There’s no way to read what transpired over the weekend in the Bay Area as anything other than evidence of a disheartened alt-right movement in the wake of Charlottesville. The death of Heather Heyer had a dual effect: galvanizing a rising left coalition and turning what once thrived mostly online into something perhaps a bit too “real” for those on the right. As such, the main narrative of the weekend is simple: A few dozen alt-righters run out of town by the might of thousands.
The shitshow started with a literal show of shit. Among the counter-protests that were planned in response to the weekend’s two events—a “Freedom Rally” in San Francisco on Saturday; a “No Marxism in America” rally in Berkeley on Sunday—was one that encouraged dog owners to “leave a gift for our alt-right friends” on Crissy Field, where the S.F. rally was to take place.
“I got the idea while walking my dogs,” Tuffy Tuffington, the event’s organizer, told me. “Following the dogs waiting for them to do their business, I was struck by an image of the alt-right folks stomping around in a field of poop.”
That blessed/cursed image wasn’t to be, though, after word spread late Friday that Joey Gibson, leader of the far right group that’d organized the rally, had canceled out of fear “it would’ve been a huge riot.” Rather, Gibson said, they’d be holding a press conference at 2 p.m. in S.F.’s Alamo Square, a tourist-infested park overlooking the Painted Ladies, those Victorian houses made famous by the opening credits of Full House. Surely the city, thrown this last minute curveball, would echo Stephanie Tanner’s sentiments with a boisterous “how rude!”
By the time I made it to Alamo Square on Saturday morning, the city had barricaded the park, with dozens of police forcing protest to the surrounding streets. The intersection at Steiner and Hayes became the epicenter, the drum beats and wafting incense from an Aztec dance group providing ambience for the growing collection of protesters who’d caught wind of the change in venue. It quickly became clear that the alt-right wouldn’t show; word leaked that Gibson, et al. had livestreamed something or other from a darkened room, announcing that now they’d be “popping up” at random places around the city.
“They say they’re going to do some pop-ups,” shouted Benjamin Bac Sierra, a member of Frisco Resistance, who helped organize the last-minute protest, to the massing crowd. “Well, we’re not going to play any jack-in-the-box games with them.”
Then, a commotion in the crowd as police took a screaming woman behind the Alamo Square fences, her movements closely watched by legal observers in neon green hats. Word spread that the woman had jumped a barricade set up a block away, which was keeping hundreds of fellow protesters on the other side. Our group rushed up the street, chanting “let them through!” until, eventually, the police did just that. A rousing “whose streets! our streets!” call-and-response bounced against the multi-million dollar homes, suddenly given a soundtrack by a New Orleans-style brass band that’d somehow materialized.
Police reestablished the barricade until Bac Sierra, blessed with a booming voice that doesn’t require outside amplification, negotiated an impromptu rally. It began with a thousand people or so, sitting or standing on the gentle slope of Hayes Street, listening to speeches from a janky sound system that, for mobility purposes, was duct-taped to a wheelchair.
A sampling of the sights: Kaepernick jerseys, Black Lives Matter shirts, DSA flags, union T-shirts made of heavy cotton, a wobbly Trump dildo on a stick, too many homemade signs to mention, mobile walls of rainbow that, when unfurled, blocked the cops who peered from the slopes of the vacated Alamo Square. The rhetoric of the speeches was anti-Nazi and anti-alt-right, of course, but it went beyond that: you wouldn’t likely find the same anti-police sentiment at the city-sanctioned “Peace, Leave & Understanding” rally that was, at that same moment, happening outside City Hall.
The best-received speech came from Xochitl Johnson of Refuse Fascism, who are holding an Occupy-like resistance effort starting November 4.
“We are veterans of struggle. Who was at Standing Rock? Who was at the Women’s March? Who are my Black Lives Matter out here in the streets?” Johnson shouted, to increasing roars from the crowd. “But we have to realize this ain’t a handful of racist thugs in the streets. This is coming straight from the White House. Ain’t gonna be no impeachment. Ain’t gonna be no investigation. Ain’t gonna be no scandal. Who’s gonna stop them?”
“We are!” shouted the crowd, ready to march.
