Berkeley had prepared itself Sunday for an ugly battle between extremists on the far right and far left, much like the sometimes violent protests that shook the city in the spring. Instead, in a city covered quickly last week in “Berkeley stands united against hate” posters, thousands of demonstrators took over the streets Sunday to express their stiff opposition to hatred and racism.
Several dozen protesters on the right and far right showed up. Those who did spent the morning in largely peaceful conversations around the fountain in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, but in the afternoon they were either chased away or beaten by opponents. The moments of tension, and some sporadic violent clashes, were largely perpetrated by 100 or so anti-fascists, masked and clad in black, who swept into the park mid-afternoon en masse.
For much of the day, the mood was largely triumphant on the left and in the community at large. Thousands of activists and families flooded the streets by UC Berkeley’s Crescent lawn for a colorful, musical “Bay Area Rally Against Hate.” Many of those demonstrators later marched to Civic Center Park, where a far-right rally was expected to take place, joining other groups who had rallied and then marched from elsewhere in the city. Police estimated 4,000 people came to Berkeley to demonstrate.
Many of the counter-demonstrators came out in reaction to a “No to Marxism in America” rally that fizzled after its organizer, Amber Cummings, called it off Friday, less than 48 hours before it was supposed to be held in Civic Center Park. Despite the official cancelation, Cummings said she still planned to attend, alone, and there was widespread uncertainty by officials and other community members alike about who might join her.
In its final update, at 8:20 p.m. Sunday, the Berkeley Police Department reported one officer injury and six injuries to the crowd, including two people who required treatment at the hospital. Thirteen people were arrested, primarily related to allegations of fighting and violations of city rules. Police had 400 officers on duty from around the Bay Area.
Unlike at Berkeley rallies March 4 and April 15, police intervened early and often Sunday when talks between protesters degraded to pushes and punches. But, around 1:30 p.m., police vacated their positions around Civic Center Park as thousands of demonstrators — including the antifa — rushed over the barricades. Overall the atmosphere continued to be positive, at times featuring juggling, bubble-blowing, singing and a drum circle, but groups of demonstrators would now and then team up to chase off Trump supporters, shouting phrases like, “Nazi go home” and “get … out of Berkeley, don’t come back.”
The police initially took elaborate security measures to protect and control the crowds, some of which were criticized as being draconian. UC officials erected concrete barricades around the Crescent lawn in front of UC Berkeley with only one entry and exit point. They also issued a long list of prohibited items that included potential weapons — like Tasers, pepper spray, sign handles and selfie sticks — but also backpacks, bags, certain water bottles and even balloons.
Most demonstrators responded to the rules by turning their backs — literally — on the area marked off by the barricades, and held their protest on Oxford Street and the streets nearby. Some meditated quietly inside the barricades, or watched from the vantage point the hill provided. Meanwhile, the “exclusion zone” set up by Berkeley police in Civic Center Park, built on the experience of the spring rallies where two distinct sides were in the park throughout the day, did not keep protesters apart. One side was largely empty for hours, until police left and the crowd poured in.
Several of the violent confrontations came after 1:30 p.m., when thousands of the Crescent lawn crowd walked to Civic Center Park and were joined by others, including the antifa and a large group of supporters of organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), who had marched from North Berkeley’s Ohlone Park.
Hundreds of people from an interfaith group also marched to the downtown park, singing and chanting, after assembling at First Congregational Church in the Berkeley’s Southside neighborhood. Susan Willm said they were “witnesses for equality, compassion and love.”
“Most people consider Berkeley a godless town, but it is full of progressive communities of faith,” she said.
Very few far-right protesters showed up
The small group of Trump supporters at Civic Center Park may have been a far cry from what organizer Cummings envisioned when she planned a “No to Marxism in America” rally in Berkeley back in June. Up until Friday, the Berkeley rally was supposed to follow a large event in San Francisco on Saturday that featured prominent conservative activists who have been organizing nationally for their cause. But the Crissy Fields rally organizer, Joey Gibson, canceled that event Friday, citing safety reasons.
Sunday morning in Berkeley, pro-Trump individuals engaged in conversations with significantly larger numbers of anti-Trump demonstrators, as well as many journalists. In the few instances when conversations grew heated, police stepped in quickly to separate antagonists.
Some said they hoped to dispel the widespread notion that everyone coming out in support of free speech was, in fact, some kind of virulent racist.
“We’re hoping to have open dialogues with the opposition, which is under the misapprehension that this is a KKK demonstration,” said Jourdin Davis, a graduate of Berkeley High School, who said he is a member of the Original Berkeley Warriors and the Proud Boys.
