On February 1, 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos, alt-right speaker, provocateur, and Breitbart editor known for his conservative, misogynistic, and Islamophobic views was scheduled to speak at the UC Berkeley campus. Approximately 1,500 faculty and students assembled peacefully in protest, but a minority of protestors clothed in black and wearing black masks stormed the police barricades and shot fireworks at a campus building. A police spotlight was toppled and set aflame. Protests signs and banners read “THIS IS WAR” and “BECOME UNGOVERNABLE.” The Black Bloc had arrived and caused a disruption that, to a casual observer on either side of the political aisle, presents as ungovernable chaos, and the event was canceled due to security concerns.
In this case, the Black Bloc protestors, known as anti-fascists or Antifa, achieved their goal. They are the radical leftists on our political spectrum, and they shut down Yiannopoulos’ lecture and, in doing so, destroyed a platform for the offensive views that he promotes—views that anti-fascist activists have directly and physically confronted since pre-World War II Europe. To destroy a platform or forum for fascistic speech and assembly is historically a core objective of Antifa, and the Black Bloc, which is a unified group of protestors dressed head to toe in black and wearing masks to avoid identification, has long been a favored organizational tactic of anti-fascists, so while this may appear new and radical to some, it does have quite a bit of successful history behind it. Anti-fascists were partly responsible for the downfall of Mussolini, and Black Bloc marches have confronted and ousted Neo-Nazi gangs. However, at the heart of their objectives lie two important questions. First, doesn’t Yiannopoulos (or any other similar speaker) also have first amendment rights, which were ultimately denied? Second, why choose violence, intimidation, or property damage as a protest tactic?
Truthfully, neither of the above lines of questioning will result in a concrete, definitive “yes or no” answer or “right or wrong” choice. It is a debate that cannot be won, and at this point in the argument, we are subject to our ideologies and semblances of conscience, as well as our personal preferences for political expression and action. However, understanding exactly what happened at UC Berkeley is important to understanding protest—the vocal and physical manifestation of the first amendment—in the contemporary United States, and especially under the Trump administration.
Today, the nation is politically polarized to the extent that those in opposing camps almost categorically refuse to listen to one another. George Saunders termed this dichotomy as “LeftLand and RightLand” in his essay on Trump supporters in the New Yorker, and today we can even see such ideological dismissal in the Senate, when Senator Elizabeth Warren was ordered by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to stop reading aloud, on the Senate floor in official proceedings, a letter written by Coretta Scott King in 1986 regarding Senator Jeff Sessions’ racist views and actions. King was attempting to persuade the Senate to deny Sessions a federal judgeship, and she succeeded. Warren read the letter as evidence that Sessions is unfit to serve as the United States Attorney General under Trump. McConnell didn’t want to hear it and claimed that Warren “impugned” Sessions, so he shut down her platform using an arcane procedural rule and dismissed her views as unwelcome.
It’s safe to say that neither side really wants to hear from the other and that we tend to surround ourselves with people of like-minded ideologies. When we do hear from the other side, tempers on both sides tend to flare. Of course, there are people who reject that notion and purposefully seek to understand those with opposing views, to show them empathy, and to perhaps attempt to convince them that they are wrong in a civil, respectful, and lawful manner, with hope for positive change. But to do so requires a belief in civility and respect from both parties—essentially, a fundamental belief in the right of the other to exist peacefully and without threat—and when one party preaches, for example, a hatred of members of a specific religion or race or nationality or gender (especially when coupled with a violent call to action in the manner of the KKK or Nazi Germany), then all civility is already lost and there is no dialogue to be had. To preach, for example, Islamophobic or misogynistic views is, by its oppressive and intolerant nature, not a civil act. It is an offensive act, and offensive acts warrant certain forms of response.
That is not an argument against the freedom to speak such offensive views—Antifa also believes in second chances for known racists, fascists, white supremacists, etc., if they are willing to change—but rather an argument in favor of direct action against oppressive speech. As I’ve written before, first amendment rights are universal, but so is the right to respond to speech that offends and causes people to feel violated or unsafe because of their identity. Such a response is an act of defense. The legality of any response is only protected so far as the first amendment goes, meaning that illegal responses such as violence, property damage, etc. are not within one’s rights even if they are within one’s morals and capabilities. That being said, Yiannopoulos is free to give a lecture and say mostly whatever he wants, short of abject hate speech, which is as criminal as violence is, and people are free to loudly disagree with him en masse.
Many UC Berkeley students and faculty chose the path of loud, en masse, yet peaceful and nonviolent opposition in the form of protest. Antifa went a step further by seeking to extinguish any sort of hateful, divisive, oppressive, or fascistic speech at the very source. At UC Berkeley, they chose disruptive and arguably violent tactics such as fireworks, property damage, and the destruction of police barricades that created enough of a security disruption at the venue so that Yiannopoulos was unable to speak. Therefore, it isn’t that his rights were denied, but rather that an environment was created wherein it would be dangerous and foolish, if not impossible, for him to preach hatred or division. As such, Yiannopoulos’ platform was destroyed.
To “destroy the platform” is a textbook anti-fascist tactic that organizations have used for decades, historically in efforts to break up Neo-Nazi gangs and other fascistic organizations and to prevent their return, and is currently in use against members of the alt-right. The rowdy protest outside of the DeploraBall on the inaugural eve, complete with black masks and flaming trash cans, is such an example. Essentially, anti-fascism declares that any attempt to gain a platform to espouse fascistic or oppressive views or to organize action around such ideologies (i.e. Yiannopoulous’s Islamophobia or Richard Spencer’s anti-Semitism), is an inherently uncivil and offensive act and will be met with immediate physical resistance. That declaration relies on the aforementioned understanding that civility is automatically lost when any form of fascism is brought into the discourse, and especially into the public sphere of influential speech, because fascism itself historically speaks the language of violence by advocating for xenophobia, militant nationalism, racial superiority, war, and ethnic cleansing and genocide.
