For what it’s worth: there’s something happening here, and what it is seems reasonably clear. There are anarchists clashing in the streets with people expressing free speech. On 15th April Antifa protesters engaged a free speech ‘Pariots Day’ rally at Berkeley in violent exchanges which ultimately led to a dramatic rout of the Antifa lines. The event, which began relatively peacefully, quickly erupted into something close to a riot on the streets.
Footage of what is being called the Third Battle of Berkeley went viral online and one video seems to have met particular outrage. Specifically, this was the moment when a man sucker-punches a female Antifa protestor in the face. The incident took place after Antifa lines broke and retreated down the street, throwing flash bangs and smoke grenades towards the rally who gave chase. But before the story is condensed down to a single clip, there are some important things to say.
First, the female being punched in that clip had been mixed up in the fray of violence taking place. The footage clearly shows her leaping into an ongoing melee with an aggressive presentation, indicating readiness for some physical exchange. A screenshot of her Facebook prior to all this shows reads ‘Headed to Berkeley to disrupt the neo Nazo/white Supremaist jerk circle today. Nervous af but determined to bring back 100 nazi scalps’. Clearly she had attended the protest with intentions to cause trouble. This is not a black and white assault on an impartial female – she was an activist prepared to participate in violence like so many others there that day.
Although both sides were guilty here, the sum of videos online seem to indicate that many initial confrontations were instigated by Antifa. This assessment is certainly supported by a weight of evidence that Antifa has resorted to violence while protesting numerous other events in recent months.
Antifa, short for anti-fascist, is an organised political movement which seems to specialise in disrupting otherwise peaceful rallies or protests by provoking pockets of violence. Many instances have led to large-scale conflicts like the one that took place at Berkeley on 15th April. There is a reason why this brawl is being called the Third Battle of Berkeley. More and more we are witnessing a transformation of political protest into recreational street battles.
Concerns have also been raised as to an apparent lack of Policing at the free speech event, particularly since it was well known that Antifa would attend and their tactics are notorious. WeAreChange.org published footage of several Police Officers maintaining distance from a scuffle over a dumpster. Others present, such as Lauren Southern of TheRebel.Media, have spoken about being grateful for bringing private security since no attempts had been made by authorities to control the situation.
In defence of Police at Berkeley, they and their colleagues across America and Europe, now operate in an environment of such severe scrutiny that the sort of intervention required to control a brawl on this scale would be a public relations disaster. I’m obviously not advocating the use of disproportionate tactics, but we can easily imagine how even an appropriately robust Police response in this instance would be reflected in the media. The result is a serious problem for free speech. Without real repercussions for their criminal behaviour, Antifa’s spectacles, violent though they may be, appear tacitly justified to onlookers.
I first became aware of organised Anti-Fascist movements like Antifa when Nick Griffin, former leader of the British Nationalist Party, was assaulted by Anti-Fascist protesters who pelted him with eggs during a news interview. At the time it seemed novel and arguably even supportable for a vilified figure to be confronted in such a physical manner on live television. No one was dragged off by their collar and no serious media platform offered objection. The ‘protest’ was therefore presented as something justifiable since its victim tended to say things people didn’t like.
But those were relatively more innocent times and we had not seen the extent of domestic political unrest like the sort fermenting today. While Nick Griffin being egged in 2009 may have been a colourful moment for the daily grind of politics, many of us are now becoming desensitised to eruptions real political violence on a regular basis.
Why is this happening?
Anyone who has had their ear close to the floor of internet media will have some knowledge about ‘social justice warriors’, particularly leading up to the US Presidential Election in 2016. These are primarily millennials who virtue signal by striving to tear down what they call systems of oppression in Western countries. That trend lends credibility what had formally been dismissed by many as paranoid ramblings from right-wing figures like William F. Buckley Jr., David Horowitz, and Andrew Breitbart. Essentially, in order to challenge a perceived blight of racism, sexism and bigotry, organised groups have been demonstrating public speakers and even began to accuse the most innocuous right-of-centre opinions as Fascist.
Tension has been rising on the Left in recent years and occasional outbreaks of violence from movements like Black Lives Matter grow in frequency. Of course, conflict inherently fosters polarisation and as the situation escalated, prominent oppositions responded. The media, looking for an easy narrative to help describe events have focused on some relatively unrepresentative and more extreme voices to supply alternative positions. So to help us understand political violence happening today, we are given a narrative of Anti-Fascists struggling against various ‘extreme right’ movements captured under a single umbrella term: ‘Alt-Right’.
To be clear, there are extremists on both sides of this false narrative. Antifa’s members do count Communists and Anarchists among their number, and the Alt-Right includes Nationalists, even Fascists. But both sides should be allowed to exercise their free speech so long as they do not initiate or incite real harm against anyone else. Yet that is not the case anymore. Perhaps aided by simplistic, even biased media coverage, people literally believe Donald Trump is a Fascist and feel justified in resisting his supporters with physical force. It looks as though Antifa was motivated by just that kind of thinking at Berkeley since Donald Trump supporters attended the event along with free speech advocates.
Putting aside how unhelpful violence is to any cause, the point is that people should be allowed to express their beliefs peacefully regardless of what those opinions may be. A freely swinging arm may end where your nose begins, but freely expressed opinions do not end where sensitive feelings begin. It is important for dissenting voices to be available in a liberal democracy and we must all train our tolerance muscles to allow that. Voltaire may not have actually said these words, but they still resonate as the spirit of a functioning democracy: I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
When I reflect on my reaction to Nick Griffin being egged in 2009 I regret not having a more nuanced perspective on what actually happened. My disappointed that there wasn’t another John Prescott moment must be related to the excitement some people derive from political confrontations happening today. But no one should be pelted with eggs for voicing an opinion, even if you reject those opinions to your very core. What Antifa is doing is fundamentally objectionable and their violent members should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.