I had barely stepped off Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley, California, when I saw the first signs of violence: two dozen protesters scattering like pigeons from a formidable assemblage of masked, black-clad, so-called anti-fascists, many wielding clubs and plywood shields. Like pigeons, humans can be both intelligent and inexplicably stupid, and so it was that I followed the flock as it went right back toward the chaos, on the Civic Center lawn, for a better view. I expected to see a dust-up, a handful of white supremacists in MAGA hats, angry that that they’d been denied a permit to spew their reprehensible bile due to a “culture of political correctness” or some other preposterous catchphrase. What I saw was a photographer—a white guy, thirty-something, pink shorts, black tee-shirt; media affiliation, if any, still unknown—taking blows to the head and body while cradling his camera like a football recovered post-fumble. Evidently, he’d captured something the antifas didn’t want him to document. They wanted to destroy the evidence, and he wasn’t going to hand it over.
The melee stumbled and shouted its way to the street, where the man broke free, but the antifas kept after him, ignoring countless pleas of “nonviolence” and “let him go” from peaceful protesters. They hit the man with fists and a club, then took him to the ground, prey for wild dogs. Journalists, myself included, held our cameras high to capture the assault as the antifas circled, raising their shields, some decorated with the words “No Hate,” to block our view and push us away.
“Stop filming,” shouted a masked white woman in her twenties, pushing her shield at us. “You know what’s gonna happen anyway.”
A young bandana-wearing man forced his way into the crowd with a comrade, laughing with excitement, “Oh dude, I’m gonna fuck this Nazi UP!” He tried to land a torso kick, but was just out of reach.
The number of eager assailants grew, and the double standard of the moment became astonishing. The self-styled anti-authoritarians, who righteously (and understandably) complain about excessive use of force by police, were seemingly re-enacting some of this country’s worst episodes of police violence, on an unarmed civilian who by all appearances was not a white supremacist and who was decidedly outnumbered. Bystanders, peaceful protesters, and reporters shouted for the man’s release. Suddenly, from behind, someone knocked my camera out of my right hand, then did the same to my phone, which was in my left. I turned around to see a black leather boot stomping my phone (it survived—thanks, Otter case!), while another antifa picked up my camera, hurled it into the air, and got in my face. “No fucking pictures!”
Now I had a choice to make: Walk away, or take his bait—and take a beating.
The previous day’s protest could not have been more different. It began at Harvey Milk Plaza, in San Francisco’s Castro district, a neighborhood whose residents are so accustomed to being the target of vitriol and violence that they can turn life’s most wretched moments into a party. In a way, Saturday’s event in San Francisco was a victory march. After officials warned Patriot Prayer organizer Joey Gibson that firearms weren’t allowed in Crissy Field, where his group’s rally was slated to take place, the event was canceled. Instead, Patriot Prayer, a far-right group from Oregon, would hold a press conference at an undisclosed location, which rendered it, well, not a press conference at all.
At Castro and 17th, several hundred people had gathered, some in wigs and costumes, most holding signs ranging from serious (“Black Lives Matter”; “Jewish Dyke Against Facism”) to humorous (“Racists Have Tiny Dicks”). The white supremacist presence was nonexistent, the antifa presence scarce; I saw just three of them in five hours. The crowd of marchers grew to the thousands, stretching along Market Street as it moved toward downtown. No one wore masks (except the party kind) and several, including at least four septuagenarians, puttered along in the buff, as if they’d wandered in from the Summer of Love.
It felt like a cross between a protest and a Pride Parade, the most notable participant being a naked trans woman, her new-ish, gravity-defying breasts and older, gravity-obeying male-parts on display. Her sign read, “Suck My Dick Trump.” You may think the directive puerile, but in the context of this city, and in light of the president’s recent ban on transgender people in the military, it was perfect. At an intersection, someone cranked up a boom box and a group of marchers formed an impromptu dance party. Their theme song: Katrina and the Waves’ “Walkin’ on Sunshine.”
