With “Free Speech Week” in Berkeley now safely behind us, I’m finding myself much less preoccupied by white nationalists than I was a few weeks ago. In August, emboldened by their post-Charlottesville visibility and Trump’s characterization of some of them as “very fine people,” they turned their attention to San Francisco and Berkeley– hotbeds of depravity, I suppose.
The official organizers, “Patriot Prayer,” disavowed any affiliation with white supremacists; apparently their main beef with us is that we’re “Marxists.” (I’m not sure how they square that appellation with the fact that we live in perhaps the most expensive housing market in the country, one that has displaced much of the “proletariat”– among other indications that capitalism is alive and well here.)
Anyway, despite Patriot Prayer ringleaders’ insistence that they rejected white supremacy, the anti-Semitic white supremacists who often rally on this group’s coattails came out to rattle us.
And rattle us they did. In that late-summer week leading up to their arrival, fraught conversations coursed among friends, at packed City Council meetings and through Nextdoor.com feeds about whether it was morally imperative to protest the neo-Nazis face-to-face or whether doing so served their publicity-courting agenda more than it did ours.
I wrote about my conflicted feelings about this debate in a “man-on- the-street” piece that Berkeleyside ran, excerpted below:
While I resent the amount of mental, psychological and physical energy the white nationalists are draining from so many of us right now, I find it both impossible and immoral to wholly ignore them. I’m inclined to trust the advice of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Life After Hate, an organization of former white supremacists whose mission it is to draw current white supremacists out of the movement’s clutches. Both organizations advise not engaging with the rally-goers directly, both to deny them the attention they seek and to remain safe. Instead, they recommend holding counter-rallies at an alternative location.
This seems like wise advice; however, I also sympathize with those who feel that it is imperative to confront the hatred face-to-face and to do so non-violently unless it becomes necessary, as a last resort, to physically defend oneself or others. The tens of thousands of counter-protesters who showed up in Boston made very visible the case that those who espouse hatred are vastly outnumbered and should be shunted back to what we like to tell ourselves were the pre-Trump-era margins of society. Indeed, in response to being humiliated in Boston, white supremacist organizers canceled over sixty planned rallies nationwide. Would the Boston counter-protests have been as successful had they been held at an appreciable distance from the white supremacists? Maybe, maybe not.
While Patriot Prayer officially canceled its marches in San Francisco and Berkeley at the last minute “for safety reasons” (perhaps having second thoughts about being provocateurs in cities where they were ideologically vastly outnumbered by the thousands of residents their presence had galvanized to counter-protest), that didn’t stop alt-Right folks from again taking a stab at airing their grievances with us this week. According to Berkleyside,
When the Berkeley Patriot student group worked with former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, “Free Speech Week” was billed as a major event from Sept. 24-27 along the lines of Woodstock for the conservative set. Rumored speakers included former White House advisor Steve Bannon and author Ann Coulter, along with a dozen lesser right-wing lights. But the students pulled their support Saturday. Yiannopoulos showed up to campus Sunday, anyway, wearing an American flag sweatshirt. He stood on the steps of Sproul Plaza where Mario Savio once delivered words that moved a generation. A protester from the group Refuse Fascism shouted Yiannopoulos down, and all he ended up doing was signing a few condoms and singing the “Star Spangled Banner.”
There have been 11 high-profile protests in Berkeley since Feb. 1, when a group of about 150 black clad antifa stormed Sproul Plaza and UC Berkeley officials canceled a talk scheduled by Yiannopoulos because of safety concerns. The university has spent at least $1.4 million on security since then, and suffered $100,000 in property damage. The city of Berkeley has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on police overtime and damage to businesses in the downtown came to about $500,000 during the Feb. 1 rampage.
Moreover, Berkeley has become the flashpoint for a national conversation — or battle — about what is acceptable speech and what is hate speech, and what lengths institutions should go to ensure that people like Yiannopoulos, who insults feminists, immigrants and Muslims, not only have the right but the opportunity to speak.
I don’t know about you, but this Berkeleyite is done being provoked by these goons. Judging from the small number of counter-protesters who showed up for Free Speech Week, I’m not the only one who’s sick of the drama, inured by the news helicopters incessantly circling overhead, and peeved by the well of resources being siphoned from Cal’s and our city’s coffers, resources that should be going to financial aid, low-income housing, the public schools and to so many other pressing needs in our communities .
I fleetingly find myself questioning whether my disengagement from the alt-right provocateurs so drawn to my city means that I’m not truly committed to fighting hate, but nah…it’s just time to redirect the energy that they’re trying to sap to more consequential battles.