Eric Clanton took to the streets with anti-fascists during a season of violence in Berkeley – and may spend the next decade in prison
Shortly after Donald Trump took office, the college town of Berkeley, California, found itself at war. Three violent protests broke out in the city within three months of Trump’s inauguration. In early February, a riot erupted at its famously liberal university as masked anti-fascists from the movement known as antifa attacked the student union center and stopped the alt-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos from delivering a speech. Four weeks later, a second group of anti-fascists descended on a local public park, coming to blows with a raucous gathering of the president’s supporters. It seemed at the time that Berkeley had again become what it hadn’t been in more than 50 years – a battlefield for radicals. But the third event, Patriots’ Day, a “free-speech” rally planned for April 15th by a broad array of far-right groups, was poised to be the biggest battle yet.
Protesters from both sides showed up early that day, slowly filling Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, a landmarked greensward in the middle of the city. The police had cut the park in half with a barrier of orange plastic mesh; the left-wing demonstrators made their way to one side, the right-wing to the other. Kept at bay by riot cops, most of the participants were passionate but peaceful. A throng of Berkeley liberals, carrying signs and banners, squared off with a band of their MAGA-hatted rivals, many of whom were shouting “USA! USA!” and waving American flags. While the hostile camps initially did little more than heckle one another, as the day went on and the crowd grew into the hundreds, the threat of partisan bloodshed started rising.
Early in the fray, a group of antifa combatants, clad in ninja black, had ducked into no-man’s-land and pepper-sprayed an alt-right partisan in a Roman-era gladiator helmet. That set off a series of aggressive scrapes between the anti-fascists and some members of the Rise Above Movement, a group of white supremacists who had shown up wearing skull masks. For the next few hours, as marchers waved signs, the militants in the crowd scuffled at its edges in probing skirmishes. But at 3 p.m., there was an explosion deep in right-wing territory – some would later say it was an antifa M-80 – and the skirmishes erupted into a brawl. The men from Rise Above charged across the antifa frontline: People were body-slammed, punched in the face, kicked in the gut. Tear gas filled the air and the park became a swirling sea of fists and sticks and pipes. As a helicopter shuddered overhead, the park’s perimeter gave way and the conflagration spilled into the streets. Unable to contain the melee, the police withdrew and a three-by-four-block section of the city was consumed by open war.
Amid the chaos was a brief, but brutal, scene of violence. Out on the street, a young anti-fascist dressed in a hoodie, his face obscured by a bandanna, swung what seemed to be a large metal bike lock squarely onto the skull of an unwitting alt-right demonstrator. The victim was a 20-year-old college student, Sean Stiles, who had made the trip to Berkeley from his home in Santa Cruz. Though Stiles had been consorting with the men from Rise Above, the bike-lock attack was unprovoked. Stiles had been arguing with two young leftist women about illegal immigration; when he was hit, he simply put his hands on his head, which started gushing blood, and stumbled off as his assailant disappeared. (Reached by Rolling Stone, Stiles had no comment on the attack.) According to the Berkeley police, Stiles was one of 11 people injured at the rally. There had also been 20 arrests – but the man with the lock was not among them.
The bike-lock attack seemed at first like a footnote to the city’s season-long experience with violence. In the days that followed, the media focused on the broad themes of the protest – “a little American civil war,” as the Daily Beast called it – but appeared less interested in the details of the fighting. Many reporters were also unaware that even after Civic Center Park returned to normal, a clandestine battle triggered by the conflict had continued online. Driving that campaign was /pol/, the politically incorrect chat board on 4chan.
“A lot of anti-fascists don’t expect much from the mainstream,” says an antifa member. “The mainstream could have stopped what’s happening – and it didn’t.”
As soon as the protest ended, the trolls and hackers who used the site launched a fevered search for Stiles’ assailant – a suspect they took to calling “Bike Lock Guy.” From the moment it was formed in 2011, /pol/ had been a breeding ground for some of the right’s most virulent movements, an online swamp for everyone from Gamergaters and men’s rights activists to overt racists and white supremacists. Now its digital sleuths were poring over videos for clues about Bike Lock Guy, eagerly swapping tips with one another. “Look into the OakRoots anarchist group in Oakland,” one wrote of a lead that turned out to be false. “You will find him.”
