As soon as I locked up my bicycle near Old City Hall, where the Berkeley City Council was having its Friday 3:00 pm special meeting on August 18, 2017 to tweak local protest laws before the arrival of the fourth alt-right/Neo-Nazi/white supremacist rally in Trump's first electoral year, I saw a friend who said, " are you ready to kick some Nazi ass?"
"Hey, my brother. Don't feed them what they want," I said, like the predictable kumbaya peace nut that of course I am.
"That's bullshit," he responded cheerfully. He's a poet, a powerful one. But he has clearly decided that using his words is not enough.
And he is not alone. The efficacy of violence, over the course of history, is a case easily made. I just happen to be the gal who loves the non-violent crew; Victor Jara, Wuilly Arteaga, Dr. Martin Luther King. It's not that violence can't be effective, it's just that if you're an artist, a moralist, and courting seventy years old, non-violence is more creative, more appealing from a philosophical and moral standpoint, on rare occasion more effective, and at least an equally daunting physical challenge for the creaking crew that saved People's Park along the way.
The Berkeley City Council is aware, after hosting three Trump rallies, that there's a remarkable ratio of local citizens ready to rumble with whatever they got out of a handy hardware store. The ordinance proposed to tailor local law to enable the Berkeley police tasked with honoring first amendment rights to assemble and speak to subtract improvised weaponry from those assembled no matter whom they hate and wish to kill aspires to at least lower the body count. The vote was seven to one, with Councilmember Cheryl Davila the lonely vote against increasing the City Manager's powers to either indulge in narrowly tailored powers to protect public safety or whittle away more civil liberties depending on one's perspective.
Only two people in the crowd spoke on behalf of further constricting protest rights. One was a man originally from Virginia who claimed to know people injured at Charlottesville and was ready to embrace any effort to protect the public. The second was a very young intern from Councilmember Kriss Worthington's office who spoke only on her own befuddled behalf explaining that Nazi hate was the very worst kind of hate and so deserved the city's very best effort to combat it no matter what it took.
The people in my section were almost laughing at her. It isn't that we don't get that some of the people coming to town are, for all practical purposes, Nazis. Nazis bad. We kind of get that, even those of us so young that it's pretty much a matter of movies and common sense.
But the idea that hate is more hateful with a swastika still seems dumb to people who had to serve coffee to the Ku Klux Klan, which ritually hung people in a picnic-like atmosphere. A parallel moment of perspective collision happened when the majority of the Berkeley City Councilmembers spoke in turn about their support for tailoring local laws to try to address the weapons being brought to rallies by both out-of-towners and locals alike.
Councilmember Ben Bartlett spoke, making an ominous case for each white supremacist rally being worse than the one before, claiming that the alt-right rally scheduled for August 27th in Berkeley had been planned as a consequence of the perceived victory at Charlottesville. He used almost eerie horror movie affect in making his case. But in fact the upcoming Berkeley rally had been planned long before Charlottesville, which, when pointed out by someone sitting behind me, was silenced by a Mayor Jesse Arreguin no longer patient with interruption at his eight month mark in office. Councilmember Bartlett continued to make his case undeterred by fact, and it's at least a seductive case to the many still shaking their heads that unmasked, unabashed racists enjoy coming to Berkeley to watch the liberals quake at their flag capes and makeshift warrior costumes.
But the lone vote against the ordinance came from the clear voice of District 2 representative Councilmember Cheryl Davila, whose steady cadence recounted growing up with an awareness of the hate of the Ku Klux Klan, an awareness which continues steadily today in California's number one status in our number of hate groups, 917 by the latest count. Davila's quiet recollection stood in sharp contrast to the implication that this moment is anything new for African Americans with the longevity and perhaps the courage to recognize that hate has always been just around their corner all of their lives.
How to handle it is Berkeley's challenge, a challenge which could have convened a community forum months ago to collect creative suggestions in dealing with it considering that the alt-right/white supremacist/neo-Nazi fountain of provocation seems to have no end. We are a popular watering hole for these groups because we can always provide the predictable liberal/radical reaction and land any group that wishes it square in the middle of the evening news. That is, until we figure out a more creative way to slay the current dragon.
One of the crowd was part of SNCC, the student non-violent coordinating committee which decades ago practiced for the provocation and denigration they expected as workers for voting rights in the 1960's. She expressed that few young people would have any interest in hearing about non-violence training or strategy, a heart-breaking moment for me. There are around thirty SNCC members in the Bay Area today capable of telling their stories of personal sacrifice and SNCC organizing, which is undeniably one of the greatest American stories ever told. But its significance at this moment can only be weighed if it is told at all to the people who wonder about what might be more powerful than makeshift shields from Home Depot.
# # #