berkleyprotest

Following the anti-far-right/fascist riot at UC Berkeley, national media and President Trump exploded in a storm of criticism of the events that took place, with threats to pull UC funding and increased police repression following the successful shut down of an alt-right hate speech by Milo Yiannopoulos- a close collaborator of alt-right Steve Bannon and editor of the ultra right wing Breibart news website. While many media sources sensationally shame UC Berkeley’s student population for supposedly devolving into “chaos”, students, faculty, and campus workers assert that the university did nothing to prevent the so-called violence from erupting.

By  La Voz- East Bay

A Victory of the Movement!

Public anger should be directed at the neo-fascist/far-right and the top UC administration for allowing the hateful event to happen, not at the rioters and black blockers. After groups of students and more than 100 UC Berkeley Professors requested that the event be cancelled on the grounds that Milo’s talks were intended to incite violence against students based on their identities (the literal definition of hate speech), the UC decided to spend up to $10,000 to protect the event, this is in addition to the $6,000 that the Berkeley College Republicans would be required to pay for internal security (the club received a single anonymous donation for security with only the requirement that Milo perform).

However, the most troubling cost of the Milo event was choosing to risk the lives of queer & undocumented students – who Milo planned to publicly identify as “targets” during his speech –  as well as to the security of anyone who stands against Milo. At a previous Yiannopoulos tour stop at the University of Washington, a neo-fascist shot a protester (who was a member of the IWW) at point blank range with a handgun (the neo-fascist was later released without charges after turning himself in to police)[1]. Despite the incredible risks and costs, UC admins chose for the event to go on.

Though the national media and UCB administration is focusing on the “violence and chaos” of the protest, it fails to recognize the true culprit as well as the serious harm avoided because of the tactic of the black bloc[2]. While individual Berkeley College Republicans intentionally entered the protest space to instigate fights, the black bloc entered the protest to ensure that Milo would not put other student’s lives in danger. The UC did not declare the event cancelled until 6:15pm, a quarter hour after strategic property destruction of a police lamp (used to surveil protesters/reveal identities within a crowd) and smashing of the Amazon store windows took place. The UC Administration worked too hard to make sure the event would go on, knowing that anti-fascist protesters would not simply sit back and let their community be put in danger.

Strengths and Limitations

On the day of the protest, February 1st, various organizing forces converged around 5pm, the Antifa Black Bloc being the contingent most visibly organized. The J20 coalition focused its efforts more on campus outreach and less in preparing a confrontation with Milo protesters. We in the coalition had a labor contingent with workers of several campus unions, from custodians to faculty. We carried a banner, had flyers with our political demands, and members went to act as security, legal observers, and medical care for protesters. Our group however was surrounded by a massive spontaneous participation from the campus community, around 1,500 people. The truth is that there was no central voice or group leading the protest.

In such a context, the black bloc created enough disruption to require cancellation of the event. This included destruction of property, but no violence against any individual. Around 6:15pm, the event was canceled and after several police dispersal orders, and the crowd migrated away from Sproul Plaza. One breakout group of the protest took Telegraph Ave before making a march around Downtown Berkeley, destroying windows at several banks and a Starbucks. At the time of the unstrategic property destruction, the protest crowd had dwindled to around a hundred individuals & the police watched and allowed the smashing of corporate property to take place. It’s easy to see why when on the following day, a heyday occurred in national news media over the supposedly violent riot.

Though the black bloc tactic helped get Milo’s hate speech canceled, the downside is that it sidelined not only the main organizers of the protest, but more importantly, the other 1,500 people who attended. Another limitation of the black bloc tactic was that it allowed the media to only focus on the violence, and not the victory and strengths of the protest (such as its unity against hate speech, its critical mass, its support of vulnerable student groups, its atmosphere of celebration following the event’s cancellation).

We are members of the UCB campus coalition, J20 (a.ka. Berkeley Against Trump[3]), that helped organize the J20 teach-ins, rally (which brought out 2000+ people) and march for Trump’s inauguration on January 20. J20/Berkeley Against Trump was one of the forces that organized a nonviolent and mass-based protest to get the Milo event canceled. The J20 coalition had included the Milo protest as part of its timeline of actions since November 2016, coalition members passed out flyers, and we did outreach with the goal to unite the various campus student groups, independents, unions, faculty and allies on 2/1/16[4]. Our goal is to build a democratic, grassroots and student and worker led coalition and movement to fight for public education and against the attacks of Trump’s administration on our communities.

