As soon as I locked up my bicycle near Old City Hall, where the Berkeley City Council was holding a special meeting on Friday, August 18, 2017, at 3:00 p.m. to tweak local protest laws before the arrival of the fourth alt-right/neo-Nazi/white supremacist rally in Trump’s first year in office, I saw a friend who said, “are you ready to kick some Nazi ass?”
“Hey, my brother, don’t feed them what they want,” I said, like the predictable kumbaya peace nut that of course I am.“That’s bullshit,” he responded cheerfully. He’s a poet, a powerful one. But he has clearly decided that using his words is not enough.
And he is not alone. The efficacy of violence, over the course of history, is a case easily made. I just happen to be the gal who loves the nonviolent crew: Victor Jara, Wuilly Arteaga, Dr. Martin Luther King.
It’s not that violence can’t be effective. It’s just that if you’re an artist and a moralist, nonviolence is more creative, more appealing from a philosophical and moral standpoint, on rare occasion more effective, and at least an equally daunting physical challenge for the creaking crew that saved People’s Park along the way.
The Berkeley City Council is aware, after hosting three Trump rallies, that there’s a remarkable ratio of local citizens ready to rumble with whatever they got out of a handy hardware store. The ordinance proposed to tailor local law in order to enable the Berkeley police tasked with honoring First Amendment rights to assemble and speak to subtract improvised weaponry from those assembled, no matter whom they hate, aspires to at least lower the body count.
The vote was seven to one, with City Councilmember Cheryl Davila the lonely vote against increasing the City Manager’s powers to either indulge in narrowly tailored powers to protect public safety or whittle away more civil liberties, depending on one’s perspective.
Only two people in the crowd spoke on behalf of further constricting protest rights. One was a man originally from Virginia who claimed to know people injured at Charlottesville and was ready to embrace any effort to protect the public.
The second was a very young intern from Kriss Worthington’s office who spoke only on her own befuddled behalf, explaining that Nazi hate was the very worst kind of hate and so deserved the city’s very best effort to combat it no matter what it took.
The people in my section were almost laughing at her. It isn’t that we don’t get that some of the people coming to town are, for all practical purposes, Nazis. Nazis bad. We kind of get that, even those of us so young that it’s pretty much a matter of movies and common sense.
But the idea that hate is more hateful with a swastika still seems dumb to people who had to serve coffee to the Ku Klux Klan, which ritually hung people in a picnic-like atmosphere. A parallel moment of accidental perspective collision happened when the majority of the Berkeley City Councilmembers spoke in turn about their support for tailoring local laws to try to address the weapons being brought to rallies by both out-of-towners and locals alike.
City Councilmember Ben Bartlett spoke, making an ominous case for each white supremacist rally being worse than the one before, claiming that the alt-right rally scheduled for August 27 in Berkeley had been planned as a consequence of the perceived victory at Charlottesville. He used almost eerie horror movie affect in making his case.
But, in fact, the Berkeley rally had been planned long before Charlottesville, which, when pointed out by someone sitting behind me, was silenced by a Mayor Jesse Arreguin no longer patient with interruptions at his eight-month mark in office.
Bartlett continued to make his case undeterred by fact, and it’s at least a seductive case to the many still shaking their heads that unmasked, unabashed racists enjoy coming to Berkeley to watch the liberals quake at their flag capes and makeshift warrior costumes.
But the lone vote against the ordinance came from the clear voice of District 2 Councilmember Cheryl Davila, whose steady cadence recounted growing up with an awareness of the hate of the Ku Klux Klan, an awareness which continues steadily today in California’s number-one status in our number of hate groups, 917 by the latest count. Davila’s quiet recollection stood in sharp contrast to the implication that this moment is anything new for African Americans with the longevity and perhaps the courage to recognize that hate has always been just around their corner all of their lives.
How to handle it is Berkeley’s challenge, a challenge which could have convened a community forum months ago to collect creative suggestions in dealing with it, considering that the alt-right/white supremacist/neo-Nazi fountain of provocation seems to have no end.
We are a popular watering hole for these groups because we can always provide the predictable liberal/radical reaction and land any group that wishes it square in the middle of the evening news. That is, until we figure out a more creative way to slay the current dragon.
One of the crowd was part of SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee which decades ago practiced for the provocation and denigration they expected as workers for voting rights in the 1960s. She expressed that few young people would have any interest in hearing about nonviolence training or strategy, a heart-breaking moment for me.
There are around 30 SNCC members in the Bay Area today capable of telling their stories of personal sacrifice and SNCC organizing, which is undeniably one of the greatest American stories ever told. But its significance at this moment can only be weighed if it is told at all to the people who wonder about what might be more powerful than makeshift shields from Home Depot.
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Thank You White Supremacists for Revealing the President as an Unabashed Sympathizer
Commentary by Carol Denney
Thank you, white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan, and alt-right marchers for not covering your faces, for lighting yourselves well with dollar-store tiki torches, so we can all know if you are our neighbors and co-workers and try to arrange our lives accordingly.
Thank you for outlining our President so clearly as an unabashed sympathizer, so that no amount of spin can alter the obvious trajectory of his position on racism. Thank you for clarifying so succinctly that your groups see his presidency as aligned with your mission.
Thank you, white supremacists, for illuminating for anyone in confusion the shallow nature of your cause, the immorality of your goals, and the sheer ignorance of the vast majority of your members. Thank you for the non sequitur squirreling through what passes for writing on your websites, so that someday perhaps we reconsider our custom of underfunding education.
Thank you for expressing yourselves so freely, so that those observers with a thorough education in psychology can navigate the turgid waters of your movement’s cold soul and help the rest of us strategize some way to communicate better with you through the jungle of icons and clichés that seem to surround you.
Thank you for drawing the lonely, the misfit and the disoriented to your side, so that we who may have ignored them can meet them and make sure we are not part of contributing to their sense of abuse. Thank you for making it so clear exactly how and where our world needs healing.
Thank you for showing us that those who are inspired to oppose you using violence and abusive taunts only feed and nurture your sense of being misunderstood and excluded. Thank you for making it so obvious that only love, welcome, and thoroughly honoring the First Amendment, where speech meets speech to resolve differences, can someday clear our country of racism, our original sin.
Thank you for helping all of us understand that we may well have made some progress toward social justice, but that we remain at the very beginning of a long journey we can only take together.
We couldn’t do it nearly as well, or as quickly, without you.
Carol Denney is a writer, poet, and musician who lives in the East Bay.