A simplistic but incorrect way to explain this conflict of ideologies in the form of physical resistance is to say that Antifa is “fighting fire with fire.” However, when an Antifa group destroys a platform, they’re not fighting with fire. Instead, they’re putting the metaphorical fire out by eliminating any chance for a fascistic group to assemble and for their views to be publicly spoken and disseminated, which is based on the presumption that such assemblies provide an exchange of ideas that can foment bigoted or discriminatory views and, in the worst of cases, inspire or incite racially motivated violence. In the case of UC Berkeley, smashed windows and fireworks destroyed the platform. Many on both sides of the aisle will argue that such tactics “look bad” and are dangerous, immoral, intolerant, or illegal, or may cause the opposing camp to unify and respond even more aggressively. Amid cries on both sides for peaceful and lawful protest (if any protest at all), Antifa will be denounced for their violent actions without any regard to the fact that they exist to prevent further violence in the form of fascist speech and action, in which case their use of “violence” is largely defensive (they are also known to defend Jewish neighborhoods). The media will frame such confrontations to polarize views on the matter without offering any critical insight as to why certain protestors choose such tactics. But anti-fascist protestors must know the legal consequences of their actions, as well as the subsequent visibility (hence the black mask), and they most likely weighed the moral implications of their decisions long before they smashed windows and launched fireworks. After all, these are strategic, targeted choices stemming from an unequivocal political and moral imperative.
Many everyday Americans who are not anti-fascists and who may have never heard the term will protest on the streets, on the highways, in the airports, and on state and federal property in the coming months and years as we face a fascistic Trump administration that is under the guidance Steven Bannon, an executive of Breitbart News and a known white supremacist, which stands as proof that American white supremacy can gain the highest platform and the most power possible. Millions have already protested with many small victories to show for their efforts. The vast majority will likely continue to do so peacefully and nonviolently, yet Republicans across the country have dubbed protests as “economic terrorism” and are already attempting to enact legislation that would outlaw effective nonviolent forms of protest, such as blocking an interstate or wearing a mask, and some laws even seek to legalize vehicular manslaughter in such instances. (And this meme shows that at least some Trump supporters on the internet like that idea.) The J20 inauguration disruptors who faced tear gas and pepper spray are up against unprecedented felony riot charges that carry a 10 year prison sentence when, other than the isolated incident of Richard Spencer getting punched on camera, no protestors committed violent acts against actual people—just trash cans, bank windows, and a limousine, with some graffiti to boot. That is better termed as targeted property damage or vandalism, not violence. Black Lives Matter, a nonviolent movement against police brutality and for racial justice, was met with riot police in Ferguson and faced the same aggressive police tactics. The Standing Rock Sioux Water Protectors have faced constant violent incursions for protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and militant police tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, lobbed concussion grenades, blasted cold water in sub-freezing temperatures, and shot rubber bullets at unarmed and peaceful protestors, resulting in severe injuries.
Considering all of these events and their individual actors, what are the specifically violent acts that resulted in human pain, injury, and suffering versus some form of nonviolent disruption? Who is actually to blame for such violence, and who is committing it or inciting it? Who is allowed to use such violence, and when, and why, and against who? Despite legality, what is the moral cause for nearly blowing a young protestor’s arm off with a concussion grenade, or for tear gassing a Black Bloc, or for shooting and killing unarmed, innocent black men? These are questions that we must continue to ask ourselves in a nation that is growing increasingly intolerant to protest and civil disobedience, in a state apparatus that deploys a highly militarized police force that has a history of racial discrimination, and in a time when protest in all forms is imperative to defending civil liberties and human rights, it becomes necessary to choose the method that suits your beliefs and has the greatest chance to advance your cause and achieve any and all possible victories.
For some, a victory is to remain nonviolent and pressure their elected officials to resist or enact a specific policy, or to raise awareness for a cause and build organizational structure. That is an admirable and necessary objective. For others, a victory is to destroy a fascistic platform and stop hate speech before it starts. That is also an admirable and necessary objective. Right now, in Trump’s America, any protest that disrupts a fascistic event or policy, defends our rights and the rights of those less privileged, seeks to challenge power and authority and the state use of violence, or acts as a vehicle for grassroots organization is not only a welcome opportunity for citizens to become aware and involved, but is becoming a vital civic duty that demands the involvement of all who are able and willing. Most importantly, any protest that can attempt to defuse the tensions between LeftLand and RightLand by seeking common ground, no matter how unlikely, will certainly be heralded as a civic achievement of our times.
For those of us in the fight and for those to come, remember that any manner of protest is a personal choice dictated by an individual’s circumstances and beliefs. We all protest for our own reasons and we should respect each individual’s choices, even if we disagree. For Antifas, they are there in solidarity to target and destroy all acts of fascism, even if fireworks and smashed windows are necessary, in defense of human rights and dignity. Such tactics, while radical, disruptive, and arguably violent, succeed in intimidating and ousting those who seek to vocalize and enact discrimination, hatred, and violence against innocent and oppressed people. Those who use such tactics are unconcerned with the free speech rights of those they oppose; they know that their opponents do not fundamentally believe in tolerance or respect for all humanity, and so they offer them none in return. It is arguably a militant stance to take, but in the case of UC Berkeley and Milo Yiannopoulos, it is an effective course of action.