Handling the Alt-Right: San Francisco Gets It Very Right, Berkeley Gets It Very Wrong (Again)

08/29/2017 01:57 pm ET
“Black bloc” members in action a few years ago during the Occupy movement. Precisely what President Donald Trump wants.
Associated Press
“Black bloc” members in action a few years ago during the Occupy movement. Precisely what President Donald Trump wants.

Alt-right, pro-Trump types out to make liberals and progressives look bad and justify mob violence on the right by provoking left-wing violence against them tried to hold rallies over the weekend in San Francisco and Berkeley.

The City by the Bay, still celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, passed the test with flying colors. San Franciscans not only prevented any possibility of conflict with sophisticated policing but also turned Saturday into a celebration of the very values that the Trumpist reactionaries hate.

On Sunday, however, Berkeley failed, allowing mob violence, just as it did a few times in the spring when it could not/would not secure events from a well-known group of black-clad, masked, weapons-wielding supposed leftists who were called "anarchists" in their rampages during the late Occupy movement a few years back and now go by the "antifa" (anti-fascist) label. 

Ironically, of course, they look even more like fascists, albeit fascists in a sort of 'Robocop' dystopia, than the Trumpist provocateurs they violently confront. (Many now wear plexiglass shields over their faces, making them look even creepier.)

That this makes them perfect iconic fodder for Fox News and the conservative media either doesn't occur to these geniuses or, more likely, makes them feel really important and bad-ass.

Now the new mayor of Berkeley, Jesse Arreguin, who graduated from my alma mater a decade ago and quickly got himself elected to the local city council, is saying that the university should cancel plans to allow free speech to right-wing speakers at the ancestral home of the Free Speech Movement. Because his city supposedly can't control a few hundred jerks who like to play dress-up.

Well, no, Mayor, you can't control them, not when your chief of police, having allowed a small mob to get right next to the park, then orders his officers away from the entrance to the park containing a few dozen thoroughly out-classed Trumpists. 

Thus allowing the black-clad mob to enter and attack the reactionaries. Which of course is the precise reason why the reactionaries came to Berkeley in the first place.

I hear that MSNBC cable yakker Joe Scarborough spent much of his Monday morning chat show attacking the University of California at Berkeley for the disgraceful melee. No, Joe (University of Alabama '85), you should not be attacking the world's leading public university, you should be attacking the City of Berkeley.

UC Berkeley did screw up in the spring, as I discussed in April, handing the likes of Ann Coulter and Milo whatever a propaganda bonanza about left-wing censorship.

But the old chancellor of UC Berkeley, who had a number of issues as it happens, is now, happily, gone. My old alma mater has its first female chancellor, Carol Christ, the former president of Smith College who began her academic career as a Berkeley English literature professor. Citing the University of California motto, "Let There Be Light," she has proclaimed the upcoming year to be "Free Speech Year" at UC Berkeley. Hear, hear!

The Coulter and Milo types, and this is my own rough paraphrase, of course, are to be granted secured forums to present their blather. Intelligent and peaceful protesters can effectively deride them in the process. It will be clear that they have nothing new or especially interesting to say that they have not spewed all the time on Fox or Breitbart. And that will be that. Game over.

Unlike in Berkeley, where city leaders handle the "black bloc" mob with kid gloves and truly brain-dead tactics  --  let's let these characters get right up next to the park, and then get out of their way!  --  officials in San Francisco employed defense-in-depth in the much more challenging environment of the massive Presidio park by the Bay to prevent mob violence from ever rearing its head. It would have been impossible. Kudos to Mayor Ed Lee, the first Asian-American mayor of America's most cosmopolitan city.

But while my hometown handled things extremely well, handing the alt-right a big PR defeat, the city which holds my alma mater failed. Abjectly. And handed the alt-right a big propaganda win  --  "We're the victims of violence allowed by progressive hypocrites!"  --  in the process.

There has long been a cult of violence among some of the Bay Area left. It is stupid and histrionic and self-dramatizing and a very small minority, but it is there. 

I noted it as one of the many founders of Campuses United Against Apartheid 40 years ago. (Not incidentally, non-violent protest ultimately worked, multi-national corporations were shamed into divestment, and South African apartheid fell.) 

I remember discussing this minority cult of violence with my old friend and colleague Tom Hayden, who had earlier succumbed to some of it as a member of the Berkeley Red Family. (Which proved just part of the challenge in his radical background when we elected him to the California State Assembly in 1982, a wild experience.)

Putting questions of blah-blah doctrinal theory aside, Hayden, who knew that his anger against the Vietnam War had gotten the better of him, agreed that Cesar Chavez was right, that "Non-violence is our strength."

For a great many reasons, not the least of which is that it is the right in this country, not the left, that is filled with gun zealots.

When you fumble and excuse and allow and thus, in a de facto sense, provide some legitimation to mob violence on the left, you open the door for mob violence on the right.

And then the ludicrous Donald Trump  --  who was so horribly wrong about Charlottesville  --  starts to look like he just might be right about this "on many sides" bit.

And that is precisely what the alt-right trolls and the Confederates and the neo-Nazi loons and the much more sophisticated neo-fascists who make use of them want.

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