‘An­tifa’ vi­o­lence spurs soul-search­ing

Anti-fas­cist group at­tacked Trump sup­port­ers at rally.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY'S TOP NEWS - By Paige St. John and James Queally Los An­ge­les Times

Of the dozens of or­ga­ni­za­tions that turned out for Sun­day’s mass protest against racism here, one group was im­pos­si­ble to miss.

Its mem­bers dressed head to toe in black, with masked faces and some bear­ing pas­tel-painted riot shields that read “no hate.” These 100 or so mil­i­tants billed them­selves as a se­cu­rity force for pro­gres­sive counter-pro­test­ers, vow­ing to pro­tect them from far-right agi­ta­tors.

But as the protest got un­der­way, some of those in masks re­sorted to mob vi­o­lence, at­tack­ing a small show­ing of sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and oth­ers they ac­cused, some­times in­ac­cu­rately, of be­ing white su­prem­a­cists or Nazis.

The graphic videos of those at­tacks have spurred soul-search­ing within the left­ist ac­tivist move­ment in the Bay Area and be­yond. Emo­tions re­main raw in the wake of this month’s white su­prem­a­cist rally in Char­lottesville, Va., which left one wo­man dead and dozens in­jured.

Trump re­ceived blis­ter­ing crit­i­cism for equat­ing the be­hav­ior of Klans­men and neo-Nazis to the ac­tions of those who op­posed them. Some fear that Sun­day’s vi­o­lence would only help ad­vance the idea that the two sides are the same.

“This is food for the ad­ver­sary,” said so­ci­ol­o­gist Todd Gitlin, a founder of Stu­dents for a Demo­cratic So­ci­ety, which or­ga­nized the first na­tional protests against the Viet­nam War.

Gitlin pointed out that vi­o­lent acts com­mit­ted by a few will al­most al­ways hi­jack the nar­ra­tive of the en­tire protest, and that it is hap­pen­ing now should be no sur­prise.

He also de­scribed what he sees as a push by the anti-fas­cist — also called “an­tifa” — move­ment to put “them­selves on the map of protest” by us­ing vi­o­lence to “in­tim­i­date” both po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and those on the left who pro­mote non-vi­o­lence. One of the big­gest ban­ners at the Berke­ley demon­stra­tion car­ried the mes­sage “Avenge Char­lottesville.”

Mil­i­tants who showed up Sun­day were part of a mul­ti­fac­eted rally in which church lead­ers sang gospel and anti-fas­cists shouted pro­fan­i­ties. Berke­ley po­lice es­ti­mated more than 4,000 peo­ple came out to take over a city park where far-right ac­tivists had called for an anti-Marx­ism rally. The or­ga­nizer can­celed the event Fri­day, cit­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns, but a small num­ber of far­right ac­tivists showed up any­way.

By the end of the day, 13 peo­ple had been ar­rested, one on sus­pi­cion of as­sault with a deadly weapon and three on bat­tery charges.

Jeff Co­nant, a mem­ber of an East Bay col­lec­tive of anti-racist demon­stra­tors known as Show­ing Up For Racial Jus­tice, said march or­ga­niz­ers asked al­lies in the an­tifa move­ment to “play a de­fen­sive role” in the rally — not to en­gage in or start vi­o­lence.

Those in the black hoods fell in with the marchers, while the lead truck for the march car­ried stacks of pas­tel-painted riot shields that anti-fas­cist demon­stra­tors later raised against po­lice.

Par­tic­i­pants fur­ther were told not to record the event on their cell­phones, and were urged to write a le­gal aid phone num­ber on their arms in case of ar­rest.

The march reached a park, which po­lice had al­ready cleared of far-right fig­ures. The demon­stra­tors lined up be­hind their shields against a po­lice bar­ri­cade and of­fi­cers armed with riot guns.

