Report from the Berkeley Potluck Against Fascism
Enticed by the prospect of free food and some entertainment, some anarchists went to downtown Berkeley yesterday to attend the Potluck Against Fascism. The event, called in response to a "Patriots Day" rally being held by Richard Black, promised a “day of community solidarity”, including live music, a potluck, and a Passover ceremony among other things which would “take away their platform” and “declare Berkeley a Fascist-Free Zone”. Unfortunately, we were to be disappointed on all counts.
Arriving at 10:45 we were greeted with the sight of masked-up protesters holding banners and exchanging insults with an equally sized crowd of Trump supporters, all surrounded and separated by flimsy orange fencing set up by the police earlier. Upon our entering, an officer (one of many standing by the entrance they had created) asked one of us if he had any weapons on him though didn’t bother to frisk him. Though the police presence in the park itself appeared limited to handfuls of bored-looking cops waiting for things to pop off, it was clear that the protesters were not in control of the space, and if there was a community to be found it was the smattering of socialists and other leftists who had come prepared with the usual stock of protest chants.
When inquiring about food we were informed that the police had confiscated it, and we can assume that with the potluck failing the other festivities had followed suit (we did witness one unsuccessful attempt to bring a sound system into the park). At that point it was unclear where the momentum was on the part of the bloc – while there was some sporadic violence early on as occasional flag-wearers crept onto the other side of the fence, by and large the soft barrier of plastic netting was observed by both sides and the protesters did little beyond sparring verbally with the rally attendees. Whether there was a plan B for when the potluck fell through seemed unclear, but the protesters we talked to had little idea what was going on, there were no obvious attempts to facilitate communication among those who had shown up, and we saw no concerted attempts to push through the fencing and into the actual rally space which was set up further back.
The early part of the protest set the tone for the rest of the day – the bloc was never in control of what was going on nor on the offensive as a group but always reacting to the rally and the police. The disruption of the potluck and the shaping of the zone of conflict by the police had left the protest in the defensive position in which it would remain for the rest of the day. That said, we’re skeptical of claims that the protest failed due to being policed – though the police showed up in large numbers they were concentrated at the perimeter and made no attempt to forcibly disperse or even control the conflict beyond the occasional arrest or smoke bomb/tear gas fired to break up fighting. At many points throughout the day there were no police at all in the vicinity of the bloc. Given this light police presence it’s puzzling to us that a soft, waist-high plastic net lacking substantial police protection could intimidate so many people into staying in their protest pen, far away from the actual events on the other side.
Part of the answer for the protest’s inertia may have been the presence of so many geared-out men in military fatigues (presumably Oathkeepers) who were posed at the perimeter of the rally and patrolling through the wingnut carnival of American flag capes, angry racist old people, and /pol/ internet refuse. In light of Richard Spencer’s call for a “white bloc” to defend against antifa actions and the substantial presence of Oathkeepers yesterday, we wonder how facing an enemy who is expecting to get punched and ready to punch back (or more) will play into further protests. What does it look like to physically engage (or attempt to avoid engaging) with someone who isn’t a clean-cut cosmopolitan troll but a biker, veteran, or sexually frustrated frat boy with three of his friends who have his back?
From our time wandering through the rally, it was clear that whatever platform the protesters had planned to take away remained firmly in the hands of the opposition. At no point during the conflict did the speaking program appear to be disrupted – though we witnessed a handful of unmasked protesters enter the rally space and attempt to drown out the speakers with air horns, they were too far away from the platform and too few in number to do anything more than get laughed at. Even this small attempt garnered no support from the bloc, much of which was busy gathering around the sound system for a march which would wind its way around (but not into) the rally space. Though the spectacle of violence on the front lines pulled crowds of people excited to watch or fight themselves, there were plenty of rally attendees happy to sit behind their security and listen to speakers, rant about Muslims invading, or network with each other.
Once the bloc left the park the “festive energy” protesters had been promised took the form of sporadic projectiles and fistfights as we marched around the rally space accompanied by a sound system (though not the police). Highlights of this wandering include a very angry rally attendee filming protesters being aggressively silly stringed and some rocks and bagels being appropriated for other uses by the bloc, but this movement came to a halt as the opposition crowded into the street. The use of rocks as projectiles in a situation of inertia or retreat seemed unwise as, unlike the police, some of the opposition was happy to throw them back, and though they caused some people to scatter or keep their distance many would quickly reconvene. Glass bottles, on the other hand, had much of the same effect and (importantly) usually shattered on impact.
After a series of fistfights and lots of smoke bombs from cops, protesters or rally attendees (it wasn’t clear), the bloc ended up being pushed up the street away from the rally space. The bloc would scatter and reconvene but there was no clear strategy or use of open space unoccupied by police (who were still mostly concentrated in the park) or rally attendees. A dumpster was appropriated and rolled around listlessly before being abandoned. Having failed to take away their platform, many protesters were happy to give those at the rally additional mini platforms of their own as they pursued meaningless shouting matches about fascism and free speech.
At one point a very large smoke bomb that did not appear to be from the police cloaked the entire block in gray clouds, and the bloc was chased towards Shattuck as the opposition rushed forwards. At this point the bloc was scattered again, and we left its largest contingent as it fought (verbally) with a group of older white men who, far from being made afraid again, seemed more intent on directing traffic than anything else.
The failure of the Potluck Against Fascism to stop the Patriots Day rally should mark the end of the recent short-lived era of feel-good antifa activism. As adherents of this tactic grow thoughtful about their loss we can only hope they incorporate some lessons about tactics into future actions or, better yet, find something better and more creative to do with their time. With that, we wish all the best to those hurt and/or arrested and good luck to those showing up to protest Ann Coulter in Modesto on April 28th.