On Aug. 27, about 7,000 people came out in Berkeley at several rallies and marches to oppose white supremacy and the far right’s latest attempt to use Berkeley as a staging ground for their campaigns of hate. This is a sea change. While 1,500 protested against Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley in February, attendance at similar protests waned over the course of last semester, as they increasingly devolved into street fights between far right thugs and masked antifascists. After a year of right-wing provocations under the false guise of free speech, the Aug. 27 demonstrations against hate represented a successful turn of tables in favor of progressive protest.
This massive showing is doubly impressive given the concerted attempts to prevent anti-racist protests. Amber Cummings, after canceling her “No to Marxism in America” rally, tried to play the victim card by claiming she had “grave concerns for the safety” of attendees, a typical right-wing maneuver to vilify and dampen counter-protests. But far more damaging than right-wing propaganda have been the repeated attacks on anti-racists’ free speech by powerful liberals like UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and the Berkeley City Council, including Mayor Jesse Arreguín.
The Berkeley City Council advised people to “stay away” from all of Downtown Berkeley, specifically criticizing any attempts to create “alternative events … even if peaceful.” Arreguín adopted the same position, rejecting peaceful protest and advising that the best way to respond to white supremacy is by “turning your back” to it. Perhaps sensing that his meek advice was going to be rejected by thousands of Berkeley residents fed up with right-wing hate, Arreguín then took a politically opportunist turn to promote and distribute thousands of “Berkeley Stands United Against Hate” posters. A large protest would be a great way to show a united stand, but Arreguín recommended that people just place the posters “in their windows or in their yards.” After all of this passivity, Arreguín had the gall to show up at the rally Aug. 27 and ask to speak on the stage; Jeremy Tully, an organizer of that day’s Bay Area Rally Against Hate, says Arreguín was not permitted to do so.
Meanwhile, in a widely publicized statement on free speech, Chancellor Carol Christ defended the repeated invitations by student groups of far-right provocateurs to UC Berkeley campus, arguing that “it is critical that the Berkeley community come together once again to protect this right (to free speech).” This defense, however, did not extend to anti-racists. Just two days after that flowery statement, Christ publicly endorsed the City Council’s advice to not protest in downtown Berkeley.
Not content with simply arguing that Berkeley residents shouldn’t exercise their right to free speech, these powerful liberals then attacked that right itself. With the amazingly dubious excuse that police do not have enough authority on public sidewalks and streets, City Council passed an urgency ordinance giving the unelected city manager broad powers to regulate protests. For any sizeable “street event” that does not have a permit, including all of the demonstrations against hate on Sunday, the city manager can take “actions as are necessary” to preserve public safety. The very same manager, of course, gets to decide what is necessary. The ordinance includes prohibiting items such as weapons, but this is actually an illustration, not a restriction, on the manager’s new powers. These powers will last through the rest of the year, beyond the scope of last Sunday’s rallies.
Then, with a mere 24 hours notice, UCPD barricaded West Crescent Lawn, where the Bay Area Rally Against Hate was supposed to take place. Unite for Freedom from Right Wing Violence in the Bay Area, a coalition of numerous community and labor organizations, spent months planning a safe rally in that space, as a respite from right-wing provocation but still an opportunity to stand united against hate. By effectively pushing protesters off Crescent Lawn, UCPD subjected thousands of protestors to the dangers of the adjacent Oxford Street, one of the busier streets in the city of Berkeley. Opportunistically, Christ now claims that she aimed to “protect our campus and community” and applauds “the thousands who protested peacefully in Berkeley”. Those thousands were in fact protected by a large volunteer security team, trained in advance by the rally organizers, according to Tully, who also helped manage the rally’s safety team.
The right-wing has spent the last year using “free speech” as a cover for their provocations and violence, and powerful liberals have given cover for this nonsense. It is a relief that on Aug. 27, 7,000 people in Berkeley showed us the actual value of the right to free speech. If Mayor Arreguín and Chancellor Christ actually care about defending that right or fighting white supremacy, they need to get out of the way and let the ordinary people of this town show them how it’s done.
Mukund Rathi is a law student at UC Berkeley.