UC Berkeley police guard the building where then-Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was to speak on Feb. 1. Credit: AP Images

The city of Berkeley, California, and the organizers of a white nationalist rally have come to an unlikely agreement – at least for now.

The city does not plan to issue protest permits, but the white nationalists and a group protesting in opposition have agreed to gather in separate locations to avoid conflict and violence, Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said today.

The county is expecting thousands of people to descend on Berkeley for dueling protests Aug. 27. Because of the number of demonstrators, Berkeley police will receive assistance from the Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies.

“We expect extremist groups from all walks of life representing all different points of view,” Ahern said. “We’re going to do our best to keep the groups separate.”

Other law enforcement agencies are attempting similar strategies in rallies planned across the country this weekend. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the city’s attempts to restrict the location of the white nationalist groups’ protest failed when the ACLU challenged the move as a violation of free speech. The ACLU is now reconsidering representing white nationalists.

But Ahern said the separate locations are unlikely to stop those intent on getting violent or damaging property. Law enforcement agencies cannot keep protesters from moving from one place to another.

While Charlottesville police often appeared to be spread too thin, law enforcement agencies in Berkeley plan to maximize their impact by forming squads of roving officers, who will flood areas to prevent violence and property damage.

“We’re putting our people together in squads and moving the squads from one location to another when we get the sense something’s about to build,” Ahern said. “We’ll get there before an event and show a presence.”

In the past, mutual aid responses to protests have resulted in explosive conflicts between protesters and police. Berkeley police, for instance, cannot control the force used by outside agencies, who come with their own training and equipment, including military-style vehicles, tear gas and batons. Agencies may have contradictory policies.

During Occupy Oakland, for example, mutual aid agencies deployed weapons that violated the Oakland Police Department’s own policies, including pepper-ball guns and grenades filled with rubber pellets, resulting in serious injuries.

“If you’re trained in a certain way and you’re asked to respond, then you respond with how you’ve been trained and your equipment,” Ahern said.

The right-wing protest, billed as “No to Marxism in America,” is set for Civic Center Park near Berkeley High School. Twice this year the park has been the scene of right-wing protests that devolved into violent confrontations between pro- and anti-President Donald Trump street fighters.

The Sunday event is being promoted by Amber Cummings, sometimes known as “Based Tranny,” who has been present at the earlier Berkeley protests carrying a pink “trans women for Trump” sign.

“Berkeley is a ground zero for the Marxist Movement and we need to speak out and say NO to Marxism,” she wrote on the event’s Facebook page“This event is our chance to speak out and expose the plan of purging our nation from a free nation to a communist nation.”

A group called Unite for Freedom from Right Wing Violence plans a counterprotest on the UC Berkeley campus a few blocks away.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin has urged residents to stay away from the right-wing protest, saying,  “The best way to silence the nationalists is by turning your back on their message.”

He promises that police will crack down on violence.  

“Anyone who threatens to engage in violence – and we have seen from earlier events that this is exactly their intent – will be arrested and punished to the fullest extent of the law,” Arreguin wrote in a Facebook post.

“I want to reiterate that we will not allow our community to be terrorized by a small band of white supremacists whose ideology of hate is a losing one,” the mayor also wrote. “Berkeley is proud of its multiculturalism and diversity, and we will continue to stand united against those who want to divide us.”

Berkeley has repeatedly been roiled by political violence this year.

In February, a campus Republican group invited alt-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at UC Berkeley, attracting a huge protest. So-called black bloc activists – leftist street fighters, many wearing black masks and carrying sticks – set fires, looted shops and attacked some bystanders. The speech was canceled.

In response, right-wing groups held protests in Berkeley on March 4 and again on April 15. Violence again broke out, as leftists and right-wingers scuffled, fought and threw fireworks and rocks at one another.

Self-described “American Nationalist” Kyle Chapman, also known as “Based Stickman” because of his penchant for swinging a stick during the street fighting, faces a felony weapons charge for possessing a stick packed with lead at the March 4 event. He is set to be arraigned on Aug. 25, two days before the Berkeley protest.

A black bloc activist, Eric Clanton, was charged with felony assault for hitting a pro-Trump protester over the head with an iron bicycle lock at the April 15 protest.

As the news web site Berkeleyside has reported, after each protest the police faced criticism for failing to break up the street fighting and control the violence – criticism similar to that following the Charlottesville incidents.

On April 27, however, when right-wingers again gathered in the park and faced off against the leftist By Any Means Necessary group, police presence was far heavier, and little violence occurred.

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@revealnews.org, and Lance Williams can be reached at lwilliams@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @shoeshine and @LanceWCIR.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Lance Williams is a senior reporter for Reveal, focusing on money and politics. He has twice won journalism’s George Polk Award – for medical reporting while at The Center for Investigative Reporting, and for coverage of the BALCO sports steroid scandal while at the San Francisco Chronicle. With partner Mark Fainaru-Wada, Williams wrote the national bestseller “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports.” In 2006, the reporting duo was held in contempt of court and threatened with 18 months in federal prison for refusing to testify about their confidential sources on the BALCO investigation. The subpoenas were later withdrawn. Williams’ reporting also has been honored with the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Edgar A. Poe Award; the Gerald Loeb Award for financial reporting; and the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment. He graduated from Brown University and UC Berkeley. He also worked at the San Francisco Examiner, the Oakland Tribune and the Daily Review in Hayward, California. Williams is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.