They came, they marched, and in their view, they conquered.
The thousands who hit the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley this weekend declared their demonstrations a success after Patriot Prayer, an Oregon-based group – which says it eschews racism, but whose gatherings have previously attracted white nationalists and neo-Nazis – canceled rallies scheduled to take place in both cities.
“When Nazis and white supremacists and white nationalists are in our city, we cannot stay home and we cannot stay silent,” says Mia, a data analyst from the South Bay. “We’re going to resist!” adds her mother, Barb, who wore a hat adorned with flowers and carried a bouquet as the pair joined the crowd in San Francisco. (They declined to give their last names.)
The marches reaffirmed the Bay Area’s, and more broadly California’s, position as the center of resistance to what liberals see as a wave of ultra-conservatism and right-wing extremism sweeping the nation. And, like Mia and Barb, many who turned out for the events were proud to call themselves Californian because of it.
“The resilience of California’s populace sends a strong message of, ‘We can take it,’ ” says Shirley Song, who came up to the Bay Area from Sunnyvale, near San Jose, to participate in both rallies.
Yet styling itself the capital of blue America has not come without cost to California, political analysts say. Since President Trump took office, the state has regularly wrangled with Washington over approaches to immigration, climate change, and social services – and still faces the threat of cuts to key federally-funded programs. The state has also seen a surge in both hate crimes and violent public demonstrations over the past year and a half, as protesters across a range of ideologies converge in the state’s most liberal enclaves. Those same cities have also become a frontline for a nationwide struggle over freedom of speech and how to effectively respond to hatred and bigotry.
That all this is taking place here is no coincidence, says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
“California is not only viewed as a bastion of progressive politics but a battleground for a demographically changing America,” he says. “To white nationalists, this is what they want to prevent the rest of the country from turning into. So this is tapping into a vein that’s existed for some time.”
The tension between the Golden State and the nation's capital has found its most visible expression at the level of politics and policy. When Mr. Trump pulled the US out of the Paris accord, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) met separately with China’s President Xi Jinping to discuss global efforts to address climate change. When Trump released his budget proposal, which outlined a hike in defense funding while cutting support for spending on social services, Governor Brown called it “unconscionable and un-American.” And as Trump doubles down on his campaign promise to build a wall along the US border with Mexico, California lawmakers prepare to pass the California Values Act, a statewide “sanctuary” bill that would further limit cooperation between state and local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
Nearly every action Trump takes “is a gut punch to California,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California. “[The administration has] targeted the state that gave Hillary Clinton her popular vote win. And California’s responding to what it perceives as a threat to its Democratic constituency.”
Price of resistance
But conflict has manifested in the streets, too. While police reported only one arrest in San Francisco on Saturday, Berkeley saw more than a dozen people taken into police custody and several confrontations between right-wing activists and the larger crowd. Antifa – the term used for a loose affiliation of leftist-leaning, militant groups opposed to fascism – crossed police barricades to storm a park named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in downtown Berkeley.
The Sunday protest adds to the 27 public gatherings statewide that have involved “injury, arrests, property damage, or significant aggressive physical disruption” since February last year, according to data compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
“The engagement in the mainstream between progressives and conservatives is playing out in a dangerous carnival mirror reflection between anti-fascists and anarchists, and white nationalists,” Professor Levin says.
To California’s most dedicated activists, such clashes are part of the cost of resisting racism and white supremacy. The social movements of the past were fraught with violence because sometimes that’s what it takes to defend democratic values, says Emily Lee, spokeswoman for Bay Resistance, a coalition of Bay Area advocacy groups. “We’re clearly in a fight around the moral soul of our country,” she says. “We can’t simply sit by and hope these alt-right groups go away. So we support nonviolent direct action, but also people’s right to self-determination and to defend themselves.”
For others, however, the situation is not so clear-cut. “We want to stand for justice, freedom, and free speech. I’m not sure that shutting down [Patriot Prayer] is the best way to fight,” says Betsy Bigelow Teller, a Berkeley resident who came to Sunday’s counter protests wearing Groucho Marx glasses. “I think there needs to be some sort of understanding and dialogue.”
Observers point out there’s a long history behind the struggle to define the line between free speech and hate speech, which is legally protected in America under the First Amendment, and between self-defense and outright violence. The events in the Bay Area this weekend, they say, serve as an expression of that struggle.
'Hate is hate'
Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson insists that although he started the organization as a response to counter-protesters attacking attendees of a Trump rally during the presidential campaign, his anti-extremism message cuts both ways. “Nazism is extremely dangerous, but in my opinion no different than Antifa,” he says in a phone interview ahead of the Bay Area demonstrations. “Hate is hate. That’s what I’m trying to preach to people.”
He and his supporters say they have a right to be able to get that message out. Although the rallies he'd planned over the weekend were cancelled, Mr. Gibson did show up in Berkeley on Sunday, where protesters chased him and reportedly sprayed pepper spray at him. The police said they detained him for his protection, according to TV reports.
Many leading the counter protests in the Bay Area disagree. “It’s doesn’t matter if they themselves don’t support white supremacism,” says Ms. Lee with Bay Resistance. “They know who their rallies attract, and that has a direct impact on our communities, whether they claim that’s their intention or not.”
It’s a situation that analysts say American society will continue to grapple with in the face of deeply polarizing forces. “What are we supposed to do? I don’t know if there is an answer,” says Professor Jeffe at USC. “You can’t just say, Let’s all sing ‘Kumbaya.’ That’s one of the questions we’re going to have to focus on.”
California is likely to remain a primary stage in the search for solutions – and an epicenter of the discourse around intolerance and bigotry, Levin says. The state has led the way in demographic diversity and technology development, two major contributors to the rise of extremism and polarization, he notes. It stands to reason that the response to these changes will find headway here, too.
“California is not only symbolic, it’s a bellwether,” he says. “We’re seeing a test nationwide of how much extremism will enter the sociopolitical mainstream, and everything we see, we see more of here.”