By April 17th, two days after the battle in the park, the 4channers had compiled a list of “Bike Lock Guy Identifiables.” The man they were looking for was five-feet-six or so, slimly built and had worn a hoodie, dark jeans, black gloves, a black backpack and knockoff-Rayban sunglasses. When one /pol/ user theorized that “given his footwork,” the suspect might belong to a martial arts or boxing gym, another posted a list of local facilities. When the hackers ran the evidence they had – partial photographs of Bike Lock Guy’s unmasked eyebrows and “nasolabial” angle – through an image search, it came back with a hit: a 28-year-old Bay Area college professor named Eric Clanton.
Clanton was a perfect target for /pol/. He was not just a professor, but an ethics professor who taught philosophy and critical thinking at Diablo Valley College in the East Bay suburb of Pleasant Hill. In a detail that provoked the chat board’s sardonic ire, his work encompassed “restorative justice from an anti-authoritarian perspective.” Once /pol/ had found Clanton’s name, its hackers found his OkCupid account, discovering that he had described himself to suitors as a “gender-nonconforming” sapiosexual interested in “helping to precipitate the end of civil society.” They also published the home phone numbers and addresses of some of his closest relatives. “Poor little terrorist snowflake,” one 4channer wrote, “about to get melted.”
But /pol/ was not content to sit on its scoop. On April 20th, Milo Yiannopoulos broke a bombshell story on his website. Topped by photographs of Clanton, the site announced that the Internet had identified “the antifa rioter who weaponized a giant bike lock.” One day after the story ran, the Berkeley Police Department got an email from the Alameda County sheriff’s office; it had been sent to the sheriff’s anonymous public tip line. “Recently,” the email read, “there has been an individual assaulting people with a U-Lock at various rallies and events in California. After intensive investigation a group of concerned citizens has identified the suspect as Eric Clanton.”
Attached to the email were a half-dozen video clips of right-wing marchers on Patriots’ Day being clubbed with a lock by a young man in a hoodie, black pants, black gloves and a black backpack. Though the Berkeley police had no idea who had sent the trove of evidence, they seemed to take it seriously. Within two days, detectives had obtained a photograph of Clanton from the state DMV. According to investigative documents, the photo showed that Clanton’s nose, jaw, hairline and facial hair were at least similar to those of the bike-lock attacker.
The police began surveillance on Clanton’s house in San Leandro, a few miles south of Oakland. They also started tracking his cellphone, and determined from a mapping program that he’d connected twice to a cellular tower two blocks north of Civic Center Park on the day of the attacks. On May 24th, the cops used Clanton’s phone to locate him at a large communal house in Oakland. A strike team broke into the house and found Clanton standing in the middle of an upstairs bedroom. When they searched the room, they found a canister of bear spray, two flip knives, metal knuckles, Rayban sunglasses and a Tupperware of psilocybin mushrooms. They also discovered a Billy club stashed inside Clanton’s car.
By 3 p.m., Clanton was in custody at Berkeley police headquarters. Two detectives sat him down in an interview room. After they Mirandized the suspect, the first detective asked a question: “Why?”
There was no response. So the second took a shot: “Why,” he said, “did Mr. Clanton do what he did?”
The roots of antifa arguably stretch back decades, to the communist street gangs in Europe that battled fascists when they first emerged in the 1920s and ’30s. Almost a century later, the movement is again making headlines. Since Trump first stepped into the presidential race, antifa’s frontline fighters have been engaged in near-constant conflict. They have sparred with skinheads in California, punched a neo-Nazi at Trump’s inauguration, shut down speeches by xenophobic ideologues and fought against the preservation of Confederate-era statues. Almost from the start, the right has demonized antifa followers as cartoon villains. The left, meanwhile, has split over the movement and its use of violent tactics. As white supremacists and proto-fascists have re-emerged across the culture, many progressives have embraced antifa’s cause, though others remain wary of its eye-for-an-eye approach, concerned that it could merely serve to inflame right-wing extremism. After the violence in Charlottesville last summer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said antifa’s militants should be prosecuted; others, like the scholar Cornel West, praised them as heroes.
When I flew to California to speak with Clanton three months after his arrest, he told me he had granted the interview only because he’d already been outed by the criminal-justice system. Even as antifa has attracted more attention under Trump, it remains a source of mystery to many, cloaked in a shroud of secrecy its followers seem eager to sustain. Unlike the far right, which despises but often engages with the press, antifa activists tend to shun reporters. For security reasons, they avoid revealing their identities, mask themselves during illicit operations and typically communicate through encrypted chat apps like Signal. “A lot of anti-fascists don’t expect much from the mainstream of society,” says Daryle Jenkins, a self-described member of the movement who has been involved in protests for nearly 30 years. “The reason is, the mainstream could have stopped a lot of what’s happening before it took root – and it didn’t.”
