An attention-thirsty bigot came to speak at UC Berkeley last week (I refuse to say his name), at the request of the College Republicans. He couldn’t have asked for a better evening. What was originally billed as a peaceful protest quickly turned violent. The bigot didn’t end up speaking to a crowd of several hundred students. Instead, he spoke to a crowd of millions, during an extended interview on Fox News and a series of rants on his Facebook page, where he claimed he’d been evacuated from the campus.
I chose to cover neither the bigot’s speech nor the protest. He has a single card in his deck; I’d seen it before. But when I heard that Sproul Plaza, the campus square half a mile from my house, had descended into chaos, I tuned in. And here’s what I saw: Protesters shouted obscenities; they threw firecrackers and bricks at police; they shattered windows; they set a large fire in the middle of campus; they pummeled a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat until he bled. Police fired rubber bullets at and deployed tear gas on the crowd after issuing multiple warnings for protesters to leave the area. Students then danced to “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” and “Drunk in Love” while raising their middle fingers.
Many of the protesters at the event were peaceful. One got on BuzzFeed News’ livestream and pleaded for the public not to perceive the protests as they appeared. But we did; we would; we do now. No music or rainbow lighting or heartfelt signs will offset the photos and videos that have spread around the country. There are helicopters circling overhead as I write this, two hours after the bigot would have left, had he spoken to that room of students.
What happened at Berkeley wasn’t heroic or principled; it was disorganized and pathetic. East Bay protests are often overrun by relatively small numbers of black bloc anarchists, who hijack the message and the intent of these events. Imagine the peaceful protesters anticipating that would happen, and making clear contingency plans for it. Imagine the bigot strolling out into a near-empty plaza, confronted by his own irrelevance. Imagine students moving far away from the black bloc when it became violent, and holding an equally powerful show of nonviolent disgust, rather than gaping and building the anarchists’ crowd. Imagine another student group hosting a well-attended speech on the history of justice movements at UC Berkeley to coincide with his event. In any other scenario, the bigot would more than likely have gone on being the same fragile, cold-hearted creature he was when he arrived, with the same number of devotees. After tonight’s actions, he has many more.
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The alt-right and conservative media will slice and dice this footage to show the moral depravity of progressives. Conservative politicians will use this to ends progressives would never endorse; they will make innocent people suffer while citing these acts of extraordinary naiveté. It is the most obvious trap imaginable, and we fell into it. Again.
These are miserable times, and we should be resisting the erosion of democratic norms at every turn. But what happened at Berkeley wasn’t heroic or principled; it was disorganized and pathetic. Fighting incivility with incivility inspires no one. It makes progressives look stupid, and it makes the people the protesters purport to represent less safe.
If the argument for equality is grounded in righteousness, then we can’t use unjust tactics in the pursuit of justice. That means not smarmily declaring, “this is what a terrorist looks like” when the Quebec shooter turns out to be a white man; a foundation of our movement is that identity-based blame is wrong. We can change the frame rather than making arguments based on value systems we don’t subscribe to.
To that end, refugees are not valuable because they’re members of Silicon Valley, or doctors or academics; they’re valuable because they’re people. If we stop reacting to bigots’ beliefs and statements and start articulating our own, we can move forward with the power this resistance movement is accruing. If we allow hateful people to dictate how we articulate and express our arguments, we will erode the moral claim that is the basis of this resistance.
This new administration is tireless and it will take everything away from us that is not nailed down. It will exploit every weakness, and it will not rest until we are exhausted. We are challenged to be absolutely bulletproof.
Fred Rogers famously said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world."
The peaceful helpers at the recent women’s marches and the pro-immigrant marches have inspired and uplifted people across the world. There were helpers in Berkeley on Wednesday, but the world did not have the opportunity to see them.
If those who believe in equality work with discipline, decency and strategy, I believe that we will win. But it takes all three.
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to The Los Angeles Times. Follow her @velvetmelvis on Twitter.