Sunday in Berkeley set out to become a solid public-relations victory for decent people. At least three gatherings of Berkeleyans opposed to white supremacy, fascism, Nazism, and all the rest of the filthy ideological trash that Trump is stirring up, massively outnumbered a handful of “alt-rightists” clustered in Civic Center park.
The Berkeley day was headed for an echo of Boston: a huge outpouring of opposition to fascism that swamped the extremist fringe and exposed how isolated, feeble, and contemptible it is. The day was poised for a major fascist fizzle, a setback in public opinion that would be hard for the alt-right to recover from.
The Berkeley police, together with other departments, kept a tight cordon around the park, checking backpacks and confiscating possible missiles as if the event were a rock concert. So long as they did that, all was basically calm inside. A few minor scuffles were quickly put down.
And then came antifa.
A cohort of maybe a hundred black-clad men and women wearing masks, many carrying sticks, approached the park, ready to do battle. Police rules, widely publicized before the event, banned the wearing of face coverings except for religious reasons. Police rules also forbade carrying sticks. Yet, the mere appearance of this black-clad group, without any confrontation or effort to assert control, as if by prearrangement, the police dropped the rules, abandoned their access checkpoints, and surrendered control of the cordon.
Within minutes, the peaceful scene inside the park turned into a riot. Using black-bloc tactics the invaders bossed and pushed peaceful anti-fascist demonstrators out of the way, attacked some members of the press, and chased down the two or three right-wing demonstrators who remained in the park, ganging up on them like thugs and beating them, while cameras clicked. The next morning, the press, including the “liberal” San Francisco Chronicle, led off with a photo of masked goons clubbing down a white-haired elderly man. Another shot featured a crazed-looking masked agitator posing with a smoke bomb in front of a pair of photographers.
Antifa’s intervention turned a fascist fizzle into a major public-relations triumph for the “alt-right.” Without even turning out in any numbers, without any investment in planning, organizing, logistics, and the other costs of staging a rally, the fascist fringe scored an enormous media win. They looked to the world like the victims. Their grey-haired members were beat up by “leftist” goons. The press has a field day: Berkeley oppresses free speech with violence. Trump was right to condemn “both sides.” And so on. Breitbart and its ilk are celebrating. The day couldn’t have turned out better for the right wing if they had planned it.
Maybe they did. Many commentators have speculated that antifa harbors police provocateurs. Their job is to create violence and chaos that public opinion will blame on the left. They played a major role in wrecking Occupy in Oakland from within. Antifa’s actions in Berkeley yesterday are entirely consistent with a strategy to sabotage the broad anti-fascist opposition.
No doubt there are sincere participants in antifa who believe – however mistakenly – that street brawls are effective in stopping political movements. In these times of empty, boring rhetoric, it’s natural to yearn for the excitement, the testosterone rush, the high of physical confrontation. To talk seems shameful, to fight seems noble. Very understandable. Who hasn’t fantasized punching a fascist, or worse?
But where do the masks fit in to this picture? If fighting is so noble, why hide your face? If you believe in your cause, why conceal your identity? If you are so bold and brave, why are you too cowardly to show your face?
Wearing masks in political demonstrations has a long history in the United States. The covered face is an iconic part of a well-known political brand. Black masks, white hoods, same reasons for hiding, same intent to intimidate. Until antifa sheds its masks and shows its faces, it deserves the name Klantifa. Show your faces, Klantifa participants, so that we can identify the plainclothes cops in your ranks, the right-wing militia members who have no trouble infiltrating you, and the just plain goons and psychos who get off on beating people up.
Klantifa is not part of the left. Not even the “alt-left,” whatever that may be. They’re not anarchists, as the Chronicle labeled them Monday morning; Emma Goldman never wore a mask. Klantifa is a political tool of the neo-liberal corporate state, a direct descendant of Cointelpro and other covert counter-insurgency police operations.
People who think that beating up on fascist demonstrators stops fascism completely misread the rise of Nazism in Germany. The German people didn’t silently allow the Nazis to come to power. Strong Social-Democratic and Communist parties – much stronger than anything we have in the U.S. today – opposed the Nazi movement. Brawls between reds and brownshirts happened at every demonstration. The Nazis in Germany came to power in an election, because (among other things) public opinion tired of constant chaos and brawling and believed the Nazis would bring order. Much the same sentiments brought Reagan to power in California. Klantifa is part of the right-wing playbook to repeat those scenarios.
The point of demonstrations is to sway public opinion. Thousands of people in Berkeley came out to say that we oppose white supremacy and all the rest of the reactionary garbage that comes with it. That massive show of support could have had a powerful impact on public opinion nationwide, as did the demonstration the previous weekend in Boston. That victory was stolen from all of us who came out into the streets by the unprovoked actions of certain members of Klantifa, who obligingly enacted for the press the very stereotype of a violent “Left” that is so key to Trump’s post-Charlottesville narrative.
While Klantifa was the perpetrator, the assembled police were the enablers. One Berkeley police spokesperson was quoted as saying they felt “overwhelmed” by the group’s approach. That would be a laughable, pitiable statement if it weren’t so treacherous. Assembled at the scene, according to a Berkeley Police Department press release, were “law enforcement agencies throughout the region, including the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, the Oakland Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, the University of California Police Department, and Police Departments from the cities of Alameda, San Leandro, Hayward, Fremont, Union City, and Newark, and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.”
Eyewitness accounts, images, and later press estimates suggest that the police had on hand somewhere around four or five fully armed officers for each member of the black-masked contingent. And yet they abandoned their duties without the slightest effort to exercise control. They didn’t issue warnings, they didn’t block or surround the masked contingent or try to divert it. We’ve seen the BPD aggressively box in far larger crowds at other demonstrations in recent years. Not here. The absence of any effort to stop the bloc, the instant melting away of authority as the bloc approached, testify to a prior arrangement, a tactical understanding. The BPD and Sheriff Ahern’s office have some serious explaining to do.