Last week, as far-right political agitators made plans to descend on Berkeley, California, I heard that some members of the Three Percenters militia movement would be among them. Having gone undercover with a border militia last year, I went to Martin Luther King Jr. park to observe them and a hodgepodge of other right-wingers seeking to hold their second "free speech" rally in less than two months in the historically liberal college town. Anarchists and left-wing activists—who viewed the event's "free speech" billing as nothing more than cover for white supremacist and fascist groups to gather—organized a counter-demonstration called "Defend the Bay." Here's what I saw.
At 10:45 a.m. I arrive at the park, which is surrounded by flimsy, three-foot-high traffic-orange plastic mesh. It's sunny and warm. At the entrance, the police are inspecting bags, confiscating anything that could be considered a weapon. They take knives, mace, a stun gun, bear spray, an ax handle, and a can filled with concrete. The park is split down the middle with more orange mesh, creating a six-foot buffer between the left-wing side, represented largely by black-clad "antifascists," or "antifa," and the right-wing side, with pro-Trump banners and American flags. Antifa protesters are holding a large banner saying "FASCIST SCUM YOUR TIME IS DONE." The other side is facing them with a banner that reads "Defend America." There is a lot of shouting. Riot police file in and form a line between the two groups.
Street fights everywhere in Berkeley. This is so nuts. pic.twitter.com/SZoc0MdxyE— Shane Bauer (@shane_bauer) April 15, 2017
I walk into the right-wing side. A group of white men with matching comb-over haircuts are wearing skull half masks and shouting at the left-wing side. I pull out my phone and start to film the skull guys.
"Are you with us?" one asks.
"I'm a journalist," I say.
"Get the fuck out of here then," another says, shoving me. I continue filming.
"Fake news!" one says into a megaphone pointed at my face. He wanders off and starts chanting, "Build a wall! Build a wall!" Another puts up his fists and shuffles his feet like a boxer.
Nearby, I overhear two men discussing the nuances of their white nationalism. One has a shield made of skateboards painted with the flag of the black sun of Odinism, an archaic symbol appropriated by neo-Nazis. The other calls himself a National Socialist. When I photograph them, they both sieg heil.
Another man, with an American flag wrapped around his face, tells me he came to defend "Western civilization." Nathan Domigo, a 30-year-old ex-Marine and the head of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, is milling in the crowd. Later in the day, he'll be filmed punching a woman in the face during a street brawl. (After the video goes viral, the woman, Louise Rosealma, says she has been facing harassment and death threats.)
The right-wing side is almost entirely male. Some are dressed in motorcycle half helmets, ski goggles, gloves, and various forms of ghoulish masks. One is wearing a shirt that says "Proud Supporter of the Muslim Ban." Another's shirt says "Straight Pride." They aren't entirely white. A Latino man wearing a protective vest goes around shouting "Latinos for Trump!"
I talk to an African American man in a Trump "MAGA" hat who says his name is Malechite. He tells me he came up from Los Angeles to show support for the president because Trump is "a businessman." "He's all about building the entrepreneurs up. It's about people owning stuff, having businesses, owning houses, cars, things of that nature. We don't need these things, but we like to have these things. We gonna stand for something." I ask whether he thinks Trump is racist. "He's our president," he says. "There's nothing we can do about that, so it's either work with this man or go against the grain, and it could be a horrible four years for us."
Many of the signs people carry relate to free speech or references to the obscure, online subcultures of the far right. A few carry the green flag of the Republic of Kekistan, a fictional country for internet trolls invented on 4chan. One man is holding a sign that says "Da Goyim Know," a 4chan meme about uncovering Jewish conspiracies to run the world. Another sign says "Green Lives Matter" with a picture of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character appropriated by the so-called alt-right, the loose-knit movement of white supremacists and other bigoted groups that gained attention in the 2016 election.
Some people on this side came in from other parts of the country. A white man named Ian Herrin tells me he came from Colorado Springs to be "part of the movement." He says he was inspired to come by Lauren Southern, an alt-right activist and writer. Southern is walking around in a helmet surrounded by a security entourage of Proud Boys, a group of self-proclaimed "Western chauvinists" led by Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes. I approach a man dressed head to toe in camouflage, who wears a mask reminiscent of Jason from Friday the 13th. Mike won't tell me his last name, but he says he's from Orange County, California, and a member of the West Coast Patriots Three Percent, a militia-type prepper group that does armed paramilitary training. "The last rally when they shut down Milo, it kinda pissed me off," he tells me. "Everyone has a right to say what they want to say, regardless of whether you agree with it or not. That's what the Second Amendment—uh, First Amendment—is for."