Despite this amazing start to an organization, the campus community and allies were not able to reach many wide layers of non-radical students and student groups, workers, and faculty, and were not as centralized as we could have been for the day of protest on Feb 1st. For future events to succeed, the various anti-Milo protesters need to find a way to appeal to and educate a mostly “liberal/progressive” student base. This is so these sectors can be brought into a broad struggle for public education, against racism, for immigrant rights and against the reactionary attacks of the Trump administration to our communities (Muslim, Latin@s, Blacks, unions, etc.). Too much energy was spent meeting with the Chancellor, who historically has not been an ally to poor students and students of color. This time could have been spent conducting outreach, building campus-community bridges, and organizing ourselves and our allies to build a strong, unified reaction. Most crucially, we didn’t prepare a strong political intervention for the day of the protest. Given that we knew the far-right and neo-fascists would be there, our actions as a coalition needed to prepare for violence from these hate groups, from the police, and most importantly to engage in a political conversation with students and community members about the growing necessity to intervene against the rising tide of fascism in Trump’s America.

Who Are the Violent Ones?

We want to make clear that for us the use of tactics is subordinated to our strategic goals.  While we don’t think property destruction is always a useful tactic (it often alienates working class people and leads to more work for the people of color who clean up), we don’t agree the actions from the Black Bloc protesters can be equated to the “violence” of the Trump-Bannon-Milo alt-right against immigrants, Muslims and Black and Brown communities. Property destruction is simply one form of direct action. Violence is putting people’s safety and living conditions at risk. Violence is Milo’s speeches, and the far-right’s actions to our trans and undocumented communities, to have 43 million Americans living below the property line, and the many more who will join in after Trump implements right-to-work legislation. It is violent to have the highest incarceration rate in the world (most for petty marijuana related crimes, a Jim Crow regime of policing). It is violent to deport more than one million people per year, it is violent to bomb Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, to deny refugees, and it is violent to allow the epidemic of racist murders by U.S. police.

Therefore, for us, there is no comparison between whatever property damage happened on the UC campus on Feb 1st and the real violence imposed on working people’s bodies in this country. Furthermore, the corporate media should be ashamed of not having the human decency to label Milo, Bannon, Trump, or the police as “violent”, but being being so quick to stigmatize this one form of resistance that stopped a hate speech from occurring.

Hate Speech is not Free Speech

Our advocation for “free speech” has a class content that gives a central role to relations of oppression: we advocate for free speech and freedom of expression for the working class and oppressed, not for the ruling class and allies in organizations and movements that uphold them.

“Free speech” as established in the first amendment of the US constitution and in various capitalist presses is limited in our country. It was never truly democratic for all Americans, nor was it intended to be. The U.S. constitution was meant to protect white men with property and was structured to keep the rest of the U.S. population (enslaved blacks, indigenous peoples, women,etc.) oppressed & silent.

That said, the democratic movement that has fueled and gained our right for free speech in this country was fought for by those who claimed the right to freely criticize those in power and the existing structures of power and violence. Its historical origins are not in the site of institutional power, but on those who want to be able to confront it, and demand the most minimal right: to speak against the injustices, discrimination, exploitation and oppression they endure in this society.

It is a false and outrageous claim that those who control the means of production, the state apparatus, and are in a position of privilege, that those who speak from a place of violent power- have any moral, historical or political legitimacy to defend the democratic right of free speech. We know they want to take this right away us from, but we cannot and  will not let them.

Milo, the alt-right, the KKK, the neo-nazis, & Trump cannot be allowed to use & defend our right of free speech to exercise their vitriolic hate speech. This is for the simple reason that these groups have historically been opposed to it. They have never believed that Jews, Blacks, LGBTQ+, Latin@s, or undocumented immigrants should have the equal right of free speech that they claim for themselves.

Milo and his far-right brethren use physical intimidation and extreme harassment to intimidate and harm entire communities of people from the most exploited and oppressed sectors – immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ+, Black Americans, disabled/differently-abled, and working class folks. They engage in “hate speech” and not “free” speech. Furthermore, recent Supreme Court decisions have even pointed out the multiple limitations to the first amendment, including incitement, “fighting words”, child pornography, and others[5].

We have the whole the 20th century (with Nazism, Italian, Spanish and Japanese fascist regimes, McCarthyism, Jim Crowism, and others) to show that such attacks on these communities end up leading to their eradication and decimation. That is unless the working class movement and its allies are able to confront and beat back such an offensive. We showed on Feb. 1st that we are getting ready for that battle.

Next Steps in Building a Mass Movement

It’s no surprise the UC administration and far-right forces cried foul against the vandalism the day after the protest, but most of us in the organizing spaces feel the protest was an overall victory, with a strong defense of the black bloc’s effectiveness by many student leaders.

Regardless of the general opinion on the positive or negative merits of the black bloc’s actions, students and workers in campus need to focus our attention on the next steps in building a mass movement in our campus and campuses everywhere against the far-right and against the continued privatization of public education. It’s also important to note that the far right, UC administration, and some union bureaucratic leaders seek to focus their attack on the black block in order to pit the left activists against each other. This is even more important given Milo, Richard Spencer, and other far-right figures are already making plans for their return, and thus we will need to rally our campus and communities for impending attacks from fascists. For the next anti-fascist protest, we can absorb the lessons we’re learning from the Milo protest.

