The “Free Speech Rally” in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park quickly became violent Saturday as several members of the crowd were hit with pepper spray and numerous fights broke out. Berkeley Police Department made 20 arrests.
Eleven people were evaluated for injuries at the event, and seven were brought to local hospitals for treatment. Arrests include charges of assault with a deadly weapon and other felony assaults, according to an advisory from BPD. Police will continue to make arrests after reviewing social media footage and other video footage of the event, the advisory stated.
The park was divided by two bright orange nets by 10 a.m. On either side of the barrier, protesters and counter-protesters held large banners, one reading “Defend America” and another reading “Anti-Fascist Anti-Racist.” Protesters jumped over the barrier several times, eventually taking it down completely, and engaged in altercations with the opposing sides.
Rally attendee John Beavers said he sustained a broken nose after demonstrators “blindsided” him “with brass knuckles.” Johnny Cadavid, another demonstrator, said his head was hit by a bottle and rocks and that he was also pepper sprayed and maced. Cadavid added that he heard more than 20 explosions at the protest.
“We held our ground … held ourselves with integrity,” Cadavid said. “(I) didn’t come here for violence. If this nation doesn’t get more capacity for nuance, we’ll continue to have situations in which people think they have the right to throw explosives.”
Larry Michaelson and Brett Johnson, two demonstrators who identified themselves as members of Bay Area Antifa, said they were protesting in opposition of white supremacy. According to Johnson, “true Antifa” emphasizes the spirit of nonviolence. Johnson likened the group’s efforts to those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
“Free speech has an air of white supremacy,” Michaelson said. “Since we have a white majority, the majority will drown out the minority.”
Members of several white supremacist organizations were present at the rally, including representatives from Identity Evropa, a rising alt-right group that identifies as “a generation of awakened Europeans who have discovered that (they) are part of the great peoples,” according to the organization’s website. Nathan Damigo, a member of Identity Evropa who was at the rally, said free speech and civilization are “an aspect of white culture.”
At about noon, protesters began marching down Allston Way. Some set off firecrackers and others threw bagels and rocks. BPD sent out an advisory about 12:45 p.m. notifying residents that large crowds had taken over Center Street and Allston Way between Milvia Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and that Mutual Aid resources had been requested.
BPD sent another alert about 1:50 p.m. stating that part of the crowd had moved to Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, blocking roads. The Downtown Berkeley BART station was closed about 1:20 p.m. because of the rally. It remained closed until about 4 p.m., when protesters began to disband.
BPD arrested one individual about 4 p.m. and apprehended him for being intoxicated in public, according to BPD spokesperson Sgt. Andrew Frankel. Officers left the scene about 4:20 p.m.
On Friday, the city of Berkeley issued a press release stating that sticks, pipes, poles, pepper spray, eggs and any other instrument that can be used as an “implement of riot” would be banned in the park Saturday. Police seized numerous prohibited items Saturday, according to a BPD advisory, including a slew of sticks, wooden dowels and poles. Confiscated items included a stun gun, mace, knives, bear spray, an axe handle, pepper spray and a can filled with concrete.
“We have a number of officers at the park. Our mission is to safeguard our community while ensuring the peaceful expression of free speech,” said BPD Officer Byron White.
The Free Speech Rally was organized by Rich Black, who was also behind the “March 4 Trump” rally that took place last month and erupted into violence, resulting in seven injury evaluations and at least 10 arrests. Two of the arrests made at Saturday’s events were warrant arrests based on follow-up investigations into the March rally.
The rally featured multiple controversial far-right speakers, including Lauren Southern, a right-wing radio host, and Nicki Stallard, a Republican gun advocate and spokesperson for LGBT gun group Pink Pistols.
“(I’m) hoping to support free speech, especially in an area like Berkeley infested with the militant left,” Southern said.
Several of the individuals present at the rally did not actively engage in the demonstration. John Paul, a Bay Area resident, set up an easel and canvas at the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street so he could paint the scene of the protest. Manu Hussain, who attended the event with his wife and his infant daughter, said his family came to observe the rally, but not in support of President Donald Trump.
Hussain said he brought his daughter because he felt it was symbolic for her to witness her first protest.
“I see the same thing, people having heated conversations and expressing their anger,” Hussain said. “People are ready for confrontation. … I do not feel the desire for confrontation.”
The Defend the Bay! Bloc Party & Cookout counter-demonstration was set to take place two hours before the Free Speech Rally — scheduled for noon — though attendees of both events were in the park by 10 a.m. The goal of the counter-protest, according to its Facebook page, was to shut down the Free Speech Rally before it began.
“We’re here to take a stand,” said BAMN organizer Yvette Felarca. “We’re here to stand against … the whole Trump administration.”
At this time, there appears to be no damage to Downtown Berkeley businesses and no injuries to anyone not involved with the event, according to a BPD advisory.