My name is Jill and I live in Berkeley. I have two kids in BUSD schools, I own a home, I volunteer for the PTA, I work for local businesses, and my politics are liberal. I am (mostly) a typical Berkeley resident. I’m also incredibly frustrated by the fact that people who don’t live here are using our town as their ideological stomping grounds; on twitter the alt-right has told me that they want to start a civil war, and that they want to start it here.
Last Thursday, I was at Civic Center Park, across the street from where my oldest child goes to high school. I came out after work to see what was going on, and I ended up spending 2 hours walking amongst “the enemy”: the Trump supporters and Ann Coulter fans who came out for “the fuck ANTIFA rally.” We were all expecting violence but luckily what we ended up with was a completely peaceful assembly.
At some point I had decided to start introducing myself to people, to tell them that I live here and that “real Berkeley residents” don’t support violence. I spotted a group of guys that looked scary to me: Beards, leather vests, tattoos, sunglasses, etc. and I approached them and introduced myself. I said “Hi my name is Jill, I live in Berkeley and I want you to know that I’m not your enemy. This is what happens when you guys come here and only Berkeley residents show up. You do your thing and there’s no violence, there’s no pepper spray, there’s no sticks or bricks, there’s just people talking.” I said I’m sure I would disagree with every single thing they believed in, and that they would disagree with me, but that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to believe it, and that it’s possible to think these opposing thoughts without hurting each other physically.
I was terrified, my hands were shaking, and I told them so (because I babble when I’m nervous), and they told me, “You are safe with us.” They were seriously some of the nicest guys I’ve met. One’s name was Ryan, another was Garrett. I don’t remember the name of the man who told me I was safe with him, and I’m sorry that I don’t because I’ll always remember his face. I’m sure that we vehemently disagree on politics, but I’m also sure that he was a really nice person. If he and I could sit down over a beer and talk issues, I know we could teach each other some things. We don’t have to agree, but from our disagreement can come wisdom, and if all we ever do is yell at each other and try to hurt each other physically, nothing good can come from that. We all agreed on that point.
And it occurred to me that so much of this political fighting is done on the Internet; on Twitter, on Facebook, in “the comments,” but if we actually meet face-to-face, without helmets or masks, things can be so different. It seems so obvious when I say it, but if all you do is argue with people online, you really have no idea what it’s like when you encounter them in person. Maybe I’ve even argued with these same guys at some point; Ryan or Garrett or the guy whose name I don’t remember (I’m sorry!), it’s entirely possible. If we met on Twitter, would they tell me I was safe with them or would they mock me for being a sensitive liberal snowflake? Would I tell them they were welcome here or would I block them from my Facebook page? It’s possible, even likely, but when we’re standing in front of each other, I can say I’m scared and they can tell me I’m safe.
The experience was a wakeup call for me. The anonymity of the Internet makes us mean, but I believe that it is the feeling of powerlessness that leads us to a place where we look for scapegoats and we lash out at others over political issues. If we all feel powerless, doesn’t it make sense that we would do better together? I fully admit to my own bad behavior in this area, but if anything that I have said online would ultimately lead to an actual civil war, I am more than willing to step up and take responsibility for the impact my words have had. I don’t want a civil war; not in my town, not in any town.
I don’t know how to make things better but I know that the way we’ve been doing it so far isn’t working. At the end of the day on Thursday, I met a new follower on Twitter who told me “we might not agree politically, but I enjoyed your tweets from Berkeley today.”
Is this how it starts? With one small gesture? If so, I’m willing to make it. Are you?