“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”
Come on over sometime and talk about how all men are created equal,
Only some, they mo’ equal than others.
— Stephen Stills: “Special Care” (1969)
For all the years that Berkeley, California has had a reputation as a liberal city, it is a place where politics makes for strange bedfellows. The University of California at Berkeley has a College Republicans outfit, and when I lived in Berkeley throughout 2012 and 2013, from time to time I would see cars with bumper stickers praising that bigoted neo-Confederate carpetbagger Ron Paul and denouncing trade unions. It appears that the more libertarian people among the so-called “alternative” right are aware of this, as they have been attempting to seize upon it, what with all the Trump supporters intruding on Berkeley to stir sh*t up.
Despite the fact that the fascist shrew Ann Coulter’s speech at the University of California at Berkeley was canceled, hundreds of Trump supporters, many flying alt-right colors high, flocked to Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, downhill from the campus to hold a demonstration for the benefit of free speech (or at least their idea thereof).
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that their choice of venue was an intentional act of blatant spite and disrespect in and of itself, given the stature and legacy of the park’s namesake.
As I surfaced onto Shattuck Avenue from the Downtown Berkeley BART station, I could hear the buzzing of whirlybird motors above my head. Though I had heard that protests had been scheduled for that day, I asked a couple of local passersby about it. With the hospitality that is a defining mark of the Athens of the West Coast, they directed me toward the park, advising me to be careful. Indeed, two recent protests in Berkeley turned violent when fascist Trump ideologues clashed with their opposition. Knowing this kept me up the entire previous night.
As soon as I reached the corner of Milvia and Center Streets at about 10:30 a.m., I saw that the crowd had begun to assemble. Most gathered were white, though there were a few token non-whites (one black man, dressed flamboyantly in a Spiderman costume, a couple Filipinos and one or two Latin Americans) present; surmisably under the spell of ultraconservative rhetoric presented in a populist manner, bogus anti-Hillary propaganda, and/or their religious beliefs having been co-opted by the right wing. No doubt, by showing up, they enabled the pasty troglodytes to qualify a claim of inclusiveness and diversity.
As I could tell that these reactionary injustice-collecting cranks were easily provoked and certainly believed they had naught to lose, I made sure to keep silent as I walked around observing them through earthenware eyes, taking the odd photo.
Granted, I had spent time in various dangerous places on both coasts — New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford, New York City, Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, East Palo Alto. In fact, New Haven, Connecticut, where I was born, consistently places in the FBI’s top five most dangerous cities, averaging two to three dozen homicides per year. Not bad for a city with about 135,000 people.
However, regardless of how much mellower Berkeley is than San Francisco and Oakland at that point in time, I felt far more uneasy in MLK park around a group of Trump supporters than I ever did in all those neighborhoods, combined. No doubt it was wise for me not to risk even inadvertently antagonizing them. For all the racist fallacies beaten to death by Fox News asserting that non-white people are more predisposed to crime than white people, it’s fair to say that there’s nothing worse than a crowd of pissed-off, uneducated, lumpenproletariat Caucasians.
Many of the men were hirsute, decked out in suburban white trash garb emblazoned with American Flags, whereas others sported the SoCal bro look, complete with lightly-hued summery designer outdoor clothes, short cut bottle-blond hair and tribal tattoos here and there. Some were encumbered with beer bloat, whereas others were leaner, either from the gym or intensive manual labor. Some wore the uniform and insignia of their local motorcycle gangs or militia groups, and two members of the latter paraded around Gadsden flags displaying a striking rattlesnake against a yellow background with the motto “DON’T TREAD ON ME.”
At one point, a pair of brave Muslim girls who looked to be in junior high walked past, calling out “f*ck Trump!” As they hot-footed it away, laughing, a tall, soft-spoken gray-haired man with glasses and more liberal values cautioned the girls about provoking the Trump supporters. He then offered them the chance to speak to a couple of Trump supporters, but when they turned the camera on the two girls, they quickly said that they did not want to be on camera.
“You did the right thing,” I said to them. “It would have only been a publicity stunt for them.”
“True,” said one of them.
“I admire your courage,” I said.
“Thank you.” They both gave me a modest smile.
Although between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., there was no open violence, a couple of tense moments transpired. A trio of young black teenagers heckled the crowd, with insults being traded back and forth for a couple minutes. When one of the token Asians smugly reminded the three that they were outnumbered, one of them, a young man named Ken, replied:
“I ain’t scared of none of y’all! I’m-a call all y’all racist motherf*ckers out!”
Though cooler heads moved him away, his friend, choosing a safe vantage point several yards from the throng, bopped back and forth with a well-deserved mix of contempt and glee, holding both his middle fingers upward and outward. Just as he stopped, I said for him to do it again so I could take a picture. With a smile, he obliged me.
shortly after Ken was moved away from danger, a gaggle of TV news reporters huddled around him, eager for him to share his thoughts:
“Berkeley is a diverse city. You got all kinds of people here, and these [pro-Trump] people coming here is disrespectful.”
At another point, one of the Trump supporters claimed that another black teenager accused the demonstrators of racism, and alleged that he was signaling to his friends to come over and raise some hell by swatting his head with his hand. Luckily, that situation was also quickly diffused, as it turned out the young man was merely giving an itch a quick scratch.
To the naked eye, the assembly of Trump supporters initially gave the impression of conducting a peaceful gathering. However, it only took a few seconds of eavesdropping to notice a potent, simmering undercurrent of turgid indignation, paranoia, and utter hate. For example, in my travels, I saw that graffiti on the filthy outhouse designating Berkeley as an Antifa zone had been crossed out with red tape decorated with the words “F*CK YOU” in black magic marker.
Near the City of Berkeley’s Civic Center building, a couple members of the Berkeley College Republicans took turns at the megaphone, lamenting “the death of free speech in Berkeley — a city famous for free speech,” accusing liberals of being “hateful” and advising their audience not to trust “these liberal journalists.” Elsewhere, conspiracy theories regarding George Soros and uncontextualized propaganda about Hillary Clinton were passed around like hors d’oeuvres.
Around half past two, I went to the library on Kittredge Street to charge my phone, put a dent in this story, and save a few choice snapshots. By the time I returned to the scene of the protest, the Trump crowd had grown and several counter-demonstrators had shown up, crowding the sidewalk. The battle lines were drawn with the Trump supporters on the northern sidewalk, my side at the south, right in front of Berkeley High School, and the cops in the middle, keeping a physical barrier.
My inhibitions dropped and I joined in the chants, the uneasiness I felt earlier heating into a hostile rage.
“HEY, HEY! HO, HO! DONALD TRUMP HAS GOT TO GO!”
“NO BAN! NO WALL! SANCTUARY FOR ALL!”
“NO TRUMP! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!”
At one point, I saw a teenage black girl with fear in her eyes, just about on the verge of tears, yelling:
“I don’t feel safe around these people! Why did they come to Berkeley? I want them to go away!”
Now, my brother has a kid, I am an uncle, and I have had to serve as a “father’s deputy,” to coin a phrase, and when I see that young children justifiably feel that they are in real danger, it chafes the hell out of me, to say the least. I guess that was the moment I decided, “f*ck it,” and released a volley of loud curses, sleeve-cutters and reverse V-signs.
“F*CK OFF, A**HOLES! LOSERS! WANKERS! YOU’RE SO RACIST, YOU WON’T EVEN USE BLACK ELECTRICAL TAPE! WHAT DO YOU HAVE BESIDES YOUR WHITENESS?! F*CK-ALL! THAT’S WHAT!”
At one point, a skinny young twerp wearing a smarmy smile and one of those crummy red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hats who had crept over to our side, looked me in the eye and said in a patronizing faux-touchy-feely voice:
“You are really full of hate right now. Do you want to talk about this?”
Full of hate? Compared to WHAT?!! A suburban SoCal Simple-Simon who has no compunctions about voting for a candidate willing to cavalierly throw brown-skinned immigrants and refugees under the bus with his policies? Obviously, him trying to talk to me did not help matters. Besides, I don’t want f*cking animals like that near me.
Reduced to nothing more than skin covering six feet, four inches and 180 pounds of raw, unadulterated, white-hot, livid rage, red in the face, eyes the size of saucers, nostrils flaring, heart pounding, I waved my thumb to the side in a series of abrupt sweeps and kept my response brief. My brain was so saturated with adrenaline that I only knew two words:
He smiled more, offering a polite but nervous laugh. “Come on, man,” he said. “You don’t want to talk about this?”
I repeated myself:
“NO! PISS OFF!”
“Are you ordering me off a public sidewalk?” he asked.
I said to him:
“I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO YOU! PISS OFF! GET THE F*CK OUT OF HERE!”
A friend of his clad in a white T-shirt sidled up and asked me a question, with a look in his eyes like a rookie lion tamer meeting a particularly ferocious lion. He asked me:
“Are you in favor of free speech?”
“THIS IS NOT A BLACK AND WHITE ISSUE!”
We then went back and forth:
“Yes it is!”
“NO, IT BLOODY ISN’T!”
“What does free speech mean to you?”
“FREEDOM COMES WITH RESPONSIBILITY!”
“That’s not true! Free speech means you get to say what you want when you want!”
He looked at me, his eyes uneasy and incredulous as he tensed up a little more each second. The debate continued:
“THAT’S NOT HOW IT F*CKING WORKS! CHOICES HAVE CONSEQUENCES!”
“That is not true!”
“SO YOUR FREE SPEECH OUGHT TO COME AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHERS?! IS THAT IT?!”
“So you mean that you’re going to try to silence me? You’re going to try to put your hand over my mouth…”
With wide eyes, he demonstrated the gesture.
Completely and paralytically at a steep deficit for patience and temper because of his blatant attempt to provoke me to hit him so that he could get mileage out of it, I bolted my feet to the ground, held my hands at my sides a few inches from my legs to show I had no intention of touching him and screamed:
“WHERE AM I PUTTING MY HANDS?! DO YOU SEE MY HANDS?!”
“You really are a piece of work,” said the jerk in the red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat. I roared at him:
“NO F*CKING KIDDING! NOW PISS OFF! GET THE F*CKOUT OF HERE!”