Two UC Berkeley students — Ashton Whitty, a junior and member of the Berkeley College Republicans, and Chase, a sophomore who declined to provide his last name — came into the park in the morning holding a sign saying, “Let’s just have a conversation.”
“I believe in the value of free speech,” said Chase, who was wearing an NRA baseball cap. “I don’t want to allow the heckler’s veto.”
“I want to take the Trump message everywhere,” said Arthur Schaper, who had come from the South Bay wearing a cape labeled “President Donald Trump, Make America Great Again.”
One San Diego resident who said he came to Berkeley with an estimated 30-50 like-minded people to stand up to anti-fascists, said he wanted, primarily, to stand up for free speech. The man, who gave his name as Dan, described himself as pro-medical marijuana, pro-gay rights, agnostic in his religious views and fiscally conservative.
“I love my country and I’m scared of losing it,” he said. “I want to come out here and express my free-speech rights without being attacked.”
Another free-speech advocate in the San Diego contingent said he wore a pro-America shirt to the park “to see if I’d get punched.”
But the protester, Jake Culver, said “everybody’s been pretty cool. There’s been lots of talking and lots of dialogue.” Culver said, however, he and a friend had been debating with another person at the rally when activists began chasing another demonstrator out, yelling “leave, Nazi.” One of the men linked arms with the person being chased, as police crowded around them.
The largely peaceful situation shifted in the afternoon as more anti-Trump demonstrators entered the park when the Crescent event ended. A few Trump supporters were escorted out with police protection as demonstrators chased and shouted at them. Antifa “black-bloc” protesters who were initially outside barricades placed around the park for security faced off with some scattered police, but the activists crowded into the park when the officers left abruptly around 1:30 p.m.
At that point, the few remaining pro-Trump attendees were confronted and even attacked, mostly by antifa, which is made up of anarchists and other leftists who believe violence can and should be used to squash burgeoning fascism.
Members of antifa reportedly set upon Joey Gibson, the man who had organized the eventually canceled Patriot Prayer rally slated for San Francisco on Saturday. Irma Hinojosa, a member of Latinos for Trump, and Johnny Benitez, a far-right Trump supporter from Orange County, also said they were set upon by some far-left protesters. Cummings, a transgender woman, told KTVU she was “sucker punched” in Civic Center Park while dressed as a man, and had to be rushed away by officers in a van, according to ABC7, “because of the crowd.”
One Trump supporter was attacked and chased from the park into nearby Addison Street where counter-demonstrators struck him with sticks and a tripod. At the same time, other members of the crowd surrounded the scene and shouted “no violence, no violence,” and “just get him out of here.”
Some photographers were targeted too. A freelance photographer, who asked not to be named, said he was attacked by an antifa member at Ohlone Park toward the end of the march. “I was punched in the face and struck to the ground after asking him to please stop hurting a lady with a camera that they were assaulting,” he said.
Two Berkeleyside contributing photographers felt the effects in their eyes of pepper spray used by protesters. Another said she saw at least four cameras get smashed. “Mine got grabbed but I kept a hold on it,” she said. Some photojournalists had come to the rally wearing helmets.
One man, who described himself as a veteran for peace, said he had been sad to see the confrontations and violence that eventually took place at Civic Center Park.
“If no one is allowed to speak their mind because it’s unpopular, then we’ve all lost our freedom to express ourselves,” he said. “I was kind of sad that people seem so easily divided when they could be building bridges.”
Around 2:30 p.m., several hundred protesters, including antifa members, led a victory march to Ohlone Park.
On the walk, UC Berkeley junior Sean O’Neil, 20, said he participated in the demonstration because it was a chance to speak up against white supremacy, and because he witnessed his friends at the University of Virginia feel terrorized by the white nationalist march in Charlottesville.
Nearby were a mother and daughter who came together from Alameda to participate in their first joint protest. The scene was “beautiful,” said the mother, who said she wanted to fight for justice for other Latinos. “It was beautiful, peaceful, and a powerful message. It was full of love,” she added, of the day’s events.
When the demonstrators arrived at Ohlone, they held a short rally, proclaiming the day a “win” because they achieved their goal of pushing the far-right out of Berkeley. They vowed, however, to continue fighting.
“We were organizing against white supremacy long before the KKK showed up in town,” said Berkeley pastor Michael McBride, speaking from the bed of a truck on which other speakers, including his brother, Pastor Ben McBride, as well as Berkeley resident and prominent comedian and political commentator Kamau Bell, also made remarks.
