A few days before a scheduled far-right rally in Berkeley, Mayor Jesse Arreguín appeared alongside other local officials to denounce the white supremacy and hate they expected to be espoused at the Aug. 27 event. In the days following the rally — which drew thousands of counterprotesters to the streets for a largely peaceful event — the target of the mayor’s condemnation has shifted.
Arreguín first told CBS he thought the 100-200 “black bloc” anti-fascist demonstrators who poured into Civic Center Park on Sunday should be classified as a gang. In an interview with Berkeleyside on Wednesday afternoon, he expanded on the statement and his other take-aways from attending the “Rally Against Hate” at UC Berkeley’s Crescent lawn and later monitoring the events in Civic Center Park from City Hall with City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley.
“It was for most of the day a nonviolent protest,” said Arreguín. “You had thousands of people that were marching in the streets to oppose bigotry and racism. There was a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor, children, families — it really reflected Berkeley’s diversity.”
But, he said, “it’s unfortunate that a small group of black-clad extremists who seemed itching for a fight once again used this protest to commit violence.”
The antifa demonstrators belong to a far-left, largely anarchist, contingent that believes fascism is burgeoning and that preventing it often requires force. When a few protesters on the right showed up at Civic Center Park, antifa activists and some others chased them out and sometimes beat them. Their actions have been derided by many along the political spectrum, praised by some on the left and exaggerated in many reports of Sunday’s events.
Are they a gang?
“That’s just my opinion,” Arreguín said. “It doesn’t reflect any official position of the city of Berkeley. What we saw was an organized group who had weapons. They believe that felony violence is acceptable. We need to look at legal tools to deal with violent extremism.”
He noted that an antifa member gave a “dispersal order to the crowd,” using a megaphone to direct anyone not prepared for possible combat with the police or the right-wing demonstrators to stay away from the park.
Other officials have joined Arreguín in condemning the sporadic violence Sunday. Rep. Nancy Pelosi put out a statement against antifa, and her colleague Rep. Barbara Lee wrote on Facebook, “Those who instigate violence jeopardize our efforts to achieve peace and justice.”
At a press conference Monday, however, some local radical activists and faith leaders vehemently disagreed, saying the counterprotesters shielded the community from white supremacy. Some online have asked why Arreguín did not take the same stance when it came to organized white nationalist groups present at previous rallies. (The mayor has previously called out some on the far right, including issuing harsh criticism of Milo Yiannopoulos.)
“They believe they’re defending themselves and others, but what I saw on Sunday is they were the aggressors,” Arreguín said of antifa.
Arreguín went so far as to ask UC Berkeley to call off an upcoming, student-organized “Free Speech Week” that may feature Yiannopoulos and Stephen Bannon, for fear of a violent response, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.
“That was me expressing my own opinion,” said Arreguín, who conceded that Cal is in a tough spot. “My point was that these decisions do have an impact on the city of Berkeley. The university has, in response to my comments, said they’ll do everything they can to safeguard the community.”
UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ has said the campus has an obligation — legally and morally — to host the speakers, as long as the student groups inviting them follow protocol.
Arreguín said the speakers themselves are not of concern, but “the ways extremists have used these events to provoke violence in the city” is. However, he later said, “Similar to what mayors of Boston and San Francisco have said, hate speech and these [far-right] groups are not welcome in the city of Berkeley.”
“I’m proud of our city”
The mayor said he thought the city and police department did the best they could to maintain safety under challenging circumstances Sunday. At other rallies in Berkeley, some of which devolved into much bloodier battles between protesters on the far right and far left, police were criticized by people on many sides for seemingly standing back. On Sunday, officers intervened more frequently during early scuffles, but abandoned their post in the park in the afternoon, just as a face-off between police and antifa was reaching a head.
“We do need to be hands-on,” said Arreguín of the officers’ heavier involvement this time. But “unlike at previous events in the park, we had like four different events happening at the same time. All these marches converged at once. That creates difficulty in terms of arrests, when they’re literally surrounded by peaceful people. Contrary to what people said, our goal was to keep people safe regardless of what side you were on. That doesn’t mean police are white supremacists or picking a side,” when they escorted some on the right out of the park to safety, he said.
Thirteen people were arrested by the end of the day.
The city also made the decision to close the streets by Crescent lawn after Arreguín spoke with rally organizers in the morning, he said. The organizers were frustrated by UC Berkeley rules prohibiting bags and other common items on the lawn, and by the lack of an entrance at the foot of the lawn, making it difficult for disabled protesters to enter. Williams-Ridley had the idea to station garbage trucks at the boundaries of the street protest.
“We didn’t want a situation like Charlottesville, where a car drives into a large crowd,” said Arreguín, referencing the attack by a white nationalist driver in Virginia that left a counterprotester dead earlier this month.
At the Crescent event, thousands of labor and socialist organizers, along with many residents and some musicians, ended up rallying for more than two hours before some broke off and headed down to Civic Center Park.
Despite increasing polarization between the political poles, and disagreement over tactics among those on the left, Sunday’s showing should mostly be a point of pride, the mayor said.
“I’m really proud of the way our city is unified in opposition to hate,” he said.