Black-clad 'anti-fascists' thrash peaceful pro-Trump protesters in Berkeley

People dressed in black and holding shields descend on MLK Jr. Park in Berkeley, California, on Aug 27, 2017. PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

BERKELEY, California (Washington Post) - Their faces hidden behind black bandanas and hoodies, about a 100 anarchists and antifa - "anti-fascist" - activists barreled into a peaceful protest on Sunday (Aug 27) afternoon in Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Centre Park.

Jumping over plastic and concrete barriers, the group melted into a larger crowd of around 2,000 that had marched throughout the sunny afternoon for a "Rally Against Hate" gathering. Shortly after, violence began to flare.

A pepper-spray wielding Trump supporter was smacked to the ground with homemade shields. Another was attacked by five black-clad antifas, each windmilling kicks and punches into a man desperately trying to protect himself. A conservative group leader retreated for safety behind a line of riot police as marchers chucked water bottles, shot off pepper spray and screamed, "fascist go home!"

At least five individuals were attacked, according to a reporter on the scene.

Berkeley Police's Lieutenant Joe Okies told The Washington Post the rally resulted in "13 arrests on a range of charges including assault with a deadly weapon, obstructing a police officer, and various Berkeley municipal code violations".

And although the anti-hate and left-wing protesters largely drowned out the smaller clutch of far-right marchers attending a planned "No to Marxism in America" rally, Sunday's confrontation marked another street brawl between opposing ends of the political spectrum - violence that has become a regular feature of the Trump years and gives signs of spiraling upward, particularly in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville.

"I applaud the more than 7,000 people who came out today to peacefully oppose bigotry, hatred and racism that we saw on display in Charlottesville," Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said in a statement. "... However, the violence that small group of protesters engaged in against residents and the police, including throwing smoke bombs, is unacceptable. Fighting hate with hate does not work and only makes each side more entrenched in their ideological camps."

Last May, 150 similarly black-clad agitators caused US$100,000 (S$135,460) worth of damage when they smashed through Berkeley protesting a University of California Berkeley speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

Portland, Oregon, has been the scene of street battles between antifa and white nationalists this summer. White nationalist Richard Spencer was sucker-punched by a protester in a January video that went viral. And Inauguration Day 2017 in Washington, DC, was marked by violence when masked protesters burned vehicles, smashed windows and clashed with police, leading to 231 arrests.

On Sunday, police in Berkeley maintained a strict perimeter around the area in the beginning of the afternoon, including enforcing an emergency city rule outlawing sticks and other potential weapons from the park.

Fifty officers were spread out at the area's four entrances, according to The Daily Californian. But antifa protesters - armed with sticks and shields, and clad in shin pads and gloves - largely routed the security checks and by 1.30pm police reportedly left the security line at the Ceneer Street and Milvaia Street entrance to the park.

Berkeley police chief Andrew Greenwood said the decision was strategic - a confrontation was sure to spark more violence between the protesters and police.

"No need for a confrontation over a grass patch," Chief Greenwood said.

Mr Joey Gibson was among the right-wing activists assaulted on Sunday. Mr Gibson, the leader of the Oregon-based Patriot Prayer group, had planned to hold a "Freedom Rally" at Crissy Field Beach. Mr Gibson previously told the LA Times his group was not "white supremacist" but "feared that extreme or racist figures might try to co-opt his event".

Yet, as with other planned right-wing events in the wake of Charlottesville, Saturday's rally drew controversy in the San Francisco area, with one group stockpiling dog feces to lay at the scene on Saturday.

Last Friday, Mr Gibson canceled the event due to the mounting pressure. "It doesn't seem safe, a lot of people's lives are going to be in danger tomorrow," he told Unite America First.

Attention shifted to Sunday's "No to Marxism in America" event. However, last week, that event's organiser, Ms Amber Cummings, also signaled the event was off due to the growing tensions.

"I stress I DO NOT WANT ANYONE COMING and if they do you will be turned away, I'm sorry for this but I want this event to happen peacefully and I do not want to risk anyone getting harmed by terrorists," Ms Cummings wrote online, according to NBC Bay Area.

On Sunday, Ms Cummings reportedly did not appear for her event, and anti-hate marchers far outnumbered the right-wing element that did make an appearance.

Although Mr Gibson was reportedly seen being taken into custody, on Sunday the Patriot Prayer Facebook page stated, "Joey is NOT in jail, and has NOT been arrested. He was cuffed and released after being shoved through the police line."

Mr Gibson did not reply to a Facebook message seeking comment."We're just puzzled as to why people consider violence a valid tactic," Berkeley resident Kristin Leiumkuhler, 60, told SFGATE.

She, like others had turned out with neighbours for a peaceful rally but left when things got ugly.

"We felt disappointed and surprised by how many people were not in any way discreet about being with antifa - in fact being very bold and prepared to be violent."

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