"What's happening to Berkeley? Are you safe?" our friends ask. National headlines scream: "Riots in Berkeley!" "The Death of Free Speech!" Yes, something is happening in Berkeley. We've been trolled by the hard right. And our "leaders" haven't responded effectively. Now it's time for the true defenders of free speech to step forward.
The so-called "riot" unfolded in three acts. ACT ONE: Berkeley Young Republicans invited Breitbart bigot Milo Yiannopoulous to speak on campus (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/us/uc-berkeley-milo-yiannopoulos-protest.html). On February 1st a crowd formed before the speech (estimated size 1000). Suddenly it was invaded by the East Bay anarchists, who call themselves "AntiFa." They threw cherry bombs, started fights, and generally riled things up. Campus police cancelled the speech.Milo's speech, and subsequent (cancelled) speeches by David Horowitz and Ann Coulter, were funded by the Young America's Foundation, one of whose donors is the notorious Rebekah Mercer -- daughter of Oligarch (and Trump supporter) Robert Mercer.(hline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/mercers/ ) [Young America's Foundation has sued the University of California over the cancellation of the Coulter speech.]
ACT TWO: Subsequent to the cancellation of Milo's speech, a pro-Trump group scheduled a protest in a downtown Berkeley park; part of the nation "March 4 Trump" demonstrations -- which drew a laughable 160 to the National Mall. A few Trump supporters showed up in Berkeley and were met by many more Anarchists, resulting in fist fights and 10 arrests.On April 15th there were national tax day marches. Once again, in the same downtown Berkeley park, the pro-Trump forces staged a rally. Predictably they were met by the anarchists, resulting in a several hours of sporadic fistfights and 23 arrests. And national news headlines: "Riots in Berkeley!"
It's informative to consider who was at the April 15th rally. Prominent was Identity Evropa a White Nationalist group founded by Nathan Damigo (http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/military/sd-me-nathan-damigo-20170417-story.html). Their office is in Oakdale, California, the central valley. The source of their funding is unclear but Damigo is affiliated with Richard Spencer, of the National Policy Institute (http://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2017/white-nationalists-work-make-inroads-us-colleges). The National Policy Institute was founded by far-right donor William Regnery; some of its board members are connected to Rebekah Mercer.
Another group at the rally was the Oath Keepers. Formed in 2009, this is among the largest US extremist groups claiming 30,000 members many of whom are former members of the military or law enforcement. It's founder, L. Stewart Rhodes, was present on April 15. Again their funding is unclear. Rhodes lives in Montana.
Also present were The Proud Boys, who called for the April 15 Alt-right rally. They were represented by Rich Black. Once again, it's not clear how they raise funds. (Although Black has solicited donations for his organization, "Liberty Revival Alliance" on the notorious Alt-right site Wesearchr.) The Proud Boys' offices are in New York City.
What these three Alt-right groups have in common is their mysterious funding and that they are headquartered outside the Bay Area,
On the other hand, the Antifa group is local. Antifa, short for anti-fascism, is a collection of anarchists, including the Berkeley chapter of "By Any Means Necessary." Its most prominent member is Yvette Felarca.
On April 27th, the hard right staged another Berkeley protest because of the cancellation of Ann Coulter's speech. At the downtown Berkeley segment, there were a couple of dozen identified Alt-right individuals. Oathkeeper L. Stewart Rhodes said he was there to defend free speech. (Antifa didn't show; Yvette Felarca reportedly boasted, "We don't need to come to the park. We won. We caused the cancellation of Coulter's speech.")
ACT Three: In hindsight, the Milo Yiannopoulous event was mishandled by the UC authorities. The hard right has seized upon this as an excuse to troll Berkeley; they're likely to keep doing this until Berkeley citizens take charge.
Milo Yiannopoulous should have been allowed to speak, as should other conservatives no matter how inflammatory their views. Antifa is wrong to block the exercise of free speech. Berkeley must remain the home of free speech.
History indicates that if there is a massive outpouring of nonviolent-free-speech support this will check the violence from the Alt-right and from Antifa. Therefore, the Berkeley nonviolent community has to mount a concerted effort to mobilize several thousand free-speech advocates to show up whenever there is a far-right speech or the Alt-right schedules a rally.
This is our challenge, Berkeley. We must defend free speech by standing up to political violence.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.