It was a good weather for a protest. The sun was shining down on the city of Berkeley, and there was a small breeze in the air. The light filtered through the lush trees bordering Martin Luther King Civic Center Park. But weather aside, the scene was anything but silent: helicopters roared overhead, men yelled at each other across a sea of people, and camera shutters clicked as the media swarmed the crowd. Nothing draws out reporters like an alt-right free speech rally, particularly one where there’s the threat of violence.
Earlier this week, a back-and-forth discussion took place at the University of California, Berkeley about whether or not Ann Coulter would be allowed to speak on campus. The Berkeley College Republicans were vying for a “yes” vote, of course — but after the destructive riots that took place on campus in the wake of Milo Yiannopoulos’s canceled talk, the administration balked at the idea. Coulter canceled her talk, and in response, her fans from around the country attacked the university on social media and in the news, saying the school was inhibiting freedom of speech.
So impassioned were the alt-right about this decision that a plan was made to rally at Martin Luther King Civic Center Park in Berkeley to support the First Amendment, and rumors swirled that Antifa and Black Bloc would also show up — presumably turning the event into one of the violent brawls that have taken place in the East Bay city over the past few months. We — along with reporters from almost every print, radio or TV station in the Bay Area — decided to show up and see what all the fuss was about.
At 1 p.m., when the crowd of around 200 was just gathering, it resembled a cosplay festival celebrating male aggression. Almost everyone was wearing helmets — baseball helmets, bike helmets, special forces helmets, construction helmets, wrestling helmets. At least a dozen people were dressed in fully army regalia. Many had American flag capes tied around their shoulders. T-shirts with slogans were rampant: “Proud Member of the Basket of Deplorables,” read one. “Republican is the New Punk” stated another.
One man, wearing a suit but no shoes, spoke into the microphone about supporting “Gods purpose,” and then bathed people’s feet in the grass.
While many advertised their patriotism and support of President Donald Trump in full costume, others were more subtle, and many of the attendees couldn’t easily be identified as being on one side or the other. One petite brunette woman in a straw hat and sandals looked from the back to be an average farmers-market-attending Berkeley resident, until she turned around with a pro-Trump poster. And the freedom of speech signs — often a term used to support liberal agendas — were being held by men in “Make America Great Again” hats. It was weird, to say the least.
Although attendees had flown from far and wide — many traveling from out of state — the event itself seemed to be loosely organized, and contradictory in its presentation. Anyone who wanted to could grab the mic and talk to the crowd, though there were few enough willing to do so that several people repeated their speeches twice in the span of a few hours. While many called for a peaceful protest, thanking the Berkeley Police Department for being there, extensive evidence contradicted that call. A triage center under a huge tree contained first aid kits, gauze, milk (presumably to treat tear gas), vaseline, hydrogen peroxide, and a big trash bag filled with construction helmets.
And the attendees were dressed to fight. Helmets aside, many were outfitted in full military regalia, football shoulder pads, and motorcycle protective gear. Testosterone level was high, and the entire vibe was one of antsy, anticipatory waiting.
At one point, a man on the mic said the Antifa were rumored to be a block away, and dozens of people rushed to the edges of the park, looking up the street. When they didn’t show, they filtered back into the crowd to talk to reporters and drink sodas (yes, there was a lot of Pepsi).
Shortly after 3 p.m., an announcement was made that the rally was over, and people began packing up to leave. Cops were still out in full force, however, and it was only once any semblance of structure at the event completely dissolved that a few arguments and arrests took place. One man was arrested for throwing a bottle at the crowd of Trump supporters. Another, who showed up wearing a mask, had it forcefully ripped off his head by police, and was promptly pushed into the back of a police car. And a third man, who was yelling at the crowd from the passenger seat as it rolled past, was cited for not wearing a seatbelt.
By 4 p.m. most of the free speech crowd had departed, but a small group of Antifa protesters finally showed up. Berkeley police formed a line along Allston Way to keep the two sides apart, and although profanities were yelled, with a large number of police present to disrupt any violence, it ended quickly. Everyone eventually went home.
According to Berkeleyside, a total of five protest-related arrests were made throughout the day.
So in the end, Berkeley was a somewhat safe space for free speech Thursday, regardless of the rampant anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and honestly, anti-women signs and statements made by the alt-right crowd.
Was this a win? Perhaps — for everyone but the reporters.