Correction: A previous version of the article referred to the anarchist website “It’s Going Down” as an Antifa website.
A Patriots Day rally in Berkeley turned violent on Saturday as Trump supporters and white supremacists clashed with a group of black bloc protesters in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.
Early on, police attempted to keep the peace. Lines of officers in riot gear stood between the two groups as they squared off in the center of the park. Meanwhile, organizers set up sound equipment and decorations behind a line of rightist Oath Keeper militiamen clad in camouflage.
The first signs of violence began shortly after 11 a.m. as the Liberty Revival Alliance set up its public announcement system near the Peace Wall. Several men in leather biker-vests walked around the police partition into the west end of the park roughly an hour before the event. Antifa, other black bloc participants and assorted leftist groups took up positions there earlier in the day.
A fight erupted between the two groups after bikers initiated an argument. At least one man wearing a biker vest went down hard. Police moved in, fired pepper spray pellets and arrested at least two of the combatants while a flashbang went off in the center of the partition.
Things quickly escalated when a group of black-clad Antifa protesters, riding bicycles, arrived on the south side of the park on the alt-right’s flank. YG’s song “(FDT) Fuck Donald Trump” boomed from the portable sound system in tow. Right-wing speeches proceeded at the Peace Wall, but the din from around the park was so loud it was impossible to hear what they were saying.
After talking amongst themselves, the leftists breached the plastic barricade bordering Allston Way. Many of the left-wing counter-protesters then emptied into the street and police began firing tear gas into the crowd, hitting demonstrators.
Both groups began attacking one another: trading punches, hitting each other with cudgels, and throwing rocks, bottles and compost at one another. Large fireworks detonated intermittently. Soon, the right-wing group managed to push the black bloc and others eastward into the intersection of Center and Milvia streets.
— Brittany Pettibone (@BrittPettibone) April 15, 2017
An intense standoff ensued, marked by sporadic fighting. Eventually, someone tossed a smoke bomb into the black bloc crowd, filling an entire block of Center Street with smoke. The right, then charging up the street, scattering the black bloc protesters who tossed large fireworks behind them as they retreated.
Right-wing protesters halted their charge in the middle of Shattuck and Center, near Berkeley Square. Most of the left-wing militants had gone, but some less aggressive counter-demonstrators attempted to shout down the right-wing group with chants of “Nazis off our streets.”
Several other members of white supremacist groups were identified wearing Soldier’s of Odin hoodies and another sported an Asatru Folk Alliance tattoo on his elbow.
“They come to Berkeley because Berkeley is Sodom and Gomorrah in their mythology,” said street medic Brennos Gunn. “They come here, to one of the most diverse communities in the country, and antagonize the residents and then cry ‘fascists’ when people react badly to having Nazi salutes in their faces.”
Several more altercations took place at the intersection, but by then, the demonstration had fizzled.
“Everyone on the counter-protest side would much rather be doing something else, but also have a strong commitment to not allowing white supremacists in our town,” Gunn said.
Rich Black organized the rally. It was billed as a rally for free speech, but many of the speakers were white supremacists. Brittany Pettibone and Baked Alaska, a white supremacist rapper, were featured speakers. Pettibone is a regular contributor to AltRight.com, a website founded by self-proclaimed neo-Nazi Richard Spencer. Members of the the white nationalist group Identity Evropa founded by Nathan Damigo were in attendance, but not officially invited.
Damigo was filmed at the demonstration sucker-punching a dreadlocked woman in the face in a video via SFist.com.
Many of the conservatives present were there simply to support free speech and President Trump, not white supremacists.
“(I) basically came down from Washington to support people in California who want to support the president and support freedom,” Trump supporter Joey Gibson said. “I’ve been to a lot of different places, seen the same people dressed all in black,” referring to the black bloc protesters.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source among the black bloc protesters wrote in an email that the situation is nuanced.
“There is an overarching motivation (of black bloc protesters) to quell the immediate threat of white supremacists and ur-fascists of all stripes,” the source said in an email. “That is not to say that all Trump supporters, even pro-Trump rally-goers, are fascists, but they are unwittingly being led along by the nose by fascists.
“The first thing to understand about black bloc is that it is not an organization; it is a very horizontal and loose network of people.”
A spokesperson for the anarchist website “It’s Going Down”, also speaking on condition of anonymity, disputed the idea that they wanted to shut down speech. They were disturbed by the recent spate of attacks on mosques, Jewish schools, Jewish community centers and LGBTQI spaces.
“What we want is not government censorship,” the spokesperson said. “What we want is for people to get organized in their communities and shut down rising fascism and white supremacy.”