Opinion: Stop pretending Berkeley is a liberal island in a sea of conservatism

Berkeley has been relying on its historic reputation for being liberal. But a suggestion to classify Antifa as a gang and the actions of police at the Aug. 27 rally show otherwise.

By Lily Fahsi-Haskell

Lily Fahsi-Haskell is a member of the Stop Urban Shield Coalition.

What makes Berkeley different from the rest of the country? Nothing.

Berkeley has long been riding the coattails of its legacy of radical movements and student rebellions, garnering attention for its liberal resolutions and city policies. Most recently, Berkeley City Councilmembers have been outspoken against Trump’s latest law-and-order measures, from the Muslim Ban to threats on sanctuary cities. Look below the surface though and many of these liberal policies are as meaningless as Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s claim to stand with community against white supremacy.

In the same weekend that Trump announced he would lift the ban on providing military grade equipment to police departments, Arreguín announced Antifa should be classified as a gang. From anti-gang policing targeting Black Panthers in Los Angeles to the crackdown against California prisoners organizing historic hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, history shows us time and again that gang classification is a tool used to repress communities of color and others who are asserting their political and civil rights.

Speaking of Antifa, Arreguín stated, “They come dressed in uniforms. They have weapons, almost like a militia” prompting community members to ask whether Arreguín’s definition of a gang also applies to his own police force that violently cracks down on demonstrators and has been under fire recently for rampant racial profiling.

Just two months ago, I stood alongside over 500 community members who showed up to a public city council meeting discussing whether Berkeley should cease its participation in a militarized police program, Urban Shield. When Mayor Arreguín rammed through a vote supporting the program, we were met by brutal police violence for merely chanting and unfurling a banner. Claiming he feared for his safety from the crowd, Mayor Arreguín brought in his militia to arrest and crackdown on the civilians inside the elementary school where the meeting was held. Two were violently arrested, many were injured, and an elderly man was left with his head bleeding after being struck by a police baton. Ironically, the Stop Urban Shield coalition was there to speak against the very violence they were met with and has continued its work to end the highly militarized, racist SWAT war games and weapons exposition hosted by the Alameda County Sheriff.

This is the same police force that provokingly photographed from close range each person’s face at a peaceful gathering in a park last Sunday morning before any demonstrations even began. After capturing my face from a foot away, these officers even filmed my notepad as I wrote my protest speech. Will Arreguín be adding all of our faces to the gang database? If so, perhaps he could purchase facial recognition technology at this year’s Urban Shield weapons expo on September 8th.

It’s time we stop pretending Berkeley is a solitary liberal island in a sea of conservatism under Trump’s tidal swell. Communities of color, homeless, and poor communities have always known the conservative shadow of Berkeley. By continuing to support Urban Shield participation and explicitly targeting activists for their anti-fascist politics, Arreguín has brought that shadow out into the light.

As happened in Charlottesville, Boston, and across the country, community members stood against white supremacist hate groups. You wouldn’t know it from the press, but Sunday in Berkeley, liberals handed out popsicles, 1960’s radicals invoked historical teachings in tie die, Black church leaders sang “we shall not be moved,” and indigenous leaders led the crowd in chants. Oh, and Antifa marched as well, defending the masses from violent attack. All those present acted with great unity and discipline to show the city that white supremacy is not welcome in Berkeley. Mayor Arreguín would do well to hear that message too and make sure his city policy reflects that sentiment.