“No Platforming”: Antifa and Free Speech in Berkeley

Ready for the march in Berkeley CA on August 27, 2017 Photo by Sam Breach

Although “No Platforming” has long been a strategy for fighting fascism, I was unaware of its history and importance as I participated in it on August 27 of last year. On that day I marched with a few thousand others to Berkeley City Hall to protest a planned rally of white supremacists. As we walked from our parked car a few blocks to the west, I was fearful of the neoNazis we saw heading toward their meeting point in nearby Martin Luther King Jr Park. However, I soon realized I would not be confronting them myself as a column of Antifa moved to the front of the march. When the march leaders called for people to stand between the white nationalists and the march participants, local Antifa stepped up to defend the vulnerable in the community. I was relieved because I knew that people who had protested rallies of white supremacists in the last year had been beaten and stabbed. I learned that in Sacramento police treated stabbing victims like criminals and failed to arrest the neoNazis who did the stabbing. I read that Antifa (not police) had protected clergy from violent attackers in Charlottesville. So like others in Berkeley I welcomed the presence of Antifa with the message “we have your backs” — we’re behind you with our numbers.

By the time I reached City Hall, the rally had been canceled and the hugely outnumbered far-right demonstrators had largely dispersed, with little knots of protestors around the individuals who remained to harass people. (For specific examples see www.motherjones.com/media/2017/08/what-the-media-got-wrong-about-last-weekends-protests-in-berkeley/.) Although participating groups had agreed to principles of conduct that included a pledge to nonviolence, one of these individuals was so provocative that some Antifa chased him down a side street, followed by cameramen and police. What happened next was in all the newscasts: some of the Antifa pummeled the provocateur in a fistfight. That was the only part of the afternoon that was deemed newsworthy, and it was enough to paint Antifa as the aggressors.

Media pundits suddenly “discovered” Antifa, with headlines such as the one in the Washington Post, “Black-Clad Antifa Members Attack Peaceful Right-Wing Demonstrators in Berkeley.” The news equated Antifa with masked anarchist troublemakers. For the many viewers across the country of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah presented a gross caricature of Antifa providing no background, no balance, no understanding. It was a discussion of this show that led me to engage in defending Antifa. Just when I needed to learn more, a new book appeared: Antifa, The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray (Melville House Publishing, 2017). Bray gives a very comprehensive story of Antifa based on his detailed knowledge of 20th century European history plus first-hand experience and over 60 interviews. In his words, “[The book] aims to equip a new generation of anti-fascists with the history and theory necessary to defeat the resurgent Far Right.” (p. xii)

Since in the US we tend to think the Nazi defeat at the end of World War II ended the threat of Fascism, we have little appreciation of the extent to which fascist leaders and groups organized throughout Europe in the postwar period. In response, groups of Antifa organized at different times in Italy, Germany, France, England, Holland and elsewhere to prevent the very real threats to their communities and to block the fascists from gaining political traction. Bray illustrates the threats with details of clashes between neo-Nazis or white power skinheads and anti-fascists in neighborhoods of Milan, Amsterdam, London, Athens, Sandakar (Norway), Rostock (Germany) and others in the decades after the war. In recent years the influx of immigrants and refugees into Europe reignited nationalist, exclusionary policies and the growth of racist parties that are prominent today. Parties such as the National Front in France have aroused anti-immigrant sentiment and encouraged fear of Muslims as terrorists.

From the history in Europe, Bray leaves no doubt that even small fascist organizations must be stopped. In both Italy and Germany the fascists started with very limited support. “Across Europe massive fascist parties emerged out of what were initially small nuclei… in 1919 Mussolini’s fasci had a hundred members…The German Workers’ Party had only 54 members when Hitler attended his first meeting…” and his party had only 1.3% of the population when he was appointed chancellor in 1933. (p. 140) While every small white supremacist group represents this potential, actions of large segments of the population enable their growth. “The fascist regimes of the past could not have survived without a broad layer of public support”… making allies by “demonizing the marginalized [and] privileging the favored.” (p.203) This situation certainly reflects what we see under the current administration in Washington DC.