I met Clanton in a conference room at his lawyer’s office in Oakland. Though he had been charged with felony assault, there was no outward sign of the violence that the bike-lock attacker had evinced on video. A slim young man with watchful eyes and wavy blond surfer’s hair, Clanton seemed instead like a distracted academic. In his blue jeans and preppy sweater, he was pensive, full of halting pauses and obviously frightened by the possible 11-year sentence he was facing. (Clanton is scheduled to be in court next month for a hearing that could decide whether he pleads guilty to a lesser charge or goes to trial.)
He immediately told me there were things he wouldn’t talk about: antifa’s tactics, its hangouts in the Bay, any specific groups or individuals. He was also adamant that he not be represented as a spokesman for a movement that has none. Antifa is not a cohesive group with a top-down leadership. It is structured horizontally, with autonomous local cells that act independently in cities across the country. While there is often cooperation among its chapters, there is no central antifa authority. “To me, it’s like an expansive circle of friend groups,” Clanton says, adding that the movement is composed of “friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends.”
In the United States, the movement’s origins can be traced back to the 1970s and ’80s, when neo-Nazi skinheads started making inroads on the punk scene. In response, leftist punks formed a loose resistance known as Anti-Racist Action, which shut down their rivals’ gatherings and music shows, using the slogan “Never let the Nazis have the streets.” The current antifa movement has borrowed tactics from the anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s, in which “black blocs” of fighters wearing balaclavas marched against international finance groups like the W.T.O. Antifa’s egalitarianism and consensus-based governance largely derive from the Occupy phenomenon. More recently, in an effort to fight institutional racism, a kind of proto-antifa joined forces with Black Lives Matter in its serial protests against police brutality.
All of these strands – anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-authoritarianism – have come together in the struggle against Trump. Drawn from a diverse array of backgrounds – labor unions, anarchist clubs, communist and socialist political parties – the groups of radical leftists that have aligned themselves with antifa’s ideals have come to the conclusion that the president, and the extremists who have flocked to him, present the closest thing to a fascist threat the country has seen in decades. “I hate to mention the actual historic Nazis, because of America’s unique relationship to white supremacy, but I’m going to,” Clanton says. “It took a decade or so for the sort of social and political situation in Germany to normalize anti-Semitism such that it was viable for things to happen the way they did. And I think that the alt-right building power in the streets is the sort of beginning of the same sort of normalization.”
I heard the same from every follower of antifa I spoke to: In an echo of 1933, a virulent strain of nativism is ascending in the West as political leaders, from Warsaw to Washington, have sought to reorient state power toward white populations and blame the failures of the economic system on refugees and immigrants. “Fascism is re-emerging, and there are structural reasons for it,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a political scientist at the Hemispheric Institute in New York who counts himself as both a scholar and an adherent of antifa. “So it’s no accident that we also see the re-emergence of those willing to fight fascism.”
Beyond street-fighting, antifa members also write exposés on the methods and movements of far-right leaders; host anti-fascist conferences and workshops; and tout ideals about fostering sustainable, peaceful communities – tending neighborhood gardens and setting up booths at book fairs and film festivals with literature on everything from Native American sovereignty to Sacco and Vanzetti. But their chief means of beating back the neo-fascist threat is “direct action,” the tactical term for using force to deny extremists a platform from which to spread their rhetoric. “You can’t reason with fascism – it’s irrational,” Ciccariello-Maher says. “You can’t argue your way around it. You just have to stop it.”
People come to antifa through different channels. Clanton’s channel was academics. Raised in a stable family in Bakersfield, one of California’s most conservative cities, he studied at Bakersfield Christian, an evangelical high school. He says he felt like an oddball there and struggled to find a voice for his out-of-step beliefs, which he described as an “embryonic anti-state communism.” Even when he went to college – at Cal State Bakersfield – few of his fellow students were interested in his budding notions about capital and race. He remembers feeling a sense of isolation as he watched a live-stream of the cops in New York City raiding Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street. It was only when he left for grad school in 2013, heading off to San Francisco State, that he finally found a language for his politics. He started reading anarchist zines and theorists like Errico Malatesta in between attending seminars on the prison system.
