On Sunday afternoon, members of a black-clad, left-wing antifa group violently attacked some pro-Trump demonstrators in the liberal redoubt of Berkeley, California. Thirteen people were arrested and two were hospitalized.
The violence ended quickly, and the vast majority of the day’s events were peaceful. Nevertheless, images of defenseless Trump supporters being mobbed by their ideological nemeses lent stark visual support to the conservative narrative that antifa is a menace equivalent to white nationalism.
Right-wing groups had planned two high-profile events in the Bay Area over the weekend: a “Freedom Rally” in San Francisco and a “No to Marxism in America” rally in Berkeley. In the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, local officials and residents were vehemently opposed to both events, and organizers ended up canceling them, citing safety concerns.
But a mass of “pro-freedom” and “anti-Marxist” protesters showed up to the sites of the planned rallies in defiance of the local orders. Around 2,000 streamed into Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, on Sunday. About a hundred members of antifa showed up too.
Things went south from there. The Washington Post reports:
Shortly after, violence began to flare. A pepper-spray wielding Trump supporter was smacked to the ground with homemade shields. Another was attacked by five black-clad antifas, each windmilling kicks and punches into a man desperately trying to protect himself. A conservative group leader retreated for safety behind a line of riot police as marchers chucked water bottles, shot off pepper spray and screamed “fascist go home!”
Such clips energized right-wing commentators who saw proof that President Trump was right when he said that “many sides” played a role in the Charlottesville violence, which featured scenes of antifa clashing with white nationalists. Trump recently called out the group by name at a rally in Arizona. High-profile surrogates and supporters have been propagating the message too:
Local officials denounced antifa’s tactics. “The violence that small group of protesters engaged in against residents and the police, including throwing smoke bombs, is unacceptable,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said in a statement. “Fighting hate with hate does not work and only makes each side more entrenched in their ideological camps.”
Antifa (short for anti-fascist) has existed for years, and has become increasingly prominent in Berkeley, where it violently shut down a speech by alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos in February. But its national profile has risen dramatically after Charlottesville.
The group’s philosophy rests on the notion that extremists demand a more vigorous response than the nonviolence that has been a hallmark of American protest for decades. Mark Bray, a Dartmouth professor who wrote a book about antifa, defined its mission as “a pan-left radical politics uniting communists, socialists, anarchists and various different radical leftists together for the shared purpose of combating the far right.”
As Todd Gitlin noted in an op-ed for the New York Times on Monday, the idea that antifa wreaks as much havoc as its counterparts on the right is far from accurate:
So far, there is a fearful asymmetry between the far right and antifa: Over the decade ending in 2016, estimates of the percentage of politically motivated killings committed by right-wing extremists range from 73 to 92 percent, according to the conservative Daily Caller. Despite the spurious rhetoric of equivalency, supporters of antifa have, to date, killed no one.
That pesky fact is unlikely to dissuade right-wingers from holding up small-scale violent incidents like Sunday’s to drive home the point that left-wing agitators are the real menace facing America.