The day started around noon with a few older Berkeley women in their pink hats and anti-Trump posters on and ready to go. Over the first hour both sides started trickling in at opposite ends of the park. Speakers from By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) had an open mic for people to come and share their fears and frustrations with the Trump Administration. At this point it seemed the rally would be peaceful. I was wrong.
Mike Bee, a pro-Trump supporter, was the first to arrive from the right side and stood right in front of BAMN with about 20 different signs that said things like, “Democrats are racists and fascists.” I tried to ask him how Democrats are racist when the party itself is a very diverse party of its own. He just raised a sign that said, “Liberals are the violent ones.”
Around 12:30 p.m. more pro-Trump supporters started to arrive. Many of which were in their late 60s and had their red Trump hats on and held signs that said “California Loves Trump.” The size of the crowds were slowly growing and as they grew and became louder and angrier.
Walking into this event I expected to see the presence of black bloc and Antifa, an anti-fascist group, and I was not disappointed. At first a lot of them hung back near a tree in the corner of the park with a large white flag that had big black letters spelling out, “Anti-Fascist Zone,” with their logo of three arrows pointing down diagonally. A lot of them had their faces exposed but there were a handful that showed up with masks on and dressed in all black.
I know these groups want their identity unknown and they do not want to talk to the media, but I still wanted to try and discuss their agenda. I decided to just stand with them with my media pass being exposed. One of them made a joke to me about Rich Black, the organizer of the event, saying that he was a walking oxy-moron because Black was walking around with a black and yellow flag that symbolizes the Capitalist-Anarchist party.
The moment he turned around to me to make this joke I knew I had a moment to make myself known to them as a journalist, but that I just wanted to hear their perspective and wanted to know more about them.. None of them would give me their names but a lot of them warmed up to me to talk about why they were there that day, as well as why they showed up at the Milo Yiannopolous riots just a few weeks earlier.
Black bloc is not an official organization but is more of a tactic in protests and rioting. Most of the people dressed as black bloc mostly identified as Antifa and anarchists. I was told that a lot of them have had to change their phone numbers, delete social media accounts and even move in extreme circumstances because the opposing side would expose their faces online to find their identity and ruin their reputations by contributing in riots.
I hung back with the black bloc crowd as the protesters and counter-protesters met in the middle of the field. At this point tensions were boiling over and the Berkeley police could be seen standing off to the side watching the event unfold into an onslaught of pushing and yelling which quickly led into physical fighting.
Most of the Antifa group masked themselves and even had shields made of plywood and the pro-supporters were larger in numbers and in demographics. I found myself wedged up in the middle of it all and I was trying to stay calm despite my heightened sense of adrenaline..
The first physical fight that broke hell loose was between a woman and an elderly man, Jim Templeton. The two had been yelling at each other back and forth, screaming obscenities and ended with Templeton punching her in the face.
I probably saw 30 individual fights break out in the crowd throughout the day. At one point I witnessed a black bloc member try to grab an American flag off the back of young man that was pro-Trump in the crowd. As the young man tried to tug his flag back, the surrounding crowd joined in creating an unorganized tug-o-war over the American flag. It only took seconds for this tug-o-war to become one of the larger fights of the day.
A tall elderly man, Tom Condon, was trying to grab the flag back when he started to use the butt of his cane to hit the counter-protesters in the face. One of the protesters grabbed his cane and pulled him into the black hole of black bloc. I watched from behind as he got punched in the face three or four times and then I lost sight of him. I pushed myself through the fighting and found him face down on the ground unconscious.
At this point my neutral journalist position flew out the window and I yelled to give him room as I tried to roll him over. His eyes were closed and his mouth was open and the possibility of witnessing a man die right then and there raced through my mind. Then his eyes fluttered open. Condon was helped up by other pro-Trump supporters and vanished out of the violent crowd as quickly as he was pulled into it.
People that were dressed as black bloc were stealing Trump hats and lighting them on fire causing most of the fighting. Both sides were spraying pepper spray and tear gas at each other. Counter-protesters had set up stations for people to wash their eyes out after being sprayed.
By 3:30 the pro-Trump supporters tried to make their way to MLK Jr. Way to finally start the march. Counter-protesters blocked them causing another confrontation, this time in the middle of the street. I found myself walking alongside black bloc and a Black Panther member. One of the masked guys said he heard the march ended back at the park.
By the time both groups landed back at the park, both had diminished in size. A lot of the older pro-Trump supporters had left, most likely due to the violence. Within the last hour multiple arrests were made on both sides and Black was nowhere to be found. It was approaching 5 p.m. and the crowd dispersed.
The ongoing theme of the day was freedom of speech. An aspect of American culture and righteousness that many are proud of and want to defend on both sides. What the two sides couldn’t seem to agree on was what defines free speech and hate speech. For as many fights that had occurred there were twice as many people trying to keep the peace and separating each other on both sides. For me, that is the underlining message that came from this rally.
The future is uncertain for many minorities, tension and anger is high, and the dividing line between Americans is being drawn. But despite all of that, there are still people that are trying to bring sides together, to understand each other and to one day live in harmony, whether it’s under this administration or not.