Far more alluring than his classwork, though, was the Bay Area’s robust community of activists and organizers. Clanton started spending time in Oakland, the nation’s “riot capital,” where queer folk, militants of color, Marxist academics and tech-bro-hating anarchists were protesting Google buses and mass incarceration. “I felt like my politics had a home,” Clanton says. “I wasn’t alone in what I thought about the world.”
Oakland’s radicals were particularly focused on police brutality, and Clanton’s first taste of violent protest came that summer after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Florida of killing Trayvon Martin. Clanton tagged along – merely watching, he insists – as a swarming crowd took to Oakland’s streets, smashing windows, blocking freeways and occasionally fighting the police.
Within a year, he had reached a deeper level of engagement. In November 2014, a grand jury declined to indict the cop who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and this time Clanton joined the angry mob that flooded downtown Oakland, with some in the crowd rioting and looting for nearly two weeks. Soon after, Clanton took part in another massive protest when Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner in New York, escaped prosecution. Running with a throng that shut down trains and freeways, Clanton was arrested for the first time in his life, charged with public nuisance and willful obstruction of movement in a public place.
Marching against the police directed Clanton’s energies against white supremacy and what he described as “the structural violence of the state” – and set him on a path toward antifa. The protests also proved that, with sufficient motivation, radicals could oppose even the most entrenched forms of authority. “Before I saw those things happen,” Clanton says, “I had this very docile academic sense of what I believed to be wrong with the world and no real sense of power to do something about it.” But after, he adds, he realized that he had been part of “a force of people that were going to hold the street and that weren’t going to back down easily. It was, I think, the first time that I believed that people had a power sufficient to challenge the state.”
In the wake of his arrest, Clanton took a break. Burned out on politics, he returned to his studies, working on a master’s thesis about the roots of human ethics. In what he called a “mutual education,” he also took a job as a volunteer instructor at San Quentin State Prison, teaching Emma Goldman and Angela Davis to the inmates.
But then, in June 2015, something brought him off the sidelines: Donald Trump rode a gold escalator into one of the strangest – and most overtly racist – political campaigns in recent memory. Trump was the embodiment of everything that Clanton had been fighting: a law-and-order billionaire who vowed to use the full force of the government to redress white grievance. Clanton told me that when he heard the candidate talk about his Muslim ban or his plan to wall off Mexico, his instinctive reaction was “Fuck Donald Trump.” But Trump was only part of the problem.
A few months into the campaign, Clanton started noticing recruiting posters for Identity Evropa – a California-based neo-Nazi group that would later fight in Berkeley – on both the U.C. and Diablo Valley campuses. Around the same time, Trump was having trouble disavowing David Duke, a former grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, and three protesters were stabbed at a violent Klan rally in Anaheim. Things were getting worse, but Clanton says the situation did not seem ripe enough for action yet. “At that point,” he explains, “we weren’t seeing right-wing guys with sticks and bats coming into our neighborhoods.”
In fact, most of the violence then was taking place at Trump’s campaign events. At a gathering in Miami, one of Trump’s followers shoved and kicked a Latino protester; at another, a black man was sucker-punched by a Trump supporter in North Carolina. On the eve of the Nevada caucuses, when a left-wing demonstrator interrupted a rally in Las Vegas, Trump told a cheering crowd, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
By the spring of 2016, the anti-Trump forces started fighting back. Much of the pushback came in California. On April 26th, left-wing protesters scuffled with the right at a city council meeting in Anaheim; a few days later, leftists tossed eggs at Trump supporters in San Jose. Then, on June 26th, the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-Nazi group from Indiana, held a march in Sacramento with the Golden State Skinheads. Its stated purpose was to take a stand against the anti-Trump protests – or what the rally’s planners called the “orchestrated pogroms by Zionist agitated colored people.” A group called Antifa Sacramento organized a countermarch, arranging carpools for its members, readying medics for the injured and setting up a bail fund for those who got arrested. The neo-Nazis’ permit allowed them to march in a park outside the domed state capitol at noon. The two sides clashed almost at the moment they arrived. Within minutes, one antifa fighter was stabbed. There were fistfights, stick attacks and six more knifings.
“Personally, I’ve always wondered whether nonviolence was a better means,” says one anti-fascist, a friend of Clanton’s who gave her name as Lou. But Sacramento, Lou explains, “cemented for me that these people are willing to use violent measures. They have no moral restraint in inflicting harm, whether through their ideology or their actions. And we need to do everything we can to stop them and silence them.” She adds: “These are punchable people, these are people who should be punched.”