There are perhaps a few hundred protesters in total, with the right appearing to slightly outnumber the left. At the front line between Trump supporters and antifa, there is a white man in a Spartan helmet with a red, white, and blue crest. He is wearing a GoPro on his chest, American flag shorts, and a Trump flag on his back, like a cape. "I ain't no fascist!" he shouts across the line at an antifa protester. A woman next to him, in a pink MAGA hat with an American flag painted on her cheek, shouts at the antifa man, "You're a fucking piece-of-shit terrorist! That's what you guys are: fascist terrorists!"
"Suck a dick!" the Spartan shouts to the antifa man.
"I love sucking dick!" the antifa man shouts back.
Sparta represents for the alt-right in Berkeley. pic.twitter.com/GjjC114ctv— Shane Bauer (@shane_bauer) April 15, 2017
Suddenly, there is a loud bang, possibly from an M-80 firecracker, on the right-wing side of the demarcation. The men in skull masks rush across the barrier and start punching people. Dozens of people are brawling, throwing punches, curling up on the grass, taking kicks. The police slowly move in. "Let the cops take care of it!" someone from the pro-Trump side shouts. "Fall back!" They go back to their side. People resume shouting at each other. Some police officers start filming the crowd. A Berkeley man walks around offering people Hershey's kisses. His shirt says, "Empathy as the basis for action is key to a better world."
By late morning, under a stand of trees several hundred feet back from the front line, people gather in front of a stage to hear the event's speakers. Three Percenter militiamen dressed in camouflage stand with their backs to the stage, looking out over the crowd. Their flag, and others from far-right groups, hangs from a tree. Speakers include Brittany Pettibone, a writer for AltRight.com who pushes the conspiracy theory of "white genocide." A man from a group called Based in LA identifies himself as a "gay, Christian, Trump supporter" and says, "If you wanted to call me a faggot, you can do that." An Oathkeeper leader calls for a round of applause for the Berkeley Police Department "because they didn't run" from the antifa.
Kyle Chapman, known as "Based Stickman," takes the stage. Chapman became a figurehead of far-right street brawlers after a video went viral of him breaking a wooden signpost over the head of an antifa activist during the clash in March over Milo Yiannopoulos's thwarted Berkeley appearance. "No longer will we cower in the shadows," Chapman says. "It is time we push back against the assault on freedom-loving Americans! This assault comes from all directions—the mainstream media, corrupt government officials, crony capitalism, and our education system which indoctrinates our youth. But today we stand opposed to one specific threat. And that threat is domestic terrorism!" he shouts, pointing in the direction of the left-wing side. "They have been relentless in trying to annihilate our constitutional right of free speech. They have destroyed and buried our communities. They are intent upon the destruction of Western civilization. Enough is enough! Your days are numbered and Americans will rise up against you!" The crowd cheers. Later, Chapman is arrested by Berkeley police on a warrant for the March assault.
An African America woman from LA, wearing a Trump T-shirt and an American flag bandana, takes the microphone. "Do I look like a racist?!" she says. "Do I look like a Nazi?! I am a black American!" Another M-80 explodes in the distance. "African Americans are being put in categories as Muslims. We are not Muslims! We are not from Africa! We are black Americans. And for all you mothers and fathers out there: Protect your daughters because the Muslim Brotherhood believes in marrying nine-year-old girls. They are kidnapping these little girls in America. We as Americans have to take matters into our own hands."
"We love you!" someone shouts.
"Black Americans helped build this country. We were brought here 400 years ago as slaves and we have developed this country for anybody to be here to enjoy!"
"Except for the illegals!" someone shouts.
"Except for the illegals," she repeats, laughing nervously. "Black Americans built the White House on the backs of slaves and we'd be doggoned if we let these foreign people come to our country and take America away from us. We will fight you tooth and nail and we will conquer our country back! We will fight for Donald J. Trump!"
Nicki Stallard, a white trans woman, takes the stage. She is from the Pink Pistols, an LGBT "self-defense" group whose membership grew after the Orlando shooting. They reference the tragedy as a reason to support Trump's Muslim ban. "Now I know that with many of you here we may have disagreements," Stallard says to the crowd, "but how many here love the US Constitution? Say yeah!"
"How many of you support the Bill of Rights? Say yeah!"