While the Milo protest was an incredibly strong demo of our collective potential, we need to be aware of the limitations it revealed. We’ve already highlighted some of the organizational weaknesses. Besides these, it’s important to analyze the limitations of some of the black bloc tactics in our movement’s goal to build a mass movement.  For example, we argue that the vandalism that occurred after the Milo event was canceled was not a good tactic and contributed to the negative publicity of the event and also shifted the discussion to the vandalism for the following weeks – instead of a discussion of the victory of the various campus and Bay Area forces in prohibiting the far-right from having a public podium.

Second, some students and allies took the lesson that only a black block acting separately from the other protesting would be able to cancel such an event. Now, for Feb. 1st that may be true – it’s important to point out that the police did not fiercely attack protesters as they normally would have against a black bloc (which has been a regular feature in Bay area protests since at least 2010).  For  instance, Oakland police did not even let a black bloc gather on January 20 (for Trump’s inauguration protest) during 2 evening convergences. This was definitely because these evening protests were only attended by a few dozen people, they didn’t have a mass crowd for protection from the police. Past protests in the Bay Area show that the police are more reluctant to deal out mass brutality when when there are thousands of people in the crowd. We believe that a protest of 2,000 people could stop far-right figures from speaking in public spaces – whether that’s through blockading, occupying or other methods.

Another limitation of the black bloc-like organizing and tactic as it has been used in the SF Bay Area, and generally in the U.S., is that they generally lack a clear working class and oppressed orientation. Their organizing methods are undemocratic and sectarian toward other organizing forces. Furthermore, their tactics are polarizing and sometimes force an artificial escalation of the movement towards a kind of confrontation that most of the people present are not ready to or willing to engage in. Tactics and organizing methods need to be adjusted to our overall strategy of mobilizing and organizing students and workers, especially the most vulnerable and oppressed. By having decision making spaces and having a collective plan, we can defend and enforce a plan together (which can entail different roles), which is key to our organizing goals. Additionally, the need for high security of some actions should not be a barrier for democratic organizing.

On the other hand, showing up to a campus with a separate action planned without consulting with the major organizing forces, can lead to alienation and the weakening of our movement. We are faced with building a united movement of the working class and oppressed to definitely defeat the far right and neo-fascism. But the antifa’s methods, as they are currently used, make it difficult  to build a working class movement. Black blocs do generally have a clear plan, but they usually only share it only amongst themselves. They didn’t reach out to the various campus organizing communities for Feb. 1st – at least not many of the ones in our coalition and others we work with. Then they enter into the political situation and take action that affects everyone without discussing it with most folks, and they don’t do any outreach to engage with people about their methods before or after.

To strike at the heart of fascism, one must address the capitalist system that creates the conditions of economic crisis and phobia that fascism grows from. At the end of the day, the fascists in Trump’s cabinet and the cornhusk himself are most concerned about protecting the wealth built on the enslavement of working class people. Therefore, to defeat fascism, we must build a united front, a mass coalition of students, workers, the oppressed and its organizations (from liberal to revolutionary, but absolutely no organizations of the ruling class such as foundations, corporations, conservative think-tanks, etc). We need to engage with liberals to show them that reform in an inherently unequal system will only waste our energy. If we don’t try to bring liberals to our side and instead only shut them out, we’ll see a polarization amongst students and workers between the ultra left and the ultra right.

As of the writing of this article, we already see the far-right/neo-nazi forces planning their return to campus (like the “Proud Boys” who plan to march in Berkeley and UCB campus on March 4[6]).  We need to dispute the lessons from the Milo protest and use our energy to build a stronger campus and Bay community coalition that brings the most vulnerable communities that Trump’s administration is attacking (like undocumented people, Muslims, workers, LGBTQ+, etc. ) together to build a series of united actions and protests this spring leading up to Women’s Day on March 8th, May Day (May 1st) and more.

[1]https://www.democracynow.org/2017/1/23/headlines/seattle_antifa_activist_shot_at_protest_against_neo_nazi_milo_yiannopoulos

[2] The black bloc is a tactic utilized by protesters to avoid identification by law enforcement. It emerged in Germany in the 1970s amongst anti-nuclear activists who learned the hard way that “peaceful protest” was not effective when police were ready to physically destroy the people at the anti-nuclear protection camps (similar to the indigenous water protector camps at Standing Rock today)

[3] https://www.facebook.com/berkeleyvstrump/

[4] Besides the coalition, there were also a group of UAW graduate students (some of whom are members of the J20 coalition) and faculty who had been meeting with the UC’s Chancellor and his representatives since November 2016. There were also Facebook events made for the protest by the Berkeley Antifa, other socialists, and a LGBTQ+ led dance party on nearby the event (whose goal was to be a more non-violent space) which each eventually had thousands confirmed to attend the protest. All this is to say that there was a lot of momentum and organizing done by various campus communities.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_free_speech_exceptions

[6] http://sfist.com/2017/02/12/alt-right_march_planned_in_berkeley.php

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