Opinion: Berkeley must find effective ways to thwart battles in our city

Berkeley leaders, police, the community, anti-fascist activists and UC Berkeley need to engage in urgent deliberations about how to respond to the violence in our city.

If Ann Coulter shows up as threatened this Thursday at UC Berkeley, her presence will inevitably spark the fourth in a series of a violent clashes between white supremacists and anti-fascist activists. We as a community must respond effectively to these dangerous and escalating provocations. There’s no simple solution, but we ought to begin by understanding what’s happened so far and the dynamic that’s driving it.

The white nationalist “alt-right” has cleverly framed the confrontations as a hypocritical assault on free speech in the birthplace of the free speech movement. Nice try.

Coulter and the other white nationalist speakers who have descended on Berkeley this year (Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern and Brittany Pettibone) are not “conservatives” with a viewpoint Berkeleyans merely disagree with. These are professional provocateurs with no subject-matter expertise and zero intellectual depth — people who don’t hesitate to concoct and reiterate blatant falsehoods in the service of their fear-mongering agenda. Their contribution to debates around immigration and terrorism is nil.

White nationalist firebrands spew hate in order to inflame and normalize racist belief systems. They serve up not food for thought but grist for hate. If UC Berkeley Republican students sincerely sought to engage in a meaningful discussion about immigration, they could have invited any number of conservative intellectuals whose views, while disagreeable to most Berkeleyans, would not have provoked violent outrage.

The protestors there to “protect” white supremacist rock stars brought weapons and pepper spray and were armored in shin guards, helmets and goggles for what InfoWars gleefully called the “Battle of Berkeley.” They performed Nazi salutes and threw bagels at counter-protestors. At a Yiannopolous speech in Seattle in January, a Trump supporter was arrested for shooting an anti-Yiannopolous protester. We’re dealing with a right-wing militia, not a debate team.

That said, the antifas’ response to the white supremacists has, in my view, been counterproductive. As I understand it, antifas and By Any Means Necessary believe that the rise of the modern-day equivalents of German “brownshirts” must be forcefully suppressed. There is genuine fear that, if we allow racist thugs to parade down the streets and spew hate speech, that they will grow emboldened and could morph into a state-sanctioned fascist paramilitary force like the German SS.

I contacted emeritus Columbia history professor Robert Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism. Paxton had this to say:

“Considering what happened in 1922 in Italy and 1932 in Germany, in my opinion the grave error was not in leaving the street to the Blackshirts and the Brownshirts, but in the failure of the police and courts to do their job. When public order, which should be the most important function of the authorities, is taken over by volunteer groups on both sides of an issue, then the battle is half lost. So much depends on whether the Berkeley police are managing to keep order. Your job, I would think, is not so much to defeat the right-wing provocateurs by direct action but to do everything possible to get the police to stop them.

“To add another way of looking at how the Blackshirts/Brownshirts got their way in Italy and Germany, they created disorder and then managed to pose as the group most capable of assuring “order” against a Left seen as the main instrument of disorder. It is important to deny that strategy to the current right wing.”

My takeaway from Paxton is that the police need to do more to preempt white nationalists’ ability to take over our city. Confiscating weapons at the last skirmish was a good start.

The police are in a difficult bind. On the one hand, they’ve been justifiably reprimanded for inappropriate use of force against left-wing protestors. Just last week, several Councilmembers hosted a forum on militarization of Berkeley police, something our community clearly doesn’t want.

On the other hand, our City is literally being invaded by violent neo-Nazis who are occupying public space and making it unsafe for anyone outside of their hate group and, especially, for anyone identifiably non-white or non-Christian.

It’s safe to assume that 99.99% of Berkeleyans are staunchly anti-fascist. A very small handful of us anti-fascists feel compelled to violently confront fascists. Berkeley is quickly becoming the epicenter of fascist vs. anti-fascist violence, and I suspect it won’t be long before someone is gravely injured and/or Trump uses the crisis as an excuse to send in the National Guard and step up surveillance and suppression of dissenters.

Remember what happened in Skokie, Illinois in 1977? The Nazi Party sought to march through Skokie after having been denied permission to march in Chicago. The Nazis then applied for a permit to march in Skokie, home to many Holocaust survivors, under the banner of defending “free speech for the white man.” (Sound familiar?) The ACLU represented the Nazis in a First Amendment lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that even the most offensive hate speech cannot be enjoined.

After winning their Supreme Court case, the Nazis wound up never even marching in Skokie. They held one poorly attended march in Chicago. No longer able to pose as free speech martyrs, their momentum died, and they never marched in Illinois again.

University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone sees parallels between what’s happening today in Berkeley and the Skokie saga. “If those who oppose certain speakers just left it alone they would do their cause a lot of good,” Stone said. “As it is, they only give these speakers much more attention and visibility and encourage ever more of these situations.” In lieu of disruption and violence, Stone suggests simply protesting the content of loathsome speech.

I’d like to see Berkeley leaders, police, community members, anti-fascist activists and UC Berkeley officials, police, faculty and students, engage in urgent deliberations about how to respond. Reporters from Berkeleyside and Shane Bauer from Mother Jones should be called upon to inform the discussion with their observations and reportage. Furthermore, I believe the discussion could benefit from the input of history of fascism scholars like Robert Paxton and Yale professor Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century.

If antifas don’t want to participate in such a forum, I’d ask that they consider dialoguing directly with Professor Paxton – if they’re worried (as are all of us) about history repeating itself, ask a historian. In the meantime, think twice about taking the fascists’ bait – they’ve come for a fight and they’re getting what they want again and again and again. Who’s winning?

This opinion piece was updated after publication with comments from University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone.

Erica Etelson is a Berkeley writer and resistance activist. She tweets @iluvsolar.