I Saw Berlin On The Strawberry Creek
When free speech demonstrations are more publicity stunts than anything else
I want to start this post with a confession. One foggy night in the fall of 1994 I shut down a David Irving talk… only I didn’t know it.
I was a new transfer student at UC Berkeley, living in the transfer dorm. One of my floor mates, a guy of an oh-so-mature 28, said: “Hey, you are Jewish, do you want to come to a protest with me?”
I was pretty apolitical at the time and thought protests were embarrassing, but I wanted to make new friends. Me and my floor mate eventually agreed that although David Irving has his right to speak, I also have the right to protest his speech. Also, I thought that since I am at Berkeley, I might as well see a protest. I wasn’t even sure I was going to join in because of the embarrassment factor.
I remember burning trash cans and lots of noise and the jubilation of people in the middle of the plaza when it was announced that Irving’s appearance was cancelled. We stood at the sidelines, though, observing the happenings. Out of a few dozen people who showed up for the rally most were like us, standing along the perimeter and watching. I’m sure the papers reported everyone as protesting, but “looking at a protest” was a well-documented easily-discernible mid-90’s Cal phenomena. At any protest there was a small core crowd listening to a speaker and maybe holding a few signs. A much larger, silent crowd assembled on the edges; there was typically a wide empty path between the two.
After attending the Irving cancellation I no longer felt the need to rally gawk, and was more than happy to bury the memory in some particularly fat fold of my brain. It didn’t emerge until a few months ago when a flurry of out-of-towners began descending on Berkeley for exercises in violent political theater. Then I read somewhere that the Holocaust revisionist was invited by Berkeley College Republicans and that the talk was cancelled because some kind of violent altercation.
The latest episode of street violence took place in the City of Berkeley on April 15:
A rally organized by alt-right Trump supporters — and a subsequent counterprotest from their opponents on the far left — descended into chaos and open street brawling here Saturday, in what has become a monthly ritual of political violence in this Bay Area college town.
Both pro- and anti-Trump protesters arrived Saturday armed with shields and helmets, apparently ready for a fight. In fact, the fight seemed to be the reason many came out. Throughout the day, the two sides fought using wooden poles, pepper spray, mace, explosives, bagels, milk, and fists, bloodying their opponents in the melee. In conversations with BuzzFeed News, each side claimed that the other provoked the violence.
In the beginning the two parties assembling in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park and taunting each other with chants. Eventually the fight broke out. Sounds like something from an old-school anthropology report from Africa, no?
The brawl was videotaped from all angles, of course. The first dispatch from the rally I saw was a celebratory video of a man with a buzz cut striking an anarchist woman. Immediately after the woman falls, the viewer sees her social media screen with a quote from Inglorious Basterds promising “100 Nazi scalps”. The video, set to “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, went viral; it showed up on my Twitter feed via Instapundit.
I, for one, wasn’t surprised that a female counter-protester at an altRight rally was hit by a man. I wasn’t surprised that the men later turned out to be a neoNazi criminal Nathan Damigo. I’m not surprised that a neoNazi is capable of violence against women — after all the prototypes shot, burned and gassed women and children.
I was surprised by the number of people, many of them not altRight but self-identified conservatives, who retweeted the video.
There is no denial that our cultural mainstream is very cool with idea of female combatants. The diminutive, soft-spoken anarchist chose to be involved in a street brawl herself, albeit she probably didn’t expect to face not a riot policeman trying to keep two sides away from each other but a military-trained goon.
Still, a woman hit by a man is nothing to celebrate. In fact, any normal individual raised in values of Western civilization should be cringing. Even if the woman is a street walker with facial tattoos and odd ‘gender identities”, no self-appointed defender of Western Civilization is expected to jeer.
Equally disturbing is that amidst this Antifa-getting-its-comeuppance celebration so few twitterati found anything suspicious about the assailant. Just who did the opinion-makers thought he was and what kind of people showed up for the brawl?
Several notable alt-right figures were in attendance. Nathan Damigo, the founder of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa, punched a woman straight in the face. Kyle Chapman, a local alt-right folk hero known as Based Stickman, was also in the mix, dressed for combat in a helmet, elbow pads, and heavy kilt. Anthime Gionet — another alt-right writer (and former BuzzFeed employee) who goes by the name Baked Alaska — livestreamed the violence, trolling anti-Trump protesters by offering them a can of Pepsi.
Several alt-right bloggers were scheduled to speak at Black’s rally, including Irma Hinojosa, a member of Latinos for Trump; the Manspot, a hyper-virile personality who comments on the US military; and Brittany Pettibone, who writes about Pizzagate and “white genocide.” Stewart Rhodes, a leader of the Oath Keepers militia group, was also in town, ostensibly to protect the Trump supporters.
