Protests and public demonstrations have long been a constant part of the Bay Area landscape, particularly nearby in Berkeley, the heart of the free speech movement. The environment has fostered strong opinions, loud voices and awareness of a multitude of issues big and small, far away and close to home. This is something anyone familiar with the area typically grows comfortable with, but there’s a new “political cause” to the scene at Berkeley that isn’t so easy to stomach- namely, white supremacism.
On April 15, a gathering of white supremacist groups faced off with a separate group of protesters calling for Donald Trump’s tax returns. Violence ensued and at least 20 people were arrested while property owners braced themselves and transit was rerouted to avoid downtown Berkeley. It was preceded by a similar, smaller clash, spurred by another rally of white supremacist groups on March 4 near the same location.
Liberal and leftist activists have faced increasing backlash from the alt-right, and Berkeley has become ground zero for confrontation between the two opposing sides following the protest of and subsequent cancellation of a planned February speech by Milo Yiannopoulos. Although the April 15 protest was a nationwide effort in numerous cities with the simple goal of calling for Trump’s tax returns, the presence of the “March4Trump” rally held in Berkeley the same day mobilized the anti-fascism (or antifa) activists who have been at the heart of the prominent protests in Berkeley since Trump’s election, many of whom were just as prepared to fight as the alt-right groups who deliberately targeted Berkeley.
These incidents have been shallowly characterized as clashes between pro-Trump and anti-Trump activists by numerous media outlets as they scrambled to tell “both sides of the story” while failing to evaluate the nuance of the issues at hand. Berkeley and the Bay Area at large, while a notably progressive pocket of the country, have been defined by strong opinions and political action, not all of which is progressive. Anti-abortion activists and religious groups may have been faced with a sense of being somewhat anachronistic over the years, but conservative voices have never been silenced, even by those who oppose them.
Conservatism is nothing new to the Bay Area. Historically, people of opposing sides of the political spectrum have managed their conflicts without erupting in violence and shutting down parts of a city. The difference now lies in the fact that the “alt-right” is not advocating a legitimate political position.
Self-declared neo-Nazis and white supremacists will always face staunch opposition in Berkeley and the rest of the rational, ethical world. People spouting Nazi propaganda and making racist gestures, particularly in an area in which they know they’re unwelcome, do so out of their own free will and are responsible for the repercussions. In the Bay Area, this will often be in the form of a reflexive punch to the face.