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Editorial

Violent demonstrators in Berkeley are thugs, not activists

There can be no justification for the violence perpetrated on Sunday by a group of leftist protesters who attacked supporters of President Trump and others Sunday during an otherwise peaceful “rally against hate” in Berkeley.

Whether they are described as “black bloc” or anarchists — the nomenclature isn’t important — the masked, black-clad protesters are criminals, not the vanguard of a righteous resistance to fascism. They also are traitors to the thousands of peaceful demonstrators who gathered in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Park to counter a “No to Marxism in America” rally — a non-event that drew a relatively small contingent of right-wingers after its organizer, fearing violence, had urged supporters to stay home.

The Associated Press reported that groups of hooded, black-clad protesters kicked and punched at least four men until police or other counter-protesters intervened. Some threatened to break the cameras of anyone who filmed them, including journalists.

This is thuggery, not activism. And it has become too familiar a phenomenon in Berkeley, belying its reputation as a citadel of free speech. In February, for example, 150 black-clad agitators caused $100,000 worth of damage when they smashed through the city protesting a planned UC Berkeley speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The speech was canceled.

The violent demonstrators hardly typified those who have turned out to protest white nationalism and other forms of intolerance in Berkeley and beyond. Nor should anyone think for a moment that the neo-Nazis and racists on the one hand and those who protest against them on the other are morally equivalent — an idea Trump seemed to endorse in his post-Charlottesville denunciation of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Racism and opposition to racism aren’t equally valid “sides.”

An entirely different issue is whether it is ever acceptable to commit violence against someone who is peacefully expressing a point of view, however repugnant. The answer to that question is no. There is no “hate speech” exception to the 1st Amendment, and no “anti-fascist” dispensation from laws against assault and battery. (Notably, it’s not clear whether those who were set upon Sunday were attacked for their views or for simply showing up.)

Yet some would rationalize or explain away violence of the kind engaged in by the masked protesters in Berkeley. According to this view — summed up in the glib slogan “Punch a Nazi!” — right-wing extremism is such a threat to the body politic that preemptive violence isn’t just permissible but necessary. That’s a seductive but sinister notion that, if acted on, empowers the very groups the protesters oppose. The punches they’re throwing are injuring their own side.

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