Antifa groups in the US have taken many lessons from their European counterparts. Since individual Antifa have been targeted and even murdered, wearing black clothing and covering their faces serves to hide their identities from their fascist opponents as well as from the media and the police. (Hence the description, Black Bloc.) More recently use of social media as well as the formation of groups on university campuses have spread the fascists’ reach to recruit new members. Statistics from 2016 and 2017 make it clear that the Trump campaign and electoral college victory emboldened white supremacists, resulting in increased incidence of hate crimes and in growth of neoNazi groups (see www.splcenter.org). Several cities witnessed overt parades of marchers draped in Nazi and Confederate flags, some carrying guns, some wearing hoods. As Charlottesville made clear, the unchecked intimidation can lead to violence.

No Platforming is a tactic to counter such public displays. No Platforming means disrupting rallies that aim to promote racist or fascist ideologies by organizing such large counter protests that the planned speeches cannot be heard: they are not given a platform. When enough counter protesters are present to vastly outnumber the white supremacists, the rally becomes futile and may be canceled (as witnessed in Berkeley last August). These are not just shouting matches; as Bray states, it is crucial “to make it so that Nazis cannot appear uncontested in public.” (p.205)

No platforming also means stopping talks by the spokespersons of those movements in order to disrupt their public organizing and prevent their reaching a broader audience. In February of last year when Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulis (a well-known racist, misogynist Islamophobe) was invited to speak at UC Berkeley by the Berkeley Republicans, he threatened to “publicly name undocumented students.” He had previously outed a trans student in his talk at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, leading to protests that canceled his speeches at NYU, Iowa State and UC Davis. Berkeley students met with the chancellor, submitted petitions, wrote op-eds and encouraged alumni to call the university in protest, to no avail. “The ‘university made it clear that no peaceful methods were going to stop him from speaking.’” (p.105) Rather, the speech was cancelled that night after anti-fascists pulled down police barricades, broke windows and painted graffiti, to cheers from the larger crowd of students. Later in the year similar ‘security concerns’ caused the university to cancel a talk by Ann Coulter. Antifa counts the cancellations as victories, because “It is fundamentally about understanding fascism as a political enemy with which we cannot coexist.” (p. 162, my emphasis added)

While the tactic of No platforming was successful in Berkeley, it was widely criticized and generally misunderstood. The media had a field day denouncing the ‘violence’ (property damage) by ‘outside agitators’ (some of whom were Berkeley students and residents) — what Bill Maher described as “‘the liberal’s version of book burning.’” (p. 143) Many saw No Platforming as a threat to Free Speech, without acknowledging the bigger threat that comes from encroaching fascism. Perhaps we have too little experience of fascism to validate that future threat, but we need to look carefully at the signs, such as the increased militarization of police, overt racist brutality of some police, loss of enfranchisement of citizens, and mass incarceration and export of noncitizens. In fact, a recent Southern Poverty Law Center study listed 79 hate groups in the state of California and reported the fastest increase in those identified as neoNazi or white supremacist. It is wholly appropriate that, “…anti-fascists prioritize the political project of destroying fascism and protecting the vulnerable…” (p. 144)

Yet here in Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, surely we hold Free Speech as an unassailable right? Actually, we accept many limits to free speech, such as no false advertisements, libel and calls for violence. In other countries that have laws against inciting racial hatred or denying the Holocaust, such incitements are also illegal speech. Thus when the issue of Free Speech is raised to allow leaders of the far-right to spread their fascist ideals, including racist threats and intimidation, it is not a rational issue but a political one, and it has political consequences. The white supremacists want to use public space to promote attacks on human rights and human dignity. They promote a view of “rights” that is dangerous to some and unacceptable to most of us. As Bray concludes, “once far right formations have managed to broadcast their xenophobic, dystopic platforms, it is incumbent upon us to drown them out with even better alternatives to the austerity and incompetence of the governing parties…” (p. 210)

That’s a tall order, given the skewed access to media to begin with. And yet these days lots of people are organizing in lots of different ways, figuring out how to go from analysis to action in order to build effective resistance to the Far Right. Understanding the history of anti-fascism undergirds the importance of that work. Marching to resist white supremacy feels like one important step, especially in the company of people of different races, religions, and ages as came together to deny the racists a platform in Berkeley last August.