"I'd like every single one of you to turn to the person next to you and high five them." The crowd ripples with slapping palms. "Because you are brave. You are standing up here for the First Amendment, for free speech. It's kind of funny. They say anti-fascism," she says, pointing at the antifa, "but boy, they are surely demonstrating how they've perfected it. They don't have brown shirts. They have black shirts. But they are still authoritarian fascists. America was founded on freedom. We don't necessarily have to like each other, but we have to defend each other's right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. America is about freedom, not slavery, not submission, not authoritarianism. If you agree with me, say yeah!"
The counterprotesters, she says, are "Americans in Name Only: ANOS. Okay? ANOS. If you agree with me, say yeah!"
Around noon, a group of people dressed in black come up the street with a sound system blasting YG's song "FDT." The left-wing sidesteps over the orange fencing and pours onto the street, singing the chorus, "fuck Donald Trump." Trump supporters chant: "USA! USA!" People stare each other down along the front line. Soon, bottles and rocks start to fly through the air. The street erupts in punching and kicking. Hundreds of people flock to and surround the spasms of violence.
It goes on like this for nearly two hours. The riot police are conspicuously absent. The left-wing side makes attempts to break through right-wing lines and enter the park. The groups face off, brawl, and retreat over and over again. When the leftists get close to the stage, the leader of the Three Percenters orders his men to rally up and take defensive positions. The man in the Spartan mask yells out a battle cry, lunging into the left-wing side, and someone pepper sprays him. He takes his shirt off, squirts milk into his eyes from a spray bottle, and continues fighting.
A man in an InfoWars T-shirt stands on top of a dumpster and gyrates to the antifa's music. A comrade dancing with him wields a Pepsi can.
Two men who appear to be cops film the scene from a nearby rooftop. At times, it feels like a war zone, yet the violence becomes ritualized and predictable. Various participants get seriously pummeled and bloodied. People on each side retreat for care from their medics or to debrief with friends and comrades. Away from the fighting, there is an "empathy tent" set up by a small group of people with a sign saying, "Want to talk? We listen." It is empty.
By 2 p.m., the right-wing Trump supporters charge up a street toward downtown Berkeley, chasing antifa. Some antifa attempt to stop their momentum, picking out individuals to fight with. A group of antifa pull a fence into the street, but the right-wingers plow through it. A man in a skull mask jump-kicks an antifa activist. People cough from breathing tear gas.
Soon, roughly 100 Trump supporters, members of the alt-right, Proud Boys, militiamen, and neo-Nazis swagger into downtown Berkeley. From their point of view, the ability to say whatever they want has been triumphantly upheld in a city known as the lefty home of the free-speech movement.
But the left continues to confront them. For the next hour, hostilities continue to ebb and flow. A right-wing guy shouts at an antagonist, "This is funded by Soros! You are fighting for the man! Do your research!" A Trump supporter pulls out a knife but backs down after being surrounded by opponents. A man blows bubbles over everyone. Both sides throw some more punches, but they have become less committed. People have been fighting for hours and most seem to be fading. A local man sets up an easel and begins painting the scene.
A block away, police stand near their cars. I approach an officer and ask why they haven't intervened more during the last couple of hours of mayhem.
He shrugs. "That would be a good question for the chief of police."
"I've been seeing people get beat up all day. I haven't seen you guys around much."
"Mmmhmmm. Okay. And?" By the end of the day, they will have arrested more than 20 people, on charges including assault with a deadly weapon, battery, and committing a criminal offense while wearing a mask. (The Berkeley PD didn't respond to my request for comment, but in a written statement disseminated after the event, it said, "The Berkeley Police Department remains focused on protecting the peaceful expression of free speech and will continue to develop criminal cases and seek prosecution against all those who infringed on the rights of others and participated in riotous acts." It added that "police will be reviewing social media video footage to identify and arrest anyone involved in crimes on Saturday.")
By mid-afternoon, people slowly trickle away and the remaining members of the far-right contingent march back down the street, cheering. A man plays a snare drum as if he's some marching soldier from the Civil War. The day's events suggest that violent street battles between the far right and left could continue, perhaps here—with right-wing demagogue Ann Coulter scheduled to speak on the University of California-Berkeley campus on April 27—or perhaps in other cities. As the rally fizzles out, several people point their cameras at Chapman, a.k.a. Based Stickman. "Boston, Seattle, we are coming for you," he says. "You will no longer take our constitutionally protected rights from us."
A bearded man standing next to him in goggles, a bike helmet, and a Captain America T-shirt let's out his best menacing shout: "Ahhhhhhh!"