The route took us down through Hayes Valley and across Market Street, with two lines of police acting as a moving escort. As we passed a group of posters with the California Republic flag, the march’s many photographers set up, waiting for the cops to stream past the symbolic backdrop. Gawkers cheered us from their apartment windows, or from the highway overpasses that’d been blocked with our mass movement. A man sold a shocking array of pot edibles from his roller bag, 10 bucks a pop.
When we made it to the Mission District, the march occasionally stopped to tell the story of the gentrification eroding the neighborhood’s soul. At 16th and Mission, Bac Sierra urged us to learn more about the 10-story, 330-unit “Monster in the Mission” development currently being proposed for the block. We passed former dive bars and the massive thrift store that stood for 45 years before closing earlier this year. We stopped at 22nd and Mission, site of an apartment building that’d burned three times before it was finally demolished.
“A brother died in that building,” shouted Bac Sierra. “Fifty-six families were displaced. Twenty-three Latino-owned businesses were destroyed. We have had 32 fires in our barrio in the last five years. What does that smell like?”
“Arson,” the crowd, with some prodding, answered.
“Eight thousand Latinos have been displaced in this barrio,” he went on. “The African American population in San Francisco was once 27 percent. Today, it’s five percent. What does that smell like?”
The dwindling counter-protesters marched to 24nd Street, where one final speaker informed everyone that the alt-right had officially “moved their rally to Pacifica.” Everyone laughed. “But this fight isn’t over,” he said. “We still have a fight with [S.F. mayor] Ed Lee, and every single supervisor. This is what it took for them to come out and to speak up! Not Alex Nieto, not Mario Woods, not Luis Góngora, not Jessica Williams. It took these goddamn Nazis.”
Word trickled out on Twitter around 3:45 p.m.—well after the march had broken up—that the alt-right organizers had actually made their way to Crissy Field. I cursed them and hopped on my bike for the sweaty half-hour ride, but when I finally got to the “scene,” it had already dissolved. Gibson had left, reportedly to “pop up” at other S.F. sites, coincidentally just after crowds had dispersed.
In his wake were left scattered remnants of some lost Deplorable tribe: A cartoonishly tanned and stylized family; two black guys in cowboy gear; a LARPer in a trench coat; a “free speech!” guy wearing the American flag as a cape; some Lynchian being with a face bandage, a full suit, and a MAGA cap. There were some counter-protesters too, making it all feel like an episode of Jerry Springer: a crowd screaming “fuck you!” to a handful of onstage weirdos, who, somehow empowered by the animosity, screamed “fuck you!” right back.
Eventually and graciously, a masked man with dual air horns set sirens to full blast to drown out the arguments by the Deplorables, and that ended things. The air horn gave way to the foghorn as a dramatic bank of mist engulfed the Golden Gate, and that was the end of day one.
Sunday’s so-called “No to Marxism in America” rally in Berkeley always had the feel of the weekend’s main event. It was taking place in a more urban environment, as opposed to the distant expanses of Crissy Field, and it was on a plot of land (MLK Civic Center Park) that’d already been the site of two “battles” between antifa and the alt-right who had clashed in the wake of Milo Yiannopoulos being driven off the UC Berkeley campus in January.
The lead-up to the event did nothing to quell that anxiety. Berkeley was overtaken by 20,000 “Berkeley Stands UNITED Against Hate” posters—a sign of unity, sure, but also a reminder of the approaching chaos. Berkeley City Council granted a controversial “urgency ordinance” allowing the city manager new power when devising protest rules. On the airwaves and social media, mayor Jesse Arreguin constantly urged residents to stay home. Even the rally’s organizer, Amber Cummings, canceled it—well, “called it off,” as she had bungled the permits enough that it was never approved—stating that the situation had turned into a “tinderbox ready to explode.” Still, Berkeley barricaded MLK Park, so that on Sunday, the only way in was after a pat-down-slash-bag-check for banned items like torches, U-locks, mace, and, uh, IEDs.
When I arrived, the crowd numbered a few hundred, clustered into groups. I quickly realized it was essentially a continuation of the oddball Jerry Springer routine from Crissy Field the afternoon before, but this time with a lot more cameras and mics aimed at the MAGA chuds.
“There’s maybe two or three who have just been spewing their rhetoric the whole time,” said Sevgi Fernandez, founder of Together We Stand, an organization advocating for social justice. “I wish we wouldn’t give them such a platform. If someone is trying to have an intelligent dialogue on the issues, that’s one thing. But if it’s inciting hate, I just wish [the media] would walk away.”
