BERKELEY, CALIF.—In mid-August, press accounts from Charlottesville, Va., rightly emphasized the death of one innocent person and the violence of white supremacists. The prime story from Berkeley’s riot two weeks later was the opposite: Happily, no fatalities, but the left-wing “antifa” army showcased its violence, and once again most of the police stood aside at a crucial time.
Although few right-wingers came to the Berkeley park on Sunday, Aug. 27, 100 or more antifa warriors in black hoodies—their faces covered with bandanas, their hands carrying red flags and “No Hate” shields—looked around for potential victims. Some tackled one Trump supporter, grabbing at his DSLR camera while he hugged it under his chest. They kicked at him, ripped his T-shirt, ground his face into the asphalt until blood oozed out, and broke his camera lens. Some demonstrators yelled, “Stop!” “No violence!” and tried to pull the attackers away. Others cheered and clapped: “You rock!” “Heroes!” “We support you!”
I also saw a crowd badger a red-haired woman with hollers of “white trash” and vile obscenities. She said, “I just want to talk!” Some tried to converse with her, but one person deliberately blew a whistle nearby, drowning her words. A man in a blue Bernie Sanders T-shirt ejected speckles of spit onto my cheek as he howled, “My grandpa fought the Nazis!” The woman smiled and yelled back, “So did mine!” I asked the man, “How do you know she’s a Nazi?” He ignored me and chanted, “Trump is a traitor!” Then another group across the park starting screaming, “No KKK!” “Black Lives Matter!”—and the mob split, with some off to chase the next “Nazi.”
I found myself among a mob of 100 profanity-screamers and middle-finger-waggers who surrounded a brown-skinned man wearing a red Make America Great Again cap. He looked no older than 19. The crowd chanted, “Nazis go home!” and “Go to hell!” The kid stood silently smirking as a larger man towered over him with his fist raised, pushing so close that his armpit jammed against the boy’s face.
The left-wingers had come to harass what was supposed to be a great white supremacist crusade, a gauntlet toss into the liberal capital of America. For weeks the Bay Area quivered in apprehension: The same thugs who terrorized Charlottesville, many believed, would plague their neighborhoods with hatred and bigotry under the guise of two “free speech” rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley planned for a Saturday and Sunday in late August. So the residents prepared counterprotests, promising to meet these “Nazis” with fire and fury such as the world had never seen.
The organizers canceled the rallies, citing safety concerns, but that didn’t keep a few rally supporters from showing up, and it didn’t keep thousands of liberals and radicals from thronging the streets. Strident words from San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had increased tension. One Facebook group disparaged Patriot Prayer, organizer of the canceled rally, as “a group of flag-waving Christian fascists bringing their hatred of LGBT people and women.” One protester said of Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson, “This Latino boy is drinking the Donald Trump Kool-Aid and pretending to be a love-monger.”
Gibson is half-Japanese, and his ethnicity may not have been the only thing that protester got wrong. Gibson says he simply favors the freedom to voice conservative views without being automatically labeled a bigot: “There is so much hatred, so much anger.” He has blamed extremists on both sides and preached love. Even the Southern Poverty Law Center, notorious for calling Christian organizations like the Family Research Council “hate groups,” does not list Patriot Prayer as one or call Gibson an extremist.
The threats pressured Gibson to cancel the rally less than 24 hours before it was supposed to happen: He scheduled a press conference at a smaller park in San Francisco. But that Saturday morning, the San Francisco police fenced off the park and then blocked off the perimeters. Eventually, Gibson settled for an impromptu press conference for several local reporters at a location not made public. He blamed state and city leaders for stoking “lies” and “deception” about his group. When he appeared Sunday at Berkeley with his hands up, antifa protesters attacked him.
He wasn’t the only one attacked. Some signs at the Berkeley left-wing demonstration said, “Hate has no home here” and “Love trumps hate!” Others declared war: “United Against White Supremacy!” “Make Racists Afraid!” “Nazi punks [obscenity] off!” Police shuffled off to the side once the black-clad antifa gang climbed over and knocked down barricades. When a few police rescued Trump supporters under attack, protesters raged: “Nazis have their own bodyguards? [Obscenity] you, cops!”
I walked more than 15 miles hunting for “Nazi punks.” Instead, I heard plenty of expletives hurled at people whose main crime was the audacity to voice support for Donald Trump. Jovi Val, a Brooklynite who had flown out to attend the rallies before they were canceled, blamed antifa for “trying to make it into a race war.” A Latino Trump supporter asked a blond woman who called him an obscene word, “Why do you hate me so much?” She screamed into his face, “I don’t like what you stand for!”
Why so much rage? Many protesters told me they’re fighting a war against a fascist regime. Xochitl Johnson of Refuse Fascism said we’re currently under the Weimar Republic, the doomed German government that toppled under Nazism: “Look around, it’s all around us. You see fascists in the streets.” I looked around and spotted no fascists, but Johnson said that’s because they’re “cowards.” She said all Trump supporters are “de facto supporting white supremacy.”
Another protester, Jason Lee, told me there is a “fine line” between “threatening violence and finding violence acceptable.” Lee criticized liberals who “condemn violence as though it’s the worst thing. Violence isn’t the worst outcome—letting the fascists win is.” Johnson agreed: “We live in a violent world! We’re fighting pigs right now!” On Saturday Jordan Price from East Bay waved a sign, “No Tolerance For Intolerance,” and said, “You can’t say I have a right to be racist.” I asked him who he thinks is racist, and the female companion beside him leaned in and said, “Trump”—and all who support him.
Jordan Davis, a 25-year-old half-black, half-Jewish Berkeley resident with green-hazel eyes who wrapped a blue “TRUMP” flag around his shoulders like a cape, said that’s ridiculous: He's for Trump not because of racism—"That’s a lie and narrative I don’t fit in, obviously”—but because he believes Black Lives Matter doesn't really help African-Americans, and he's concerned about illegal immigration, Islamization, and the troubles of black families.
If the antifa protesters are right, then they're really fighting the nearly half of all Americans who voted for Trump last November: “Our eyes are open, and we see through the lies and deceit,” one local woman, Jean G., told me. She and others believe the whole system is against them—and the only battlefield left is the streets.
A nation in rage
On Aug. 27 I saw Americans recognizing that something is not right—something is in fact very, very messed up. Something’s rotting from the inside, and instead of looking squarely at sin—our own and others’—we’re belching out the toxic fumes of distrust, resentment, and self-righteousness.