Or, Where Are the Clowns of Yesteryear?
Berkeley, April 15 2017 – Reporting from the amorphous front lines of Berkeley after an afternoon counter-protesting the “Hate Speech Is Free Speech” rally.
I woke Saturday morning and knew I needed to get downtown to oppose the Hate Speech rally.
This wasn’t my kind of event – a lot of standing around listening to people exercise their freedom of speech by yelling at each other, punctuated by interludes of frightening mayhem.
But I recall – the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany was accompanied by street thuggery of this sort – belligerent rallies and parades, shows of force and dominance intended to cow all opposition.
Knowing that the rightwingers specifically targeted Berkeley and the Bay Area, I had to be present. I wish I knew the perfect response (see below for some ideas). Since I didn’t have a proposal, I figured I needed to show up and support those who did, even if their plan included chaos.
Quick Street Lesson – generally your intuition can tell you when and where violence is about to erupt. Keep your eyes open and be prepared to move quickly. Keep an escape route open (best – keep near a corner where there are multiple escape options). Stay close to calm-looking people. Move as a group.
Black Bloc, Antifa, Anarchists – Who Are We?
Although the expression Black Bloc seems to have given way to Antifa (“anti-fascist” with an echo of “Intifada,” a Palestinian youth uprising), the call to the counter-protest suggested wearing black or grey – as opposed to red, white and blue. I pulled out my Dia de los Muertos T-shirt and headed downtown to join in.
(One doesn’t necessarily “join” the Black Bloc. One can dress appropriately and “join in.” I’ve been a fellow traveler since the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests. We have some tactical disagreements, but for the most part I appreciate their determination and gutsiness.)
Lacking any preparation, affinity group, or even a clear idea what to expect, I figured I better take my guitar, which has been through a lot of protests and knows how to stay cool.
I stuck a post-it with a few song ideas on the side, but wound up singing just two songs the whole time, over and over: We Are the Rising Sun and Harvest Chant (Our Hands Will Work For Peace & Justice).
Not that anyone could hear unless they stood right by me, thanks to the incessant drone of yelling, bleating air-horns, and periodic explosions of fireworks and smoke bombs. We even got pepper-sprayed by some random fool (the police later denied any involvement, and for once I believe them).
Perhaps a thousand total people in Civic Center park and surrounding streets (displacing the historic Farmers Market), split into three groups:
– 200-300 rightwingers attending the “free speech” event – overwhelmingly white men
– 300-500 black-clad lefties intent on disruption – a diverse bunch
– random Berkeleyites, photographers, and even a few intrepid Farmers Market booths (which somehow survived getting engulfed in the melee).
– oh yes, and the cops, who kept a low profile (they eventually arrested 21 people, all or most away from the action – I didn’t witness a single arrest)
Some of the rightwingers were scary. In a rally that already had several dozen beefy but disciplined monitors, there were an alarming number of free-floating thugs. It’s easy to see how Trumpism encourages this sort of public belligerence.
We’re talking a few dozen bona fide thugs. When they charged the Antifa crowd, we scattered, but easily regrouped and often had them half-surrounded. If this is the most they can muster, we can write them off as ugly loonies. If they’re the tip of an angry iceberg, it’s scary.
Over several hours, repeated scuffles broke out, but there were also long periods when people settled for yelling back and forth and throwing water bottles, firecrackers, and bagels(!) at each other.
Interestingly, the violence from both sides seemed fairly directed. Amid repeated bursts of fighting there seemed to be a rough sense of “engagement” – those who wanted to fight were mostly sparring with others who wanted the same. I was often near the action without feeling in danger.
Our Team – Meet the Antifas
Okay, I hate to binarize things. But this really was like a sports skirmish – two opposing teams with the cops acting as referees (“There will be no weapons, no smashing windows or cars, and no prolonged assaults.”).
Overall the Antifa crowd was a good-hearted bunch, a diverse mirror of the East Bay. A majority seemed to be men, but there were plenty of women and other genders. Most were young (20-30?), with a sprinkling of ageing hippies.
I ran into a half-dozen old Peoples Park comrades including Andrea from Rebecca Riots, a great 1990s folk-rock trio. I taught her Rising Sun, and we must have sung it a couple of hundred times amid varying degrees of chaos.
At one point our Antifa crowd marched past a row of rightwing monitors. I brought up the rear, singing Rising Sun, and started calling to the row of rather intimidating-looking monitors, “Come on, guys, sing with me!” It earned me the only round of applause I got all day.
Both sides lobbed fireworks and smokebombs so often that people stopped flinching when they went off. Our whole crowd had to flee around a corner at one point when someone released pepper spray that had us all coughing and choking. I felt thankful that no one escalated to an actual bomb or weapon.
The low point – a few lefty hot-heads threw rocks and even a bottle. Others of us shouted and booed. Someone yelled, “They’re just going to throw them back at us!’ and it seemed to convince people to knock it off. (I saw a rightwinger pick up the half-broken bottle and carry it to a trash can rather than throw it back – a victory for civilization!).
Our lefty crowd lacked cohesion, and as time wore on our numbers thinned. Luckily so did the rightwingers, and after one final burst of ugliness that chased us downtown and left several people bloodied, the steam seemed to go out of the fighting. People continued yelling, but the shoving and punching eased off.
We happened to be in the intersection across from the downtown Bank of America, and as the energy ebbed for a moment, I stopped my song and started yelling, “Why are we fighting each other? Fuck the banks!” It seemed to get a bit of traction, so I yelled it a few more times: “Fuck the banks!”
Two rightwing monitor-types walked over and said “What about the banks?” I explained that we’ve had successful bank protests in SF, and suggested that maybe we could all team up and shut the banks down some Monday morning. They seemed intrigued. I asked them to share the idea with their cohort, and we shook hands before parting.
This was around 3pm. The total crowd had dwindled to 100 or so people milling around the intersection of Shattuck and Center, arguing and talking. After a few more heated conversations that ended in handshakes, I called it a day.
Where Are the Clowns of Yesteryear?
If the rightwing is so brazen as to parade their hate-speech and rallies in the Bay Area, I feel called to show up and make a counter-statement.
I wish that opposing their hate didn’t take the form of yelling and throwing things.
Watching the ugliness and chaos, I wondered – where are the stilt-walkers and puppeteers and clown-anarchists of yesteryear?
Mostly evicted and gone, of course.
But the inspiration remains. A well-timed intervention by an affinity group of clowns and puppeteers might have eased this day’s tension much earlier.
Any spark of beauty and creativity would stand out and perhaps provide a thread to draw the energy in a more productive direction.
I ask my friends – if not us, who?
“We are the rising sun / We are the change / We are the ones we’ve been waiting for / And we are dawning…”
Lyrics by Ravyn Stanfield – click here for a youtube recording
Read the Sequel: Why I Quit the Black Bloc