BERKELEY, California — Many had expected the day to end in chaos, with fists thrown and property damaged. But by the time the crowds scattered from a widely watched conservative free-speech rally downtown on Thursday, it was mostly just insults that had been hurled between the far-left and far-right groups, with accusations of fascism and references to Nazi Germany.
Until midday Wednesday, the controversial conservative author Ann Coulter was expected to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, on Thursday — an event that seemed likely to spark another face-off between far left and right non-student groups, who have clashed violently in the last few months. But Coulter’s speech was canceled due to those safety concerns, prompting most of her detractors to stay home.
Coulter’s was the third speech by a conservative to be stopped at UC Berkeley since February, and the cancellation fanned the flame for the few hundred far-right demonstrators who gathered at a nearby park, some waving “Free Speech” signs and others holding homemade shields. According to many of them, the cancellation was just another example of how liberals are unfairly censoring free speech by conservatives whose views they oppose.
“I wanted to be right here in the epicenter of liberalism and be a red beacon of conservatism,” said Arthur Schaper, who wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat and a “President Donald Trump” flag around his shoulders. He said he made the six-hour drive from outside Los Angeles to fight for free speech and to hear Coulter talk about immigration.
The only headwear more popular than the red trucker hats were protective helmets, worn or carried by many of the protesters, ready for the crowd to pop off at any moment. Many attendees said they were there not just to defend free speech but also to defend against “far-left anti-fascists,” known as antifa, who fight people they consider to be neo-Nazis or white supremacists.
“Free speech doesn’t incite violence — shutting down free speech incites violence,” said Cory Bennetto, 34, whose helmet was decorated with Pepe the Frog stickers. Bennetto said he flew from Washington state’s Tri-Cities to be at the rally because antifa used mace on his brother at the Saturday, April 15, rally in the same park.
“We brought goggles, and our goal is to remove mace from the battlefield if it happens,” he said. “There’s no reason for mace. That’s all we want to do.”
But antifa didn’t turn out in force: Only a couple dozen protesters held anti-fascism signs and shouted chants and expletives at the free-speech-ers from across the street. Dozens of police officers — a fraction of the forces that swarmed the university campus — stood in the street to keep people on either side at bay.
One black-clad antifa activist whose face was covered with a blue bandana said in an interview the low turnout by the Left was due to the rally being on a Thursday afternoon.
“The goal for me today is to continue showing the presence of dissent,” said the Berkeley residen, who declined to give his name. “There’s not as big of a protest as there have been before, but it’s still important that they [conservatives] see that it’s not OK.”
The activist said people who criticize antifa for using violence against the alt-right are “very, very privileged” and “don’t know what it’s like” to be persecuted.
“Violence is committed every day against us, whether they’re microaggressions or violence that these folks would actually acknowledge as such,” the antifa member said. “I think that it’s completely justified when we have violence thrown on us every single day and they’re continuing to create a more violent, more hostile environment.”
Jetta Rae Robertson, a 31-year-old copywriter and antifa activist from Oakland, said the lack of cohesive strategy among antifa — a group that includes anarchists, communists, and socialists — means a definition of an antifa win is “very open-ended.” She said for her, “simple presence” can be a victory in itself.
“Liberals think that if you see a Nazi on the street, by letting him exist but disagreeing with him you are achieving some sort of moral and political victory,” Robertson said. “But the truth is that if you see a Nazi on the street and don’t do anything, the next day it’s two Nazis, and then it’s three Nazis.”
Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair and lead researcher of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, said alt-right leader Richard Spencer sees street fights as a tactic for forcing people to one ideological side or another, polarizing them to an extreme. He said Spencer wants the alt-right to “become a political force which is at once active in electoral politics and at the same time is active on the streets.”
Rosenthal said the violence in Berkeley has “made for wonderful propaganda” for the alt-right, even making it all the way to Trump’s Twitter feed.
Many people in the crowd said they were Trump supporters, with some caveats. Schaper, the man wearing a Trump flag, praised Coulter’s stance on immigration and said, “She’s not even afraid to criticize Trump if he’s not following through.”
“We need that wall built,” he said. “He should have ensured that it stayed in the budget and risked a shutdown. That would have been the Democrats’ fault. We need to repeal DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. He’s kind of slow on that.”
A helmeted man whose face was fully covered declined to give his name in an interview. We asked about his sweatshirt, which depicted Trump wearing American flag aviator sunglasses.
“Eh, I like Trump, but I don’t agree with everything,” he said. “It just seemed appropriate. I don’t have an American flag sweater; I probably would have worn that.”
Here are more pictures from yesterday’s protests: