Many of us are still thinking about Charlottesville and its aftermath in our own communities. As local grassroots activists, we need to remind ourselves of the local lived experience and not lose that perspective amidst the wider national media narrative.
I was at the August 27 Bay Area Rally Against Hate in Berkeley, and I want to share my experience as a contrast to the few incidents of violence that have gotten so much attention in the media and by word of mouth. I was surrounded by hundreds of people who I believe had similar experiences to mine, which were totally different from the impressions the public is being given.
The Rally was supposed to be held on the Crescent Lawn, UC Berkeley campus, but police barricaded the lawn the night before, leaving only one small entrance/exit. For reasons including safety and accessibility, people moved instead onto the street below the Lawn.
The Rally was organized in part by SEIU, and many Union members in orange vests did a great job of guiding participants safely and directing the traffic we were interrupting. As we started filling in the intersection, a police officer on a motorcycle got in the middle and started riding in a circle. Some people started chanting that the police were unwanted, while others chanted thank you to the police. The officer left, and things progressed peacefully.
More people arrived, including people passing out socialist and Marxist materials, teachers representing their schools or subjects, union members, families, people from various faiths — a lot of diversity, very Berkeley. Since the right-wing event had been advertised as anti-Marxist, many people had Groucho Marx glasses on.
There were speakers: representatives from the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, a Berkeley Synagogue, an organizer from Boston, Idle No More, and others. They each had their own perspectives, but overall the message was that all of us from different backgrounds and with different priorities stand united against the growing threat of extremism and racist hatred, and that while we want to keep hateful and violent individuals out of our cities, the root of these ideologies is in our culture and our politics, and we must do more than just driving them into silence to eradicate these home-grown ideas.
After the speeches, the organizers escorted anyone who wanted to leave to BART. The rest of us marched, without incident, toward Martin Luther King Jr Civic Center Park, where the “No to Marxism” rally and counter-protest were happening. The area around the Park was pretty crowded; I and those with me were not close enough to see the Park. Eventually, organizers led the marchers south on Milvia toward BART—we couldn’t figure out what was going on, so we followed. After several blocks, the head of the march stopped and started directing people either to BART or back to the Park. My group rested for a while and then, walking back toward downtown, we saw another march that appeared to be primarily faith and religious groups heading toward the park. They were joyful, peaceful, and singing hymns.
We checked social media and learned there had been some fights between protesters, and some tear gas and smoke bombs released by the police. We hadn’t seen any of this and wouldn’t have known from being there.