Berkeley’s Civic Center Park has hosted three far-right rallies already this year, so a planned demonstration on Sunday, Aug. 27, feels familiar.
But in the wake of a white nationalist march that turned tragic in Virginia, many residents and officials are on higher alert as the rally approaches. Dozens of residents are calling the city of Berkeley every day, suggesting ways officials can put an end to the event, said Councilwoman Sophie Hahn.
In the aftermath of the Charlottesville events, groups on both the far right and far left are imploring their peers to attend the upcoming protests. Billed as a “No to Marxism in America” protest, the rally is the second stop during the organizers’ “Free Speech Weekend,” which begins in San Francisco on Aug. 26. The main organizer of the Berkeley event is Amber Cummings, known as Based Tranny among her supporters. She is associated with groups that have held three other rallies in the same park.
Right-wing protesters — ranging from libertarian militia to white supremacists — first came to Berkeley on March 4 to protest the cancellation, on Feb. 1, of a planned talk by far-right icon Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley. Masked anti-fascist, or antifa, demonstrators, who believed Yiannopoulos planned to “out” undocumented students, flooded the campus, smashing property and hitting some people with sticks.
So groups on the right declared Berkeley ground zero in their fight for what they say is freedom of speech, returning on April 15 and April 27. At two of the rallies, they clashed with antifa counter-demonstrators, who were intent on denying the organizers a platform for what they consider hate speech, and violent fights broke out.
As was the case with the previous rallies, nobody has applied for a protest permit for Aug. 27, said Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko. He declined to provide details about the city’s plans to prepare for the rally.
“There are people who want conflict with each other. We don’t advertise all of our strategies because that would be giving a blueprint to people,” Chakko said. “We’ll prepare for any contingencies and possibilities.”
Berkeley police spokesman Sgt. Andrew Frankel was similarly scant on specifics about preparations, saying only, “We’re working with our mutual-aid partners. You can anticipate a significant increase in police presence” from an average day.
The Alameda County sheriff’s office said it is “going to have a big role” in the protest response as well.
During previous rallies, police were criticized for seemingly laying low while demonstrators duked it out. BPD Chief Andrew Greenwood has said officers going into the thick of a brawl would only escalate conflict.
Chakko noted that only people directly involved in previous rallies got injured, cautioning worried residents to simply stay away from the demonstration.
‘We are going there to talk about love’
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín issued a statement Tuesday night condemning the rally organizers.
“This rally, and its hateful rhetoric, is not welcome in Berkeley,” the statement read. “We are currently exploring all options. The city will keep residents informed as the date approaches.” In a now-deleted Facebook post, Arreguín said he was exploring the legality of stopping the rally from taking place. (Karina Ioffe, a spokeswoman for the mayor, confirmed the language of Arreguín’s statement was edited, and emailed Berkeleyside, “We will know more later this week after meeting with city attorney and chief.”)
Arreguín wrote that anyone involved in violence “will be arrested and punished to the fullest extent of the law.” Although there were several arrests at the previous rallies, only one person has been charged in connection to the violence. Eric Clanton, charged with assaulting a Trump supporter on the head with a bike lock, is awaiting his preliminary hearing.
In his statement, Arreguín referred to the upcoming event as a “white nationalist rally.” After Charlottesville, President Donald Trump came under fire from even Republican leaders for his failure to label the protesters, who chanted Nazi slogans, as white supremacists. Those protests culminated with a white nationalist plowing his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring several others.
Joey Gibson, the organizer of the Aug. 26 San Francisco rally, who plans to attend the Berkeley event too, said he rejects being lumped in with white supremacists. He said he has come to other Berkeley rallies from Washington state to protest the intolerance and censorship he thinks runs rampant in the city.
“We are going there to talk about love and peace and freedom. People who are outwardly white supremacists or Nazis are not going to be allowed in,” he said.
When asked how he will keep out unwanted people, he said he is only responsible for the San Francisco portion of “Free Speech Weekend.”
“I have no idea what’s happening [in Berkeley]. That could get crazy,” he said. Cummings, the Aug. 27 organizer, did not respond to requests for comment.
Though many rally attendees have written on social media that they plan to attack their foes, Gibson said he encourages people to be peaceful.
