Violence by far-left protesters in Berkeley sparks alarm

Thousands of demonstrators carrying signs with slogans like “Stand Against Hate” descended on Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Park on Sunday for what many hoped would be a peaceful march against bigotry and President Trump.

But it was soon punctuated by tear gas and a scattering of violent skirmishes. Some anti-fascist protesters, wearing black and with their faces covered, chased or beat Trump supporters and organizers who had scheduled and then canceled the “anti-Marxist” rally, citing concerns over safety.

Police, and in some cases other counter-protesters, stepped in to halt the violence or escort the victims away from the area. Officers reported 14 arrests, many of them for violations of the city’s emergency rules banning masks, sticks and potential weapons inside the demonstration area.

The clashes came despite widespread calls from activists and elected officials across the Bay Area for peaceful civil disobedience and underscore Berkeley’s growing reputation for violent reaction by the far left. Other protests earlier this year in the city turned ugly, with far-left and far-right forces fighting in the streets.

Some in Berkeley worried that Sunday’s chaos, captured on video and quickly disseminated through social media, would provide unwanted ammunition to Trump and his supporters.

“We can’t keep producing this audio-visual propaganda,” said Andrew Noruk, a counter-protester who denounced the fights. “It is recruiting for the right.”

The incidents came a day after a series of mostly peaceful activities in San Francisco, where demonstrators also marched in response to a planned far-right rally near the Golden Gate Bridge. Counter-protesters there boasted that they had shown that far-right groups, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists, were not welcome. Police reported one arrest, for public intoxication.

In Berkeley, the demonstration of more than 4,000 people pulled heavily from area labor unions, church groups and liberal activists — but also scores of young people clad in all black, some carrying shields and others with bandannas pulled over their faces.

Those activists are sometimes referred to as “antifa,” a name taken by anti-fascist organizations formed to oppose white nationalists. They are known for their “punch a Nazi” bent.

The counter-demonstrators were in the city to protest the “Say No to Marxism in America” rally, police said. Several who were expected to speak at the event have been linked to white nationalist sentiments or violence in the past.

Kyle Chapman, the far-right activist known as “Based Stickman” who gained fame for his role in previous Berkeley brawls, had been listed among speakers for the canceled event, but was not seen. On Friday, during a hearing on a pending felony weapons charge related to a prior rally, a judge ordered Chapman to stay away from Sunday’s demonstration.

Other planned attendees included Augustus Invictus, a Florida-based white supremacist who attended a torch-lit rally in Charlottesville, Va., according to the Anti-Defamation League. Invictus was not seen Sunday either.

One far-right figure who did show up was Johnny Benitez, the alias of an Orange County resident who organized an “America First” rally in Laguna Beach. Protesters got into shoving matches after he appeared, with some screaming “Go home, Nazi.”

Police tried to escort him and Irma Hinojosa, a member of the Southern California group Latinos for Trump, through the crowd and out of the park.

Before the day had ended, Benitez wrote on Twitter that anti-fascists should be designated as “terrorists.”

“If the federal government doesn’t move to expose these terrorists the patriots of this country need to prepare for war,” he tweeted.

Benitez was not the only right-wing activist hurried away from scene. Counter-protesters clad in black pounced when Joey Gibson, founder of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, showed up in the park. Masked protesters began pepper spraying people and used their shields to hit people who appeared to be with Gibson.

Gibson, who was behind Saturday’s aborted rally in San Francisco, was handcuffed and escorted away by police. Assistant Chief Jim Libby of the California Highway Patrol’s Golden Gate Division later described the officers’ action as a “rescue.”

Anti-fascist protesters also beat one person wearing an American flag. Some threatened to break the cameras of anyone who filmed them, including journalists. Others set off purple smoke bombs.

One counter-protester, in tears, said she worried that Sunday’s event would be tied to violence. Another, who helped break up a fight, was upset over the altercations.

“We need to get antifa out of here,” said Jack Harris, 20, of San Francisco.

Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League, watched footage of Sunday’s confrontations and said she drew a “sharp comparison” between the two weekend events. San Francisco provided a proud example of “a community response to objectionable speech,” she said in an email to The Times.

“Today’s story should have only been about the voices of tolerance overpowering those marred by bigotry,” she said. “Instead, any violent response, even if perpetrated by a small number, undermines their entire effort to counter the narrative.”

Others strongly disputed the idea that anti-fascist marchers were initiating violence. Kitty Stryker, a member of counter-protesters known as Struggalo Circus, said she provided medical aid to someone who had been pepper sprayed by a far-right activist.

Stryker said she broke up a fight between a Trump supporter and another demonstrator — and was almost punched in the face. And she argued that counter-protesters shut down the far-right demonstrations with overwhelming numbers, not violence.

“I think that has to do with having strong numbers and solidarity,” she added.

Berkeley has been home to a number of clashes between political opponents this year. Violent protests on the UC Berkeley campus shut down an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos in February, and subsequent demonstrations in support of Trump collapsed into roving street fights.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s event, Berkeley officials had laid plans for stronger crowd control in the wake of a violent clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, where demonstrators on each side complained of lax law enforcement.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed while protesting against the white supremacist rally.

Berkeley officials prohibited the carrying of weapons, sticks, projectiles and even soda cans in the demonstration area. Officer Jennifer Coats, spokeswoman for the Berkeley Police Department, said 500 officers were on the scene for Sunday’s demonstrations.

When protesters and counter-protesters arrived, they encountered a series of dump trucks lined up to form a barricade, an effort aimed at keeping a car from heading into a crowd. Marchers encountered concrete barriers at the park.

After the march, Berkeley resident Nancy Kerr said she viewed the protest as a success. Kerr, 33, said she was not afraid of the masked “black bloc” marchers, arguing that they had a “role to play in protecting protesters.”

Still, she and her husband, 34-year-old Kyle Sessions, expressed mixed feelings about some of the incidents that occurred.

“The violence worries me because it puts the police more on edge,” Sessions said. “They’re more likely to respond more forcefully with violence of their own.”

The violence raises the stakes for two upcoming visits to UC Berkeley by outspoken conservatives.

Milo Yiannopoulos has announced plans to return next month to spend days in a “tent city” in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Conservative author and columnist Ben Shapiro is scheduled to visit Sept. 14.

On Monday, Berkeley police released the names of those who had been arrested.

james.queally@latimes.com

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

benjamin.oreskes@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jazmine Ulloa contributed to this story.

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT @paigestjohn & @boreskes for news from the Bay Area protests this weekend.

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UPDATES:

1 p.m.: Updated with names of those arrested.

8 a.m. Monday: This article was updated with news about upcoming scheduled appearances by outspoken figures on the right at UC Berkeley.

8 p.m.: This article was updated with a new top and more details from demonstration.

6 p.m.: This article was updated with new comments from demonstrators.

4:20 p.m.: This article was updated with new comments from demonstrators.

3:10 p.m.: Updated with video showing violence.

2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with more details about violence, new lede.

1:50 p.m. This article was updated with new information from the scene.

1:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with more news from the scene.

1 p.m.: This article was updated with new information from police.

11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from demonstrators.

12:55 p.m.: This article has been updated with new information about arrests.

11:30 a.m.: This article has been updated with more comments from demonstrators.

10:10 a.m.: This article has been updated with new details about the scene at a UC Berkeley park.

This article was originally posted at 9:40 a.m.

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