The East Bay event, like the one scheduled for San Francisco, was technically a loss for white supremacists. Organizers of the gathering, which was marketed as an anti-Marxist rally, had been denied a permit. Nevertheless, a handful of them showed up, including a well-known right-wing provocateur named Johnny Benitez and Patriot Prayer’s Gibson. Just before I arrived, around 1:45 p.m., I had seen tweets about tear gas and scuffles, one of which involved an angry mob chasing—and allegedly hitting and pepper-spraying—Gibson as he retreated to safety behind a police line. Nearby, a man was being beaten by a group of antifas, who was rescued when Al Letson, the host of the radio show “Reveal,” intervened.
When I arrived, the smell of tear gas and pepper spray—cops and antifa were reportedly using both—hung in the air. All too quickly, I found myself confronted by the mob, the beat-down of the photographer, and the two angry masked youths who jacked my camera and phone. I whipped around to get a look at my attackers, making eye contact with one of them. I was miffed, but I felt sorry for him. I could see real pain in his eyes, and knew he was angry for a litany of legitimate reasons, from the president’s response to Charlottesville to the pardoning of Joe Arpaio to the Trump-fueled rise of white supremacists.
To be clear, there’s no equivalence between white supremacists and antifas. One has a message of hate, and one seeks to stop that hate. As we know, there’s a great deal of testimony from Charlottesville crediting antifa with saving lives and preventing further bloodshed. Conflating the two groups is a way for whataboutist conservatives to play down the racist rot that is spreading on the right, and to trap everyone on the left in a crooked debate: Do you condemn the antifas’ violent tactics? If not, then you’re just as bad. This is the definition of an argument made in bad faith. Still, the reality is that not all antifa actions can be justified on anti-racist/anti-fascist grounds. And fairly or not, antifa violence feeds the “many sides” narrative, makes martyrs out of barbarians, and gives Fox News and friends the opportunity to further stoke far-right fanaticism.
For what it’s worth, I’m a middle-aged white guy. The young man who snatched my camera was also white. I looked at him and shook my head. “Seriously, man!? Is that really necessary?” It was all a bit of a blur, but I think my next words were, “Dude, I’m on your side”—meaning the side that finds white supremacists repugnant. Before he could respond, another journalist, who was black, stepped in, admonishing the guy. “You wanna take my camera now, too?” he said. “Go ahead, try to take it. You do NOT break people’s cameras.” The camera-wrecker, whose masked pal had re-joined the circle of violence, realized he was alone and slinked away like a dog who’d been caught crapping on the living room rug. Then someone yelled “Cops” and all the antifas made a speedy retreat, a small but menacing tide lining up behind the plastic barricade to avoid arrest while the cops dragged the injured man to safety and the crowd chanted “Fuck the police” from the security of their designated zone.
On the ground, I found a silver ring and picked it up. An amused bystander suggested that it belonged to the guy “who just got his ass whupped, huh-huh.” Moments later I came across a group of three antifas attempting to extract the SD card from the mangled carcass of my trusty Canon G12 (which you can see being smashed here). I knew they wouldn’t hear me out and hand over the camera, and a snatch-and-run would have landed me in the hospital. More importantly, I knew they wouldn’t understand if I explained to them that hiding their faces, committing unprovoked acts of violence, and trying to strip journalists and bystanders of their constitutional right to film a public event (and felony assault) is a tried-and-true tactic of the very fascists they denounce.
I would never have convinced them to be as brave as the naked trans woman in San Francisco—to reveal themselves, if only their faces, and articulate their grievances with words and ideas, not mob violence. And clearly they couldn’t recognize the irony of assaulting people just off a major thoroughfare named for our country’s greatest practitioner of civil disobedience and champion of human rights, a man who changed the course of history by preaching and practicing nonviolence. So I kept my mouth shut and moved on.
Thirty minutes later and two miles away, I walked into the waiting room of the local ER. I was hoping to find the victim, to hear his side of things. I decided that if he turned out to be a bona fide journalist, or just an amateur photographer, I’d mention the ring and give it back to him if it was his. If he was a xenophobic white nationalist or a right-wing hatemonger posing as a reporter, I’d walk out of the hospital and toss the ring in the trash. Neither of those things happened. I didn’t know his name, couldn’t get the nurses to tell me, and still haven’t figured out who he is. If he’s reading this, he can reach out.
And what if the ring belongs to someone from antifa? I’d trade it for my SD card. Better yet, I’d give it back if he promises to take off his paramilitary gear and join the peacefully protesting Americans whose noble cause he is ultimately working against.