When hundreds of activists on the left and the right converged in Berkeley on Saturday, things got ugly very quickly. It was billed as a “free speech” rally by conservative activists, staged in one of the nation’s most liberal cities. Even before the event was set to begin, fists were flying and people were left bloodied. In the end, 21 were arrested and police confiscated an array of heavy sticks, knives, and Pepsi cans used as projectiles, reports the Los Angeles Times. What appeared to be a political event that devolved into violence was actually something more complex. The combatants on both sides were extremists who traveled from far and wide to make Berkeley their stage.
Many freely admitted they were there to make trouble and that peaceful protest over President Trump and other issues really wasn’t their goal. Much of the violence was captured on cellphone cameras and posted on social media, where each side offered supporters their narrative of what happened. “People have to start throwing [things] in order to protect themselves,” said a feminist demonstrator who called herself Emily Rose. Alt-right organizers and the anti-fascist groups that oppose them have battled online and in person for a year, fueled by Trump’s rise and the reaction to it. Both sides increasingly are coming to blows across the nation. For reasons political and geographic, Berkeley is a particularly common battleground. Uncertainty and disillusionment in the current political climate has caused “a deeper tectonic shift within political extremes,” said criminal sociologist Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. “They will glom themselves onto a tax day rally, a Trump rally, but there is a subgroup of extremists on both sides who are angling for a street battle,” he said. Replayed to their audiences on social media, “it goes viral.”