The arguments were calm, as far as these things go, with helmeted police sprinkled throughout to make sure action stayed vocal only. Most of the counter-protesters either sang (“Peace Shall Overcome” was a popular one) or emitted whistles high-pitched enough to force my own escape away until I only heard the droning din from the helicopters keeping watch above.
My favorite exchange was between a large black man and a dopey white guy wearing goggles:
“I stood up for this country,” said the be-goggled. “I stood up for free speech!”
“No, you didn’t stand up for this country,” said the black man. “Because you’d have to stand up to white supremacy.”
“I love black people! I love black people!” shouted the guy. “I disavow white supremacy!”
“Ah, I don’t want you to hurt yourself,” said the man. “Your friends might be watching.”
But it was a Springer-fest again, for the most part: a large group yelling at a small contingent who thrive on that energy. Now and then there’d be a slight skirmish, a shove leading to another shove, and then counter-protesters would swarm in, followed by the media, and then the police. One by one, these skirmishes resulted in the alt-righters worming to safety behind police lines and, ultimately, getting escorted out, occasionally in zip-ties. It was an afternoon of whack-a-mole, accompanied by chants of “Nazi scum off our streets!”,“na-na-na-na, hey-hey-hey, goodbye!”, and “whose streets!”
Only one or two of the dwindling alt-righters were left when the massive counter-protest march—the “Bay Area Rally Against Hate,” which had been taking place nearby—rolled up MLK Way to the police barricades outside the park, wanting to get in. It wasn’t clear if the marchers believed the park still had alt-righters, or just some organic need of two like-minded groups to coalesce as one. The truck with the PA system that was leading that procession stopped, culminating in a long face-off between a line of police and a huge group of antifa and black bloc, who carried a banner reading “Avenge Charlottesville / Protect Your Community.”
“The group behind the banner have shields and sticks,” I heard over the police radio, and tactical maneuvers began.
Police lines shifted as officers took turns putting on gas masks. New weapons suddenly appeared, one officer’s weighty tear gas launcher making the biggest impression. He stood on a barrier, took aim at the antifa banner, and was met with chants of “Put the gun down! Put the gun down!”
“We are making a defensive line,” said whoever manned the truck’s PA system. “If you do not want to be on the front lines, pack it up to the lawn! We do not want confrontation, but we stand against white supremacy!”
It was a tense scene that could’ve gone either way, one of them justifying the actual headlines of “violence in Berkeley” in that night’s news. But instead, the police got the call to fall back, so they did, and the marching crowd led by the antifa stormed over the park’s barriers through the wisps of purple smoke that someone had set off.
The protesters—now in the thousands—took water breaks in the refuge of whatever shade they found. Posters with Heather Heyer’s face became more prevalent, and a man unfolded a table to hawk “Bay Area Rally Against Hate / August 27th, 2017 / I Was There” T-shirts. An old, bearded man with rosary beads around his neck strolled silently with a placard held high, proclaiming “LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” That sentiment held true for a bit, until a few new alt-righters made their first appearance of the day.
At the intersection of MLK and Allston Ways, what looked like a father-and-son team on a suicide mission rushed into the crowd of masked antifa, pepper-spraying as they did; they were beaten and run off, and police used white smoke to break up the fight. Joey Gibson, who failed to organize the Crissy Field rally, stormed in with a bulky friend donning football shoulder pads; they, too, were dispensed with and taken behind a police line. A spattering of other Trump supporters/alt-right/Nazis/“Nazis”/however-you-want-to-phrase-it continued to livestream, but no one cared. Frank Chu finally rolled up, legitimizing this protest in Bay Area eyes just under the wire, and those left huddled around the PA truck for closing sermons.
“In my body and my flesh, in my blackness, in my same gender love and identity, in my gender fluidity, I embody a spirit of hope, a spirit of resistance, a spirit of determination,” preached a reverend from a nearby church, before offering the day’s final declaration. “Love has won!”
The crowd cheered, the truck rolled off, and an old hippie on a bike shouted to those protesters still milling about, unsure where to go next.
“You don’t even live in Berkeley,” he screamed as he rode, “so why are you here?”
Rick Paulas is writing a novel about Oakland.