Else­where, the hooded group mobbed, and in some cases kick and beat, a hand­ful of far-right sup­port­ers. Sev­eral an­tifa mem­bers were seen us­ing their shields to bat­ter op­po­nents, in­clud­ing one who was slammed into the back of a man run­ning out of Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Cen­ter Park. Berke­ley po­lice said they were aware of four such in­ci­dents dur­ing the day.

The images sparked crit­i­cism from both con­ser­va­tives as well as some lib­er­als who had hoped the march would be peace­ful af­ter sev­eral vi­o­lent con­fronta­tions be­tween left and right ex­trem­ists in Berke­ley ear­lier this year.

Af­ter the crowd be­gan to dis­perse, Berke­ley Po­lice Chief An­drew Green­wood held a tense dis­cus­sion with a church or­ga­nizer con­cerned that peace­ful pro­test­ers would be lumped in with the mil­i­tants. Green­wood said his of­fi­cers had seen an­tifa and black bloc forces pre­par­ing along­side the rest of the demon­stra­tors, at a stag­ing point some four blocks away.

“They were prac­tic­ing with weapons,” Green­wood said.

Co­nant said the drills were de­fen­sive.

Or­ga­niz­ers de­fended the mil­i­tant force, say­ing it was nec­es­sary be­cause po­lice do not wade into protest brawls them­selves.

Berke­ley po­lice said hav­ing of­fi­cers jump into the crowd would have in­flamed al­ready an al­ready volatile sit­u­a­tion. How­ever, on Sun­day, po­lice sev­eral times res­cued peo­ple chased by the crowd or es­corted them out.

Among those ap­palled by the in­creas­ingly mil­i­tant force are rad­i­cals from the 1960s peace move­ment.

Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Jo Free­man, part of the rad­i­cal stu­dent move­ment that forced UC Berke­ley to per­mit po­lit­i­cal speech five decades ago, said she was dis­mayed at the ef­fort that went into si­lenc­ing op­po­si­tion. She drew sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween those who threat­ened her and other free­dom marchers in the South in the 1960s, and those who bully the far right now.

“It is not un­com­mon for so­ci­eties to pro­duce a hate squad,” Free­man said. “Peo­ple who want to sup­press the right to speak — they are ev­ery­where.”

Kitty Stryker, a Berke­ley ac­tivist af­fil­i­ated with groups like Pas­tel Bloc and Strug­galo Cir­cus, which of­fer med­i­cal aid dur­ing protests, said she was heart­bro­ken to see me­dia cov­er­age of Sun­day’s demon­stra­tion fo­cus on vi­o­lence. She said she saw a Trump sup­porter pep­per spray a black bloc mem­ber and main­tained that it was disin­gen­u­ous to say anti-fas­cists alone in­cited vi­o­lence.

“I do think there was a lot of anger over Char­lottesville, as there should be,” Stryker said. “But I also think there was a sud­den re­al­iza­tion that many of the in­sti­ga­tors in Char­lottesville had been com­ing to Berke­ley for months to beat up anti-fas­cists.”

UC Berke­ley is re­view­ing the week­end demon­stra­tions as it plans how to han­dle a se­ries of con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal speak­ers in late Septem­ber. Cam­pus spokesman Dan Mogulof said stu­dent safety is the first pri­or­ity — “there is noth­ing more im­por­tant.”

“Any­one who was here (in Fe­bru­ary) had their eyes open to what hap­pens when groups like this are will­ing to use vi­o­lent tac­tics to dis­rupt events,” Mogulof said, re­fer­ring to black bloc demon­stra­tors who vi­o­lently joined a cam­pus demon­stra­tion to shut down a speech by Milo Yiannopou­los.

An­tifa pro­test­ers dressed in black carry a large ban­ner dur­ing a “Stand Against Hate” rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Cen­ter Park in Berke­ley, Calif., on Sun­day.

PHO­TOS BY JIM WIL­SON / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The mil­i­tants billed them­selves as a se­cu­rity force for counter-pro­test­ers, vow­ing to pro­tect them from far­right agi­ta­tors.

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