As those two moved away, one of the ladies from the other side, wearing a dark green “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat moved on me with a microphone, cautiously, as she could see the rage in my eyes.
She had tanned skin, long, straight hair with a kind of honey-almond color and looked like the shallow, giggly, airheaded Debbies you see on the weekends at corny nightclubs full of clones trying to impress each other — the sort of women I am delighted to deliberately avoid. She asked me:
“Why are you against free speech!”
I screamed back:
“I AM NOT AGAINST FREE SPEECH! I SIMPLY DON’T BELIEVE HATE SPEECH SHOULD BE PROTECTED AS IT ENCROACHES ON PEOPLE’S FREEDOMS!”
She asked me what I meant, so I answered her question with a question.
“ARE YOU TELLING ME IT SHOULD BE OK TO USE RACISM IN THE WORKPLACE, FOR INSTANCE?! DO YOU FEEL IT SHOULD BE OK TO INTERFERE WITH SOMEBODY’S LIVELIHOOD BY MAKING IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR THEM TO DO THEIR JOB?!”
She moved away from me, and as she departed, I waved her off with my hand, yelling:
“RIGHT! RUN ALONG AND GET THAT F*CKING MICROPHONE OUT OF MY FACE!”
Immediately afterward, a young black boy, radiating gratitude came up to me and shook my hand. “Thank you,” he said. “You tell ‘em, sir!”
Indeed, I understood his appreciation at a basic intellectual level, but I will admit without shame that I obviously would never understand it the way he did. Naturally, though I admit that because I am white and have never experienced discrimination at the institutional level, therefore, I never will understand racism the same way black people do, I definitely feel a right to viscerally hate it; as it not only flies in the face of ethics, morals and plain, simple good manners but also inevitably escalates to violence.
As the rally continued, more insults were hurled back and forth across the street. One Trump-supporter with a megaphone, a guy dressed in an ugly, frumpy suit who was so fat, he had to lift his distended belly up in order to pee, yelled to this skinny black teenager wearing a white hat:
“YOUR HEAD LOOKS LIKE A GIANT MUSHROOM!”
The kid replied:
“MAN, F*CK YOU, PORKY! YOU JUST MAD I GET MORE P*SSY THAN YOU! FAT MOTHERF*CKER!”
Immediately, I stepped up for the kid.
“LEAVE HIM ALONE, YOU FAT F*CK! HIS HAT’S COOL! WHY DON’T YOU EAT A SALAD?! YOU’RE SO FAT, YOU HAVE SMALLER FAT, RACIST PEOPLE ORBITING AROUND YOU! NICE GUT!”
A couple people near me laughed uproariously, including the kid.
At one point, during a lull in the chants, I borrowed a megaphone and yelled into it:
“HEY, FASCISTS! WHY DON’T YOU GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM — THE DUMPSTER BEHIND WAL-MART!”
Though for a second I was worried that somebody would scold me and say I was not very nice, almost everybody laughed.
“No, the bathroom at Wal-Mart,” snickered one kid with an easygoing smile and a red ponytail.
For the most part, it was a peaceful protest, compared to the previous two. There was one assault in the form of a Trump supporter throwing a nearly full can of Pepsi at us, which thankfully missed. Taking that upside the head would easily result in a concussion.
About a half-dozen people were arrested over the course of the event. I observed one of the arrests. As a tall, broad-shouldered black man was being ushered into the police car, hands in cuffs, a few anti-Trump protesters moved over toward him, asking:
“What are the charges? Why are you being arrested?”
“I ain’t do a G*d damn thing! I’m being arrested because all I did was express my opinion! Berkeley, y’all are bullsh*t! Y’all don’t respect free speech! F*ck all y’all!”
I could see that he didn’t at all look like he had been in any physical struggle since I didn’t notice any visible injuries, so, what he said stood to reason.
Oddly enough, nobody arrested the Trump supporter who threw the Pepsi can. At another point, an elderly, overweight Trump supporter confined to a mobility scooter rolled up to the middle of the road to heckle us. He zig-zagged back and forth and from side to side, pausing at least once to do a donut, with police cars driving to and fro all the while. Clearly, he was putting himself and others in danger. He could have been hit by one of the cops driving around or might have caused a car wreck, which would have been dangerous to the gathered crowd. Why wasn’t he arrested?
It really does make you wonder, doesn’t it?
As the festivities began to die down, an elderly well-meaning liberal man walked up to me and asked:
“Do you really feel as though insulting them makes you look good? I mean, don’t get me wrong. I don’t agree with them at all, and I don’t like their attitudes. But if you insult them, aren’t you no better than they are?”
“Well, their values are uncivil. And because a lot of people see this struggle as a matter of life and death, I just don’t see there being any middle ground. These people won’t listen to reason.”
He asked me another question:
“Yeah, but does being nasty help?”
I dug my smartphone out of my pocket, found a quote from Naomi Shulman and read it aloud:
“‘Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.’”
And with that in mind, to quote my beloved godbrother Ben Hosen, I resolve to be even more of a shrill, uncivil d*ck.
All photographs by James Conrad