Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Jesse had engaged in black bloc tactics since the 1990s. They did not become a black bloc participant until Occupy Wall Street, but began fighting against neo-Nazis in the 1990s. The article has since been corrected.
*Note: names have been changed to protect identity.
An American flag attached to a wooden pole swung violently through the air at the “March 4 Trump” rally in Berkeley over the weekend.
“Spick! Beaner!” a rallier shouted.
Jesse*, providing protection for their friend, attempted to grab the pole in self defense. A man wielding a knife in one hand and a club in the other suddenly appeared, they said.
Jesse swung at the hand with the knife, but then recalled another rallier grabbing both of their arms from behind, leaving them exposed and defenseless.
“The only thing going through my head was just, ‘fuck,’” they said.
A comrade quickly intervened and hit the man restraining them, setting Jesse free to fade back into the crowd.
“You find strength in solidarity, knowing that you have people there to support you,” Jesse said.
Jesse, a Jewish member of the LGBTQ+ community, was born to a feminist mom and a dad who volunteered to work with the Black Panthers. Jesse began to stand up against the rise of neo-Nazis in the Bay Area punk rock scene of the 1990s. They later adopted the Antifa mindset and first started to engage in black bloc tactics during the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Black bloc strategies and Antifa are not new-both have been around for decades.
Antifa, a play on the word anti-fascist, is a mindset based in anti-racism and against extreme right-wing politics. Black bloc is a protest strategy, often associated with anarchism. The tactic is rooted in 1980s West Germany where it was used to combat the rise of police crackdowns. The tactics include direct confrontation, defense and vandalizing of property.
“I’ve been to demonstrations where black bloc has played relatively productive roles in their capacity to shut things down and bring attention to targets,” said Ron Hayduk, associate professor at SF State’s Department of Political Science. However, Hayduk believes nonviolent forms of protest are the most effective overall.
Black bloc methods are often, but not always, used to support Antifa values. But not all Antifa protesters engage in black bloc tactics. There are no leaders that organize Antifa or black bloc protests, as both entities exercise a belief in equality among participants.
Protesters wearing face-concealing gear and head-to-toe black have shown a presence at recent counter-protests in the Bay Area and used black bloc tactics to stand up against what they view as hate speech.
“Yesterday’s objective was to not provide a platform for hate speech,” Jesse said. “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean it’s consequence-free speech.”
Sporadic fighting between the two opposing groups began around 2 p.m., and ended hours later with participants from both parties spilling blood and having milk poured into their eyes to counteract the burning sensation of pepper spray.
The rally’s organizer, Rich Black, said free speech was under attack in February at UC Berkeley when 100 masked protesters damaged campus property and shut down Milo Yiannopoulos’s planned event. President Trump reacted with a Twitter post suggesting the university doesn’t allow free speech and should be stripped of federal funds.
“We have these groups that are redefining what hate speech is,” said Black, a self-proclaimed Libertarian. “If there’s some notion that there are certain words or emotions behind what you say that allow another person to physically assault you, it’s against your rights and it’s against the constitution.” He added that he was not in attendance as a Trump supporter, but rather to defend free speech.
Lecia Brooks, outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), believes black bloc tactics can delegitimize otherwise peaceful counter-protests.
“Peaceful protests and counter-protests can be productive,” Brooks said. “But once violence is interjected, it leaves you with a police state feeling. Violent protests will never be successful.”
According to Jesse, black bloc tactics are designed to target specific property in cases like the Yiannopoulos protest.
“There was a Walgreens that was vandalized, but the independent liquor store next door was left alone,” Jesse said. “It’s specifically targeted to draw attention to a cause and to cost the corporations that are financially backing the stripping of rights and supporting the enslavement of Third World countries.”
Some “March 4 Trump” rally participants entered the park on Saturday determined not to engage in violence, but ended up doing so.
“I do not want there to be any violence towards anyone, even if it’s one of us doing something to anyone else, I would not stand for that,” said Tito Mena, a Trump supporter who was born in the U.S. and whose parents were deported to Mexico. He later appeared on video removing his shirt before a counter-protester ran towards him and began a fistfight.
Those engaging in black bloc used the event to stand up against what they view as hate speech. Jesse has friends who say they are non-racist Trump supporters, but believes hate speech specifically should face confrontation.
“This was the far-right trying to create a call to arms, they wanted a violent confrontation,” Jesse said, recalling ralliers wielding weapons and wearing body armor. “There are xenophobic, homophobic and transphobic individuals who are just there because this extreme right-wing movement is providing a platform for their hate.”
The election of Trump has motivated the alt-right and stirred action from the leftist resistance movement. Berkeley has become Ground Zero for clashes between the two groups. Tense rallies and counter-protests were held across the country on Saturday, but Berkeley’s event gained national attention for its violence and arrests.
“There’s been a rise in white nationalism, and the so-called alt-right, since Trump began campaigning,” Brooks said. “It has continued to grow since the election.”
In the month after Trump’s election, there were 1,094 bias and hate crime incidents in the country tied to his victory, according to SPLC.
Jesse said there has been an increase in people getting involved in Antifa and using black bloc tactics recently as a counter to “a radical mobilization of white supremacist factions.”
“I would say the intensity of sentiment on the left and the right are really important for conversation and public policy debates,” Hayduk said. “They can serve to engage members of different communities, and of course elected officials, on the direction the country should move.”
There were attendees on both sides of the “March 4 Trump” rally who stayed clear of the fighting taking place in the middle of the park, and instead engaged in conversations on the sidelines.
“As much as I don’t like to see the city polarized in this way,” said counter-protester and Berkeley High School student Zev Bennett, who condemned violence used in protests, “I know that it’s important to not just sit at home and let this happen without making a stand.”
Pepper spray and fistfighting continued to break out throughout the afternoon involving both sides, leading to 10 arrests. The Berkeley Police Department said five were charged with battery, four with assault with a deadly weapon and one for resisting arrest.
Upon leaving the rally, Jesse was detained for about 30 minutes with a handful of others participating in black bloc tactics. An anonymous witness confirmed they were walking down the street as police ordered them to get on the ground. All detainees were released with no official charges made against them.
“Because of the nature of the crowd, police are not always able to make immediate arrests without inciting further violence or injuring peaceful bystanders,” said Berkeley Police Department Lt. Andrew Rateaver in an emailed statement. “Police work to document and identify suspects and arrest them at the first available time. Sometimes that’s during the event. Sometimes, that’s in the days that follow.”
Jesse remains confident that they will fall on the right side of history.
“I don’t want a better future for myself,” Jesse said. “I want a better future because we, as human beings, deserve better than what we’ve been given.”