Outrage at the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville and wanton attacks on peaceful students, clergy, and people of color at the hands of white supremacists kicked off nationwide protests against racist violence, which led to the cancellation of dozens of right-wing rallies and the fall of Confederate monuments from Durham to San Diego. There is much hope in the undeniable public support to resist the so-called alt-right. Yet confrontations at the University of California, Berkeley, have polarized activists on how best to oppose these movements of hate and bigotry.
On August 27, several thousand Bay Area students, teachers, and community members attended the “Rally Against Hate,” which was organized by an unprecedented coalition of over 100 campus, labor, interfaith, community justice, and socialist/anarchist groups. Despite the mostly peaceful character of the demonstration, the media focused overwhelmingly on a few instances of violent skirmishes, painting Berkeley as a hotbed of far-left extremism.
This emphasis plays into the hands of the far right by creating a public backlash against antifascist and social-justice movements. Within two weeks of Charlottesville, widespread revulsion at the images of torch-wielding white supremacists faded into a quagmire of moralistic debates about fighting Nazis. At best, Berkeley’s antifascist militancy is regarded by liberal pundits as a useful foil for the far right; at worst, it’s depicted as equivalent to fascists who, from Dylann Roof to James Alex Fields, have proven capable of cold-blooded murder.
It is absolutely crucial to understand what is going on in Berkeley—not only because of how the coverage of protests has been used to shift public opinion on antifascist actions, but also because the sequence of events from Berkeley to Charlottesville dramatically illustrates why this battle is emphatically not about free speech. This is about the ability to shape consensus in a time of rising mass anxiety and political extremism. The “power of framing,” as linguist George Lakoff puts it, is everything.
It is not antifascist resistance but the uncritical acceptance of manipulative framing by those who should know better that puts Berkeley and other campus communities at risk. If the specter of “antifa” becomes an excuse to justify the use of repression through state or extrajudicial means, then no college campus, marginalized community, or organized social movement of the left is safe from attacks from the alt-right and its fake-news machine.