I see a strong consensus on the Right that today it’s the Left that is violent and autocratic (and anti-Semitic). To certain extent it’s true, and I’m not going to defend Antifa, BLM and their likes. However, the Right is not what it’s used to be three years ago either. How quickly we forget that our President, a Republican, nominally at least, encouraged violence at his own rallies. It is him who brought altRight into the American mainstream and it is him who quite likely wanted to replace traditional American conservatism with European-style nationalism.
Protests today stirring memories from long ago and far away
Twenty years ago a good friend of mine traveled to Germany for a conference. He shaved his head (because he was mostly bald) and wore a black leather jacket (because why not?). In San Francisco he looked entirely inconspicuous, but in Berlin people got nervous — at least until they caught site of his black girlfriend.
A few years later my husband took his band to Europe. They played and stayed in squats and came back with wild stories. Turns out, every squat in Europe has the graphic of the stick figure throwing swastika in a garbage can and the inhabitants trade tales of street fights with neoNazis. The honorable tradition of Nazi-commie street brawls, a common occurrence in post WWI Germany, were apparently revived at some point in the 80’s and had been going strong since.
My husband toured all over the US too. A few places were political, most not, and nobody thought it was necessary to stipulate that they were against Nazism. Twenty years and a generational change later, and we see the swastika in the garbage graphic all over “chill” California and out-of-town altRight and Antifa activists assemble on the streets on Berkeley for a fight.
A common misconception outside the Bay Area is that the radical atmosphere at the University of California nurtured the rioters. Yet Berkeley faculty and students are no more radical than other top tier universities. In my days it was often described as a conservative student body in a liberal town. There was plenty of “activism” on display: various individuals, most of them mentally ill, spewed nonsense on Sproul Plaza, some girl climbed a tree near the Strawberry Creek, etc. Those people were not affiliated with the University, however, just like the punks and the homeless on the South Side, they came to the city for the weather and liberal reputation, not the academics.
Although I fully believe that the school is more liberal today than it was when I attended, I don’t think special snowflakes enrolled in it are quite ready to throw Molotov cocktails. Majority of the anarchists involved in violence are not and probably never were Cal students and don’t even live in Berkeley. Ditto altRighties.
Anarchist protesters might be masked, but we know who some of them are. The single suspect arrested for refusing to disperse during the February riot that resulted in the cancellation of the Milo Yiannopoulos’s talk is not affiliated with the University. An employee is suspected in participating in the violence. Emily Rose (nome de guerre of the young woman punched by the neoNazi) is, like her assailant, from Southern California. Why not stay there and have a fight?
Since Berkeley has a reputation for both progressive politics and the 1960’s Free Speech Movement, it became a flashpoint for the altRight and their fellow travelers. No better place to go to show the hypocrisy of the Left: you want free speech? Here comes free speech!
And so Milo announced his intent to kick off his “huge comeback tour” with a multi-day “Free Speech” event in Berkeley and Ann Coulter vowed to hold her rescheduled talk at Cal on the original date, coming up this Thursday.
Posturing for publicity rather than promoting free speech
The organizers of the April 15 rally billed it as some sort of a free speech exercise, but the quality of people in attendance suggests it had as much to do with free speech as Linda Sarsour with feminism. Free speech (or feminism) is purely instrumental in achievement of their goals. It is safe to say that the sieg heilers are not interested in free speech per se, only in as much as it serves their goals of turning the US in some kind of fascist dictatorship.
Coulter probably doesn’t believe half of the things she’s saying, which at least means that she believes the other half, but Milo was always a transparent and shameless hack. None of that means that they, just like David Irving and Antifa, don’t have their right to free speech. Berkeley cops and Berkeley campus cops need to do a better job defending it, to be sure.
But while the locals might accommodate BLM, they have far less sympathy for Black Bloc. The First Amendment and non-violence are still held in relatively high regard. Liberals on local radio stations are practically begging the anarchists to ignore Coulter. Anarchists probably realize that it’s the best strategy, but how does one continue being an anarchist without smashing windows and throwing objects at neoNazis?
Here is a few words of wisdom from Joyce Carol Oates:
It’s not that liberals this, liberals that, as some on the right would like for you to believe. We are witnessing Eurofication of the US politics; we are moving in the direction of competing socialists and national socialists parties. It’s the middle falling out of the American politics.
Incidentally, Holocaust denial is illegal in Germany and Nazi parties are banned.