“You cannot beat an ideology out of someone. You can’t hate someone enough to change their mind,” he said.
Despite efforts by some organizers to distance the Berkeley rally from what happened in Virginia, both those on the right and left have said the Charlottesville events should serve as a call to action in Berkeley.
A city of Berkeley news release on Wednesday said, “There’s no evidence of organizational connections between those events and this one.” However, some participants and organizers in the Charlottesville march, including Nathan Damigo of white supremacist group Identity Evropa, and Cole White, who resigned from his job at Top Dog after the events, have come to other Berkeley rallies. (John Ramondetta, a Berkeley man considered to be a neo-Nazi by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is the second local person to be out of a job over his participation in Charlottesville.)
Kyle Chapman, a prominent personality in the local far-right scene, known as Based Stickman because he beat people with a stick at the March 4 Berkeley rally, has drawn connections between Berkeley events and Charlottesville on social media, calling for “patriots” to come back on Aug. 27.
In the days after the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Chapman tweeted that the white nationalists in Virginia were “set up” by neglectful police and attacked by counter-protesters in a “Berkeley redux.” He wrote that the Charlottesville driver charged second-degree murder was just trying to “get away” before he was attacked by antifa and thus drove through the group.
On Facebook, Chapman wrote, “I’m calling on all patriots and warriors to step up and support us in San Francisco and Berekley [sic] August 26-27th. The [mainstream media] is doing everything they can to slander us as racist. We are not! We can not submit and give the left another win. Berekley is the most important Battle ground in the country. We must make a stand.” Chapman did not respond to Berkeleyside’s request for an interview.
At a rally held in Oakland on Aug. 12, the day of the fatality in Charlottesville, speakers on the left, gathering in solidarity with the victims, also urged those in the crowd to show up in Berkeley. Earlier that day, leftist coalition Bay Resistance tweeted, “mark your calendars” for the Berkeley rally.
A group of local progressive organizations has also planned an alternative rally in downtown Berkeley before the main event.
“Fascists and white supremacists are meeting in Berkeley to try to intimidate us and incite violence. We’re meeting near UC Berkeley campus, blocks away and on the other side of the downtown, for a non-violent rally to speak to each other about the world we want,” the group wrote in the description of the “Bay Area Rally Against Hate.” On Facebook, 1,500 people say they are going to the rally, at Crescent Lawn on Oxford and Center streets.
Some local singing groups are also planning a coordinated musical demonstration during the rally.
In its statement, the city of Berkeley told residents not to hold alternative events downtown that could take police away from Civic Center Park.
Nearby business associations have issued advisories about the anti-Marxism rally to their members. The Downtown Berkeley Association postponed its planned Aug. 27 Salsa Sundays event on Center Street until September, to avoid interaction with rally-goers, said CEO John Caner.
“Obviously everyone’s concerned after what happened in Charlottesville,” he said. “Hopefully it’s kind of a non-event. It chews up a hell of a lot of police and city resources.”
How did it start?
As violent political clashes continue to occur in Berkeley and elsewhere, some have tried to identify their genesis, blaming, variously, the president, the internet, extremism and the media.
An article this week in the National Review, a conservative publication, pointed the finger at conservative campus groups. “It’s time we looked in the mirror,” asking why groups like the Berkeley College Republicans provide platforms to “apologists for the alt-right” like Yiannopoulos, the author wrote. He posited that the students aim to bait angry leftists.
A spokesman for the College Republicans, Naweed Tahmas, said Wednesday that he had not heard about the Aug. 27 rally, though at least one of the group’s members is listed as attending on Facebook, and others have gone to previous rallies.
Berkeley protests could have in turn informed the Virginia rally, suggested KQED in a recent article. Charlottesville organizer Damigo, infamous for punching a woman at the April 15 Berkeley rally, used the protests here as a “training ground,” and used Cal and other campuses as recruitment sites, the authors wrote.
One thing is clear: August is not the last Berkeley will see of these rallies. Yiannopoulos has declared he plans to return to Berkeley for several days of activity in September. And others on the far-right seem determined to come back.
“We’ll continue to go into Berkeley until we feel like people have a right to say what they want to say,” said Gibson.