Clanton won’t say whether he was in Sacramento that day, but he does admit that the violence there radicalized him further. Antifa, he tells me, had been watching the right expand for months, but Sacramento was the first time that weapons had been used as the two sides came to blows. “That’s a moment in which things escalate,” he says. “It’s like an ‘oh, shit’ moment in which things start to seem really serious.”
Trump’s inauguration was another. Shortly after 10 a.m., as the president-elect was preparing to take his oath of office at the Capitol, a crowd of several hundred black-clad anti-fascists formed two miles away at Logan Circle. Over the next half-hour, the antifa column traveled 16 blocks, the authorities say, its members smashing windows at a gas station, a Starbucks, a bank and a Bobby Van’s steakhouse. After the police arrested dozens – journalists and legal observers among them – splinter groups veered off to commit more mayhem: They set fire to a limousine, and one antifa marcher, who remains unidentified, slugged the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer in the face. “It was the largest black bloc I’d ever seen in the U.S.,” said one man who took part. “It was actually sort of shocking.”
During Trump’s transition, the extreme far right had a public coming out. Two weeks after the election, Spencer threw a victory party a few blocks from the White House, shouting “Hail Trump! Hail our people!” to a room full of supporters making Nazi salutes. On inauguration weekend, a roster of conservative luminaries – including the “alt-light” tweeter Mike Cernovich and James O’Keefe, the dirty-trickster activist – appeared at a triumphant D.C. gala known as the DeploraBall. Around the same time, Matthew Heimbach, the founder of the neo-Nazi group that fought in Sacramento, lunched with Republican operatives at the Capitol Hill Club. Milo Yiannopoulos was meanwhile traveling the country, triggering college students on the finale of what he called his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. In a calculated and lavishly funded assault against the left, the incendiary roadshow of Islam-bashing and misogyny was partly underwritten by the billionaire Mercer family, which had also supported Stephen Bannon in his roles as both the chairman of Breitbart News and as one of Trump’s chief White House counselors.
Anxiously watching as all of this unfolded, the antifa website ItsGoingDown.org published a report in January claiming that these various activities were evidence of a “growing far-right which is attempting to leave the confines of the internet and enter into the streets in the wake of Trump taking power.” The move offline had already had consequences. On Inauguration Day, an IWW union worker was shot at one of Yiannopoulos’ speeches in Seattle; five days later, fights erupted when Yiannopoulos appeared in Boulder, Colorado. Now he was scheduled to speak at Berkeley, where he planned to announce a new initiative that dovetailed with the president’s agenda: an effort to abolish “sanctuary campuses” that harbored illegal immigrants. “For all these reasons and more,” ItsGoingDown wrote, “several thousand people are expected to come out to UC Berkeley in the hopes of shutting down Milo’s event.”
On February 1st, before Yiannopoulos arrived, more than 1,000 protesters gathered in the dark at Sproul Plaza in the heart of Berkeley’s campus. A small detachment of antifa activists moved among them. When the anti-fascists started throwing rocks at the police, the protest spiraled into a riot. Windows were smashed; barricades were trampled; people hurled fireworks; gas-powered spotlights erupted into flames. The administration canceled the address. All told, the vandalism caused more than $100,000 in damage.
The campus riot was a signal event, escalating the antagonism between the anti-fascists and their right-wing rivals, and shaping the contours not only for the battles that would soon be fought in Berkeley, but also for those that would take place later in cities like New Orleans; Portland, Oregon; and, ultimately, Charlottesville. While many on the right may not have felt much affinity with Yiannopoulos, a larger number could detect a common enemy in the black-clad youths who had seemingly defiled the First Amendment by chasing him from one of the country’s premier universities. In the wake of the riot, critics on the left also had qualms about the canceled speech. But wielding free-speech rhetoric as a cudgel, the right – especially in Northern California – began to organize around it. Leaders emerged who couched the conflict with antifa as a patriotic defense of liberty – a gambit that attracted to the fray many conservatives who until then had been silent. Some of these conservative recruits were not just eager to oppose their new enemy, but to physically confront it. They went into their basements, grabbing pipes and two-by-fours, and readying an ersatz armor of football pads, plywood shields and motorcycle helmets. As rallies were announced that spring, a right-wing fighting class was born.
