist whose supporters routinely bring down barrages of slurs and rape and death threats on the individual women and men he chooses to target by posting their home addresses, phone numbers and online profiles on right-wing message boards, a kind of hacking called “doxxing” designed to harass, intimidate and endanger. He is a modern hate-monger, prone to selfies, bleached-blonde hair, gold chains and aviator glasses. Twitter permanently banned him from its site for the avalanche of racist and sexist harassment he incited against Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones.
The Berkeley College Republicans had invited Yiannopoulos to speak on February 1, in a brash act of public interest in Yiannopoulos’s hateful, whites-only message, especially given the fact that at his last campus speech, in Seattle, one of his supporters shot and critically injured an anti-racist protester. According to SFGate, UC Berkeley officials had warned the event’s hosts that Yiannopoulos was planning to use the event to kick off a campaign “targeting the undocumented student community,” and that he could read a list of undocumented UC Berkeley students’ names and call for lawsuits against UC Berkeley staff for supporting these students’ education. Even though University of California Chancellor Nicholas Dirks objected to what he called Yiannopoulos’s “harassment, slander, defamation, and hate speech,” the university, not wanting to violate hard-won freedoms of expression at Sproul, did not cancel Yiannopoulos’s event.
But on the night of February 1, protesters came out in the thousands to shut it down. Most carried signs and sang chants. A much smaller group of masked black bloc activists and unmasked anti-fascist protesters entered the student union to disrupt Yiannopoulos’s speech. Berkeley Police, seeing a brawl building as Yiannopoulos’s skinhead goons high-stepped around the building, canceled the event and whisked the provocateur out the back door.
Not for the first time over the last few weeks, police were called upon to protect white supremacists, neo-Nazis, skinheads and pro-Trump bikers who have gotten in over their heads, spurred on by the president’s nihilistic hate speech. Reacting to the rising number of hate crimes, a crew of young Black and Brown people from the Bay [Area], not having it, have fought with the KKK and skinheads across California over the last few months. And at times, some predominantly white protesters have utilized black bloc tactics — wearing black clothing and masks to appear as a unified group and remain anonymous — to hand out a few beat downs.
Where were the police now, anyway? In the dark of the plaza it seemed that the crowd had dwindled to several hundred, including the black bloc contingent (which most estimates put at somewhere between 20 and 100 people), a scatter of Berkeley and Oakland’s protest regulars, and a few hundred slightly dazed university students gathered around. As night fell, the gathering no longer had the same vibe as the women’s march or the airport protests that brought in throngs of people new to protest.
The crowd was not done yet. As reporters descended on the scene, two young men threw a section of police barricade through the new, ceiling-to-floor windows of the student union that the university installed as part of their remodel of the plaza last year. Someone spray painted a red “A” for anarchy on the wall.
Finally, a [contingent] of Berkeley Police grouped along one edge of the plaza. They had already issued the order to disperse four or five times. For the first time, they seemed intent on controlling the terrain of protest.
A phalanx of cops on the second level of the student union fired some tear gas and less-than-lethal ammunitions down onto the crowd. Protesters in black and purple and holding a banner that read “Become Ungovernable,” used the last of their smoke bombs and fireworks, and gathered for a fast march out of the plaza, down Bancroft Ave., to cries of “Shut it down” and “Let’s fuck shit up.”
A bit stunned by all the non-lethal firepower, I looked around and thought that without the crowd, Sproul Plaza looked tired. During the Vietnam War, students gathered here to “shut it down”: to shut down all of it — the university, the country and the war. In 2017, the plaza now features drought-tolerant landscaping and eateries selling junk food and expensive beer. Somehow, the plaza arcade I played in growing up in the ’80s had survived the booming Reagan years and the increasingly serious, goal-oriented character of the typical ’90s Berkeley undergrad. But the recent remodel took care of it. In the dark of the plaza, I imagined University of California President Janet Napolitano standing in her office, wearing a Homeland Security Border Patrol uniform and nodding approvingly as she authorized the new plaza plan with an expanded university gift store to replace the arcade and the installation of (supposedly) shatter-proof windows in the whole of the student union.
In the emptied plaza I thought back to when, as a child, I first saw images of tear gas and cops with attack dogs in a mural painted a few blocks away from Sproul Plaza on Telegraph Ave. I first saw them in the flesh when my neighborhood raged at the cops’ beating of Rodney King, in 1992. Sproul Plaza has seen so many protests, from nice young undergrads with megaphones to the edgier, less hopeful last remnants of Occupy. In 2014 and 2015, supporters of the Movement for Black Lives came out in the thousands, probably greater in numbers than the masses who showed up for the battle for People’s Park in 1969. In Sproul on December 6, 2014, amongst the crowd demonstrating against the killing of Black people by the police, I heard an old campus cop claim those protests against police brutality were “better” than even the anti-Vietnam protests in the plaza. Better for whom, I wondered. A few minutes later, the cops started a riot against supporters of the Movement for Black Lives, tear gassing and shooting and beating us, as if they needed to remind us of the reason we were protesting.
