Last Saturday, as we do on many Saturdays, we went to Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Civic Center Park, usually the site of the Berkeley Ecology Center-sponsored Farmers’ Market. As always, Center Street, the park’s northern boundary, was blocked off, but this time the farmers weren’t there.
Faced with online threats by an assortment of aggressive groups, the market’s sponsors, fearing trouble, had decided to cancel for safety’s sake.
The blustering bullies had been there about a month before, with a permit to hold a rally in support of the current president, a “March4Trump” which was replicated in a variety of other locations around the country. This time no one got a permit from the city, but online threats from groups with bravura names like OathKeepers that they would show up to harangue on Patriot’s Day got a lot of attention in the media.
In fact, my observation was that the advertised demonstrator riot never materialized, but that didn’t stop several branches of the corporate media from reporting on one anyhow. A few fistfights do not a riot make. It was more of a media riot than a protester riot, really.
For those of you who’ve never lived in Massachusetts, “Patriot’s Day” commemorates the event memorialized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five…
Somehow I doubt that the raggle-taggle band of tattooed fools who came to Berkeley looking for a fight on Saturday had read the poem.
If I hadn’t felt some obligation to report on what happened, I wouldn’t even have bothered going myself, but I went, arriving at my usual 11:30.
Thanks to the cancelled market, parking was easy. We parked on Allston Way beside the park, right next to Berkeley High, where we encountered an activist friend. She told us that we really should take a picture of the sign she spotted hung on the school wall, a quote from Huey Long: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be called anti-Fascism!"
Of course, when we got there it had already been torn down, probably by a self-designated anti-fascist, AKA anti-fa.
For a while we just sat in the car and watched an assortment of variously costumed people milling around trying to look tough, but we weren’t fooled.
Our better photographer got out looking for action photos, but not much was happening. I buttonholed a couple of Berkeley regulars and asked them to contribute their observations to the Planet, which they’ve done.
The park was crisscrossed with the same kind of orange netting that Berkeley’s been using lately to keep homeless people from camping on city property, a very inadequate kind of fence that everyone blithely stepped over when they felt like it. The objective seemed to be to keep pros and antis from getting close to one another, which of course failed.
There were plenty of Berkeley police on the scene, dressed in relatively conventional uniforms, trying to look cool and for the most part succeeding. A contingent of Oakland cops arrived while I was there, which worried me for a bit, but even they managed to look and act super cool.
Eventually, bored, we left to pursue other options.
On the way back, around three, we stopped off again, to discover that the crowd had mostly left the park and moved toward what used to be the hub of downtown Berkeley at Center and Shattuck, now obscured by a massive BART construction project. We saw about 100 people there, some shouting. We drove all around the area, but saw very little else going on.
Imagine my amazement when I got home and saw on the internet some local TV stations’ take on what was happening. There were helicopter shots of a lot of men milling around, and yes, punctuated by close-ups of a bunch of guys having at each other. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the whole crowd had been engaged in a massive battle. I never observed anything on that scale when I was in the middle, but there must have been a few fights.
One TV reporter who did a lot of OMGing about what happened finally confessed that he himself hadn’t been physically present to watch the fray because he felt it would be dangerous. Really??
Yes, a lot of dopes threw a lot of punches at each other, but in the end it didn’t add up to much harm for outsiders.
There was even a shot of a cute dreadlocked young woman, a self-described member of an anarchist anti-fa collective, taking a punch from a baddy, and predictably the video that captured it is now viral. Dog bites woman, etc.
Could this be fourth-wave feminism, taking it on the chin for the cause? No, nothing’s new under the sun—I remember the girls who hung around the Weathermen.
As a longtime Berkeley resident I felt mighty proud of our cops, whom I’ve criticized often in the past. No injuries more serious than bloody noses for willing participants, a couple of dozen richly deserved arrests, not a single window broken. Our police modelled civil behavior, and for the most part it worked.
(A little cynical voice in my head does ask, still, if the combatants had been brown-skinned, would things have been allowed to work out this way? I wish I didn’t doubt it, but I do remember the Black Lives Matter demonstrations where the police response was more violent—maybe they’ve learned how to do better from that experience.)
The last two encounters at Civic Center Park remind of nothing as much as a pale imitation of what I’ve seen of the hooligans who love to battle it out around European “futbol” matches.
From the British Sun:
“RIOTING broke out in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower last night as France’s Euro 2016 party was wrecked by violent street clashes. Youths fought running battles with squads of heavily armed police before gangs began hijacking cars and torching them near the city’s iconic fan zone.”
Nothing here approached that. To see what real riots look like, click here.
By the way, that word “hooligan”, originally a derogatory name for rowdy Irishmen, has been imported into Russian (хулига́н) to characterize any kind of unapproved behavior, not just fighting at soccer games.
The guys and occasional gals who’ve been invading Berkeley to slug it out are definitely hooligans, folks who make trouble mostly for the excitement of it, despite all their nattering about free speech.
Their eager adversaries, the self-styled anti-fa, aren’t much more virtuous. All of them obviously enjoy a good fight.
But both camps had better watch out. Berkeley may have a half-century old reputation as the cradle of the free speech movement, but its current civic religion is food. What locals were most outraged about in this encounter was the cancellation of the Farmers’ Market.
It’s one thing to tolerate demonstrations against the unsavory Milo, but you’d better not mess with our organic vegis. You can bet that our fervent foodies won’t let that happen again.
Brawls are red meat for the corporate media, yes, but I have an even better idea. Now that the UC Berkeley football team seems to be tanking, their multi-million dollar boondoggle of a stadium is not pulling in the big bucks like it used to.
How about hiring the whole crew of gladiator wannabes, both teams, to slug it out in Memorial Stadium under the newly installed lights? These people deserve one another, and we can make it happen.
Tickets could be sold to an audience frisked at the door, and the proceedings could be broadcast by the big networks or even online. Weapons could be allowed, but limited to old-timey gear like shields made out of garbage cans, picket signs and firecrackers.
Wouldn’t that be a blast! And a money-maker to boot.
Just an idea. On the other hand, I suppose there’s no point in paying people to make fools of themselves when they’re willing to do it for free. That’s the secret of reality TV, isn’t it?
It’s the new politics: Play at it long enough and you might even grow up to be president.