Before action in park, thousands rally by Crescent lawn
Before the focus turned to Civic Center Park, thousands of union representatives, socialist and Black Lives Matter organizers, members of the faith community, local families, musicians and other activists began turning up to Oxford Street, between University Avenue and Allston Way, around 9 a.m.
Once it was clear they planned to stay in the streets, the city of Berkeley brought in garbage trucks and vans to replace lines of demonstrators clad in orange vests who initially closed off the intersection by standing together in a line. Officials took that precaution to avoid an incident like the one in Charlottesville, where a white nationalist activist plowed his car into peaceful protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Frank Phillips, an organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America, who volunteered as a safety marshal at the Crescent lawn rally, said the city should have immediately closed the streets to traffic because of Heyer’s death.
“That shouldn’t be our responsibility,” he said.
Throughout the rally, speakers from Muslim and immigrant groups, Berkeley Federation of Teachers members and others gave short speeches from atop a truck parked in the street. Their voices were accompanied by music from a brass band playing protest songs a block away. Elsewhere, kids played cornhole and people passed out water bottles. One woman, dressed in rainbow colors, gave out free hugs — including to police — and other members of the crowd held aloft a huge rainbow sculpture over the heads of the demonstrators around them.
Dozens of local residents joined a “Yes to Groucho Marx” rally — using humor to combat the “anti-Marxist” event Cummings planned at Civic Center Park. The group made for quite a sight on Oxford Street, donning fake eye glasses and mustaches, chanting phrases like, “What do we want? Marxism. What kinds of Marxism? Groucho Marxism!”
Organizer Isobel White, a 27-year resident of Berkeley, said she came up with the Groucho Marx idea because “it is laughable, the idea that Marxism is the biggest threat to our country.” What isn’t funny, she continued, is the impact on the community of white supremacy and racism. She said her goal was to show that Berkeley is a place that’s safe and comfortable for everyone.
Four teenagers, who said they were part of a national youth activist group, said they attend the rally “to show people we do not stand for hatred or white supremacy.”
“They schedule protests literally across the street from our high school,” said one of the 16- and 17-year-old girls, two of whom attend Berkeley High. (The high school is across from Civic Center Park, which conservative and white nationalist speakers have repeatedly proclaimed the battleground in what they’ve previously called the “battle for Berkeley.”)
Some Berkeley residents chose to express their unity against hate in their own neighborhoods, rather than at the rallies, out of concern that large events downtown might turn ugly. Becca Todd orchestrated a “Chalk It Up – For Love!” campaign through her neighborhood group. “I knew that many of us were leery of bringing children to the rally, yet it would be weighing on our minds…. so I suggested we all decorate the sidewalks in front of our houses with images of love and inclusion so that, in addition to the Berkeley Stands United posters, there was a colorful explosion of positive imagery,” she said.
Lilly Macrae and Renaye Brown, both longtime Berkeley residents, came up with the idea of bringing together neighbors on Seventh Street for a group photograph to show solidarity, one of those neighbors, Stacey Lewis, said.
“Many did attend peace marches, but many of us, like myself and my family, did not for fear of violence,” she said. “It was beautiful to see so many folks on our street come together and have the chance to connect directly with our neighbors.”
In the hours that followed a long day of demonstrations in Berkeley, as many of the media headlines outside the city focused on the few violent confrontations that took place, numerous people in Berkeley who had witnessed events first-hand said the main message was getting lost.
Cliff Magnes observed on Berkeleyside on Monday: “If it bleeds, it leads, so no matter what the original purpose of the rally, if there is violence, that violence becomes the main story.” He said he hopes to see more people speak out against the anti-fascists who use violence as a tactic.
“Watching them try to take over a peaceful crowd and turn that crowd into a mob is a deeply troubling experience,” he wrote. “They do not speak for me, I hope they don’t speak for us here in Berkeley.”
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he regretted the injuries that happened, and that the violence of “a small group of protesters engaged in against residents and the police” was “unacceptable.” Arreguín said, however, he was glad no serious violence took place. He lauded the community’s impassioned speeches and peaceful opposition to the “bigotry, hatred and racism that we saw on display in Charlottesville,” and thanked first responders for their efforts.
“And thanks to the thousands of people who peacefully and creatively exercised their right to freedom of speech and assembly,” he said, in a prepared statement Sunday. “Our nation is deeply divided, but Berkeley will forge onward to protect immigrants, people of color and others who are marginalized, and to continue to peacefully stand up for justice.”
Kate Darby Rauch contributed to the reporting of this story.