“Free speech is being used to [cover for] a very violent message,” says one anti-fascist. “What they’re trying to protect is hate speech and calls for genocide.”
The first time this militia took the field was at March4Trump, a free-speech protest held in Berkeley and a dozen other cities on Saturday, March 4th. In advance of the event – the first to occur in Civic Center Park – Kathy Zhu, one of its local organizers, tweeted, “If you want to defend your liberty and your rights, then march with us on Berkeley.” Antifa had closely tracked the gathering, and a company of its activists was planning, as one of its communiqués said, on “confronting fascists in the streets.” What resulted was a multi-hour rumble of fistfights, stompings, pepper-spray attacks and wrestling matches.
Clanton was in the park that day, unmasked, he says, as an observer. “What happened on the ground on March 4th actually seemed like more of a shit-show,” he recalls. “Fights just broke out, and it was very confusing who was who, and people were just getting hit all over the place.”
If the Yiannopoulos protest served as a wake-up to the right, March4Trump had a similar effect on antifa. What disturbed the movement most was that, under the rubric of defying the left, the right was starting to bring together its disparate factions. A coalition was emerging, ItsGoingDown wrote, of “libertarians, ancaps, armed militias, brownshirt alt-right enforcers, the ‘patriotic’ Tea Party crowd, and alt-lite Deplorables without alienating any of them.” Even Berkeley’s College Republicans were now involved – and the hardcore neo-Nazis would soon join them on the frontline.
“The energy began before Trump, but there’s no question that the deplorable subculture that developed around him and the free-speech rallies were something new and different,” says James Anderson, the editor at ItsGoingDown. “It looked very scary, like the far right could do whatever it wanted and get away with it. That was people’s mindset then – like, ‘Holy shit, this is the new normal.'”
Anderson admits there was concern in antifa circles that the free-speech rallies were a trap of sorts, designed to provoke the anti-fascists and expose them to both public censure and police reprisals. But when a new group on the right, the Liberty Revival Alliance, took to YouTube in April announcing that it would hold another free-speech rally in Civic Center Park, the anti-fascists decided to respond. The Patriots’ Day protest was going to feature a list of celebrity speakers – among them Kyle Chapman, a commercial diver from San Mateo who had swung his stick with such ferocity at March4Trump that he was christened with the nom de guerre Based Stickman. In the run-up to the rally, Chapman went on a publicity tour that included an interview with Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of VICE and the leader of the Proud Boys, a cult-like fight club of young “western chauvinists.”
“People are totally inspired by you,” McInnes told Chapman. “We’re pushing back the antifa and the liberals and the nutbars and the commies and the Marxists.”
“I think that calling these people anarchists or antifa isn’t good,” Chapman answered in his bright-red “USA” cap. “I think we need to start calling them what they are – these are domestic terrorists.”
As Patriots’ Day approached, the stakes kept getting higher. First, the Oath Keepers, a gun-toting nationalist militia, agreed to provide security, calling on “three percenters, military veterans, patriot police officers, bikers, and all other brave American patriots” to help protect the rally against “radical leftists who use violence” to “shut down and silence free speech.” When several neo-Nazi groups – among them, Rise Above and Identity Evropa – announced that they were also going, antifa sounded the alarm. Calls to “defend the Bay” were issued from ItsGoingDown and Northern California Anti-Racist Action, a regional antifa collective. On Facebook and Twitter and through real-world social networks, friends spread word to friends (and friends of friends) to fetch their balaclavas and head toward Berkeley again.
On the advice of his lawyer, Clanton won’t talk about Patriots’ Day. But it’s clear that he considers the event, and the fighting there that led to his arrest, as a kind of last straw. The Bay Area was the liberal bastion where he had found his place in the world after fleeing Bakersfield. For months, he’d watched in outrage as the right showed up like insurgents in the Bay, ranting about feminists and illegal immigration, not in coded dog whistles, but openly and proudly in public places.
“I found that personally fucking offensive,” Clanton says, “because the Bay Area is my home. And it’s hard not to take it personally when people come into your home and say these things: praising Pinochet, wanting to throw leftists out of helicopters, talking about the supremacy of whiteness, talking about what amounts to rape culture. That is offensive. It’s infuriating. And it’s infuriating because it praises and legitimizes violence against my friends, my neighbors and me.”
After Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the Sacramento Nazis; after Donald Trump, Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos and Kyle Chapman, it seems Clanton had finally had enough. Which may be why, when the Berkeley police searched his house on the day of his arrest, among the other things they found was a U-shaped metal bike lock.
