Despite a handful of minor arrests and several enthusiastic debates, the “alt-right” rally in Berkeley on Thursday ended on a surprisingly peaceful note.
In stark contrast to rallies and protests since February, conversations and handshakes transpired between opposing parties and there was no sign of the violence that plagued recent protests. The civility may have had something to do with the largely uncontested nature of the day’s events.
People traveled in from across the country to once again converge in downtown Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in response to the controversial fight over the invitation and cancellation of an Ann Coulter speech originally scheduled for Thursday at the University of California, Berkeley.
Berkeley Police Officer Sean Tinney said that although intelligence about the gathering came last-minute, the department prepared as best as they could to keep the peace and keep the nearby high school students away from any potential disruptions at the park.
“I know there was a lot of communication with UC Berkeley Police Department and the surrounding agencies,” Tinney said. “So far, the Berkeley High School staff and security have been very responsive and involved in keeping their students disconnected from this event. Ultimately though, once school is out, we will try to keep them separate but they will be there until their parents pick them up.”
Since the Yiannopoulos debacle, three protests and counter-protests between right and left ideological extremes have been held at what was once known as Provo Park in the heart of Berkeley, only hundreds of feet away from Berkeley High School and the Berkeley Police Department. The location serves as a symbolic center for a fight over free speech that started in the same city 53 years ago.
Diandre, who declined to give his last name, stood adjacent to the park with the Refuse Fascism group in counter-protest. He feels people are repeatedly coming back to Berkeley because of its long history as a radical center.
“Mario Savio – when he talked about free speech, he wasn’t talking about free speech to put black people back in the chains or to be able to invade other countries,” Diandre said. “He was challenging other people to put their bodies on the cogs of the machinery and stop this imperial giant. And that’s what people in Berkeley still, not as much as they should, but that’s what they’re doing and that’s what it represents. And that’s why these troglodytes, these fascists are coming here.”
Darlene Savord came as a self-proclaimed patriot to “support freedom of speech” and to show a united front against Antifa, who she described as “little kids and thugs.”
“I was here on the 15th and I’m sick of Antifa,” Savord said. “If we don’t take our country back, then we’re in trouble.” She denies the alt-right are violent in their approach and believes Antifa is the cause of past battles between the groups.
“We would never throw the first punch, but we have the right to defend ourselves,” Savord said. “We are not the ones with M-80s. We’re not the ones with bats. We’re not the ones that instigate. We’re not the ones going to their rallies and shutting them down. We’re not the ones going to their speeches and saying that they have no right to speech. They come to ours and they try to shut us down.”
The glaring absence of Antifa and other black bloc protester presence at Thursday’s rally gave alt-right groups an opportunity to express their views freely and present their platform to media outlets. Cody Rutland, a member of the Bay Area Proud Boys who wore an Israeli flag on his back, saw the event as a success.
“We’ve had open dialogue on all sides of the spectrum,” Rutland said. He also said he came to support free speech and protect the First Amendment. “I think the purpose of today is to get back to that place of open dialogue. Just talking it out.”
Rutland, like Savord, suggested the patriot groups would like the opportunity to sit down at the table with the opposition but feel the extreme left is not open to that conversation.
“They’re not willing to sit and talk to us and that’s all we want, that’s why we’re pushing for free speech,” Rutland said. “If they were willing to participate in something with nonviolence, we’d openly give them a platform to get their ideology out. We’re intellectually diverse over here on this side and we want as much back-and-forth verbally—with a purpose, not just name-calling—as we can.”
The ideological divide between the two extremes often creates a conversational barrier and as John McCarroll points out, that problem is not unique to Berkeley or the country. The Scottish flight attendant just so happened to be in Berkeley for a few hours to witness the rally and heavy police activity. He described similar standoffs in Europe and the rise of the alt-right over the past few years, which he sees as having rippled from the tensions in the United States.
“When America sneezes, we get the cold as well,” McCarroll said. “Everything that happens over here filters down and eventually a year or so down the line, it happens there too. In Europe, we’ve seen this coming.”
Savord agrees that the problems extend beyond Berkeley, but believes Antifa is the offending party and laments their presence around the world. She claims George Soros pays Antifa members for their participation and said that the Trump administration will be providing proof of that.
Regardless of which side of the barricade people choose to stand on, Bikers for Trump representative Chris Cox is committed to protecting freedom of speech for everyone that steps up to talk. He traveled in from Washington D.C. Wednesday night and planned to return once the rally was over.
“I wanted to make sure that the bikers here were on point with our message, that we didn’t have any radical voices out here distorting what we really stand for,” Cox said.
“We’re not only here to protect those that are like-minded to our call, but if there are people that are not like-minded and feel that like they’re being overwhelmed, we’ll certainly watch their back too,” Cox continued. “As a patriot, we don’t discriminate (against) people that have a different political orientation.”
Although the day was fairly peaceful and some debates ended in handshakes instead of punches, middle ground between the extremes was still hard to come by. Diandre is convinced that the right wants to undo years of progress toward equality in order to “Make America great again” and that doesn’t leave much room for discussion.
“We’ll have to fight for a middle ground, which basically means driving out a fascist regime,” Diandre said. “It’s going to take millions of people and a lot of people waking up to the fact, which they know in their heart of hearts, that…this is not normal, that this is very scary.”