Still, the crowds shut down not just the plaza, but also the Bay [Area]’s freeways and bridges to support Black lives. They mixed repertoires of resistance to form a people’s mobilization. They were a rich collection of the people of the Bay, and not surprisingly, the cops were really afraid of them.
Back then, it was only the black bloc, a loose group of protesters unified most by their protest tactics, that defended us from the cops. They were ready after Occupy. They knew enough to make barricades to protect us that night, when the cops rioted because we asked them to stop killing us. That night, the black bloc linked arms and stepped up to the cops. By doing so, they stopped the cops’ batons from falling on the less prepared, the more vulnerable of us regular protesters clad in only sweaters and jeans, that were supposed to go to work the next day.
So it is no surprise that black bloc numbers are growing.
I am more surprised about how correct they now seem. Political ideas motivate their tactics. Most identify as anti-fascists, the “antifa.” They wear black and cover their faces to be anonymous, so they cannot be prosecuted. Since at least 1999, at Seattle’s protests against the World Trade Organization, they’ve been saying that people are sick of the corruption and nihilism of our political system. They’ve been telling us to get ready for something radical.
The black bloc’s intervention on the night of Yiannopoulos’ talk demonstrated that when their numbers are enough — often not many, but just enough — people engaged in black bloc tactics can overwhelm the capability of the cops to respond with accepted, non-lethal tactics. Their intervention escalates confrontation in the streets because the black bloc threatens cops’ control. At times, when facing the black bloc, cops have had to decide to use lethal force or to back down, and thank god the cops usually choose to back down, deciding they are not here to kill us. Anyone who has witnessed the crowd overcoming the cops can understand the power in this act. And with the dissolution of cops’ control, with their decision to retreat rather than kill, with their backing down from the precipice of all-out fascism, comes an opening for us toward the reform of the state.
The situation at Sproul Plaza last week was not as frightening as it looked in the widely circulated photos of the flaming police spotlight. In reality, the protests were not very violent. Some rocks flew. Some fireworks shot dangerously close to onlookers. A reporter got paint-bombed, splattered in red by a small but kind of scary explosive device that spreads permanent paint. But it was nothing like the violence committed regularly by US-deployed Reaper Drones or the white supremacists who bomb mosques and Black churches.
But waking up the day after Yiannopoulos’ talk was shut down, it was the president who was seeing red, tweeting, “U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
Obvious to all, our president lied about the facts of the Berkeley protest. UC Berkeley permitted Yiannopoulos to talk, even though the university’s administrators did not agree with his message. And when a group of protesters — many of whom may not even have been university students — used civil disobedience (mixed with a little property destruction) to prevent Yiannopoulos from spewing hate speech, Trump says UC Berkeley itself, as an educational institution, practices “violence.” What nonsense.
The ringing in my ears still has not stopped. We should not care too much if UC Berkeley loses Trump’s filthy money for the next few years. Who wants to be a collaborator anyway? Let’s declare Trump’s money haram (forbidden), as my Muslim brothers and sisters say, because it is wealth obtained through sin. We should care much more about the dog whistle of violence that Trump threw out to his white supremacist followers. Breitbart and Fox News have made Sproul Plaza a national story of the racist right. CNN and The New York Times also found room for a few articles. All the papers say that more of the black bloc is coming, but give different reasons to fear it.
I can’t be sure about what the rising black bloc means for the Bay. But I fear that now, living under Trump, more neo-Nazis and white supremacists are likely to show up at the next protest at Sproul Plaza. When these extreme forces of racism and misogyny seek to get their way — and while they wield state power against us — there is nothing more radical than a revolutionary unity that brings together diverse kinds of people, beliefs, views and ways of being in the world. Toward this end, nonviolent struggle is the least costly and most effective form of mobilization. Nonviolent civil disobedience will bring in more diverse people and in greater numbers to our effort to salvage democracy. And in greater numbers, there is a limited safety.
But even a radical solidarity will have its limits. There is a cold wind blowing across Sproul Plaza. Remember: We are much more likely to be killed by white extremists than anyone else. They have almost all of the guns, and a terrible history of using them. Even so, if white supremacists insist on making Sproul Plaza their own, the anti-fascists who have recently sought liberation by smashing the state one window at a time may have to start thinking less about property destruction, and more about shutting down Nazi wannabees with disobedient direct action — blockading, disrupting, creating discomfort, bird-dogging and shaming — starting in the streets and continuing all the way to the White House.