The Alameda County courthouse sits just east of downtown Oakland, across from a jogging path that curves around the shores of Lake Merritt. It was built in 1934 and once held the office of District Attorney Earl Warren before he served on the Supreme Court. Made of granite with a terra-cotta trim, the structure is blocky and imposing, in the California Gothic style, like something out of Chinatown. Last May, Clanton was there for his arraignment. The hearing was procedural, but afterward, there was drama in the hallway. Clanton’s lawyer, Dan Siegel, took questions from reporters, and among the scrum was a video crew from the alt-right outfit TheRedElephants.com. “If your client goes to jail, will this be the first time he moves out of his parents’ house?” one of the Elephants asked. A few moments later, the same man shouted, “An ethics professor decided to attempt murder on people! What kind of ethics is that?”
On the last day of my trip to California, I have coffee with Clanton and Lou, his antifa comrade. It’s a Sunday afternoon, two weeks after Charlottesville, and Berkeley is again on high alert. Yet another right-wing protest – this one billed as “No to Marxism in America” – is underway in Civic Center Park. As we sit in a café in Oakland, I watch the news, which does not feel new, unfold on Twitter. An antifa mob is breaking through police lines. Its fighters are swarming their outnumbered opponents. Now they’re pepper-spraying people. Now they’re chasing them away with flying fists.
Learning of the scuffle, Clanton shares a look with Lou: They hope aloud that everyone’s OK. Earlier that morning, both had attended a breakfast at an antifa communal space where their colleagues were preparing for the conflict. Because of his court case, Clanton isn’t going to the protest, but it’s clearly on his mind. Perched on a patio chair, smoking American Spirits, he says, “Just about all of my thoughts are up in Berkeley.”
We had spent much of the weekend going back and forth about using nonviolence to confront the right. Clanton had been adamant: Showing up unarmed and unprepared to protest people who were willing to hurt others was simply too risky. While peaceful demonstration might serve to dispel antifa’s critics, Clanton says he isn’t interested in giving up his safety, or that of his friends, to seize the moral high ground, which he dismisses as a notion created by the “narrative class.” Nor does he put much stock in the right’s high-minded assertion that it’s fighting for free speech. “Was [Yiannopoulos coming to Berkeley] defensible in terms of free speech? It is an open question,” he says. “But what is not defensible is outing undocumented students in a way that, if not directly advocating, suggests or sort of incites violence against them.” Lou is more direct: “Free speech is being used to [cover for] a very violent message. What they’re trying to protect is hate speech and calls for genocide.”
Whether what we’re seeing now is fascism or not, it would not be hard to argue that Donald Trump has already accomplished more than any recent president to imperil both the day-to-day welfare of the country’s most vulnerable residents and the various democratic norms that have long protected even the powerful from authoritarian rule. At the same time, he has reanimated a class of extremists, some of whose explicit goals are to rid the nation of its nonwhite races. Sitting with our coffees, Lou says, “The inherent truth to fighting fascism is that we just want people to be good to each other, and fascists aren’t good to each other.” The only way to end the fascist menace, she adds, is by “smashing it immediately.”
As the Twitter reports keep rolling in – tear gas has now been fired – I ask Clanton if he thinks there is any meaningful distinction between a white supremacist like Richard Spencer and a Trump supporter who wants to build the wall. After one of his academic pauses, he acknowledges the two are not the same. The real difference, he suggests, is “who is wielding bats and sticks and shields and knives, and who is not?” But does he apply those parameters to the unarmed right-wing marcher who was set upon just 30 minutes earlier in Berkeley and kicked by antifa protesters as he lay on the ground?
Clanton’s moral certainty, his deep conviction that the fascist threat is real and needs to be snuffed out even at the cost of his liberty or scruples, makes me think of a letter he wrote to his loved ones while he was being hunted by the cops last year. Addressed to “the broken hearts,” it seems to make reference to Patriots’ Day, but was apparently never sent.
“It will be a very long time before anyone who isn’t a part of this fight will come to any understanding of the fucked up events of that day,” he wrote. “The world is much stranger and more complicated than you seem to realize. I’ve tried to have open conversations about my politics, but mostly I’ve sheltered you from them, another mistake. Well those days are over now and it’s time to do the hard work of finding actual common ground if we want to have a relationship. It’s time to have hard conversations about where you stand in this messy world and which side you’re on.”
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