As white supremacists go, Joey Gibson makes for a lousy one. For starters, he’s half Japanese. “I don’t feel like I’m Caucasian at all,” he says. Not to be a stickler for the rules, but this kind of talk could get you sent to Master Race remedial school.
And it gets worse. The founder of Patriot Prayer—a Vancouver, Wash.-based operation that sponsors rallies and marches promoting freedom and First Amendment rights along with all-purpose unity—also spews hippie-dippie rhetoric like “moderates have to come together” and “love and peace [are] the only way to heal this country.” Joey tends to sound less like an alt-right bully boy than a conflict-resolution facilitator or a Unitarian Sunday school teacher.
For his late August “Liberty Weekend” in the Bay Area, which was to include a free speech rally in San Francisco followed by a “No to Marxism” rally in Berkeley (headed by a local “transsexual patriot”), Joey advertised that “no extremists will be allowed in. No Nazis, Communists, KKK, Antifa, white supremacists . . . or white nationalists.” (So much for free speech.) Likewise, the advertised docket of speakers was to include “three blacks, two Hispanics, one Asian, one Samoan, one Muslim, two women, and one white male.” If becoming a liberty movement fixture doesn’t work out for Gibson, he has a promising future as a UC Berkeley admissions officer.
Despite all this, you’d have thought from the avalanche of alarmist walk-up stories that Gibson and friends would be dancing in a “Springtime for Hitler” kick line. Donald Trump, of course, who draws frequent Hitler comparisons in some quarters, has already set nerves on edge with his nativist rhetoric, perpetually divisive style, and what’s widely perceived as his winks ’n’ nods to white nationalists. But in the wake of the recent white supremacist hoedown in Charlottesville—a cesspool of racial hatred that resulted in the death of anti-racism activist Heather Heyer when a Nazi fanboy drove his Dodge Challenger into her and 19 others—opportunistic leftists/Democrats have been on the prowl to paint everyone to the right of Angela Davis as a dangerous racist lunatic.
A masked counterprotester in Berkeley, August 27 (Photo credit: Helena Zemanek)
They seem to have forgotten that the far right hardly has a monopoly on political violence. Just a couple of months before Charlottesville, a Bernie Sanders supporter opened fire on a baseball-field full of Republican congressmen, almost killing Rep. Steve Scalise. And this, of course, has been the year of antifa, the masked anarchists in black ISIS pajamas, who advocate violence while battling “fascists,” defined loosely as anyone they don’t like (including run-of-the-mill Trump supporters).
Antifa have shown up at one right-leaning gathering after another this year to administer random beat-downs with everything from metal poles to bike locks to bear spray, causing multitudinous injuries and large-scale property damage. Back in February, they literally set fires on the Berkeley campus, smashing windows as they rampaged through the city streets, to prevent Milo Yiannopoulos from appearing, even though the professional provocateur frequently speaks about his penchant for sex with black men, which used to count as a social-justice twofer during less polarized times.
But when it came to Joey Gibson’s Liberty Weekend, enter Nancy Pelosi, who seems to be pining for girlhood activism days, as she’s billed this “Resistance Summer.” Gibson secured a permit for his free speech rally to be held at Crissy Field, a former Army airfield next to the Golden Gate Bridge. But Pelosi loudly suggested the permit be pulled, saying the National Park Service should reflect on its “capacity to protect the public during such a toxic” event, which she termed a “white supremacist rally.” The fact that over two-thirds of the event’s scheduled speakers were minorities, that race wasn’t being discussed, and that the event was billed a “day of freedom, spirituality, unity, peace, and patriotism” didn’t seem to cut much ice with her.
No matter, Pelosi had lots of company. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to the Park Service, expressing her dismay that Crissy Field “will be used as a venue for Patriot Prayer’s incitement, hate and intimidation.” The mayors of San Francisco and Berkeley denounced the group, too. Conservative news outlets subsequently revealed that Berkeley’s mayor, Jesse Arreguin, was a Facebook member of BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), one of the antifa affinity groups that had helped trash his own city during the Milo riots. Yet this didn’t stop him from announcing that the city had printed up 20,000 “Berkeley Stands United Against Hate” posters for its citizens, not in anticipation of antifa’s next vandalizing, sucker-punching Viking raid, but to put everyone on notice about the Patriot Prayer rally. Perhaps Arreguin was worried antifa would unfriend him on Facebook.
Properly whipped into an anti-racism frenzy, the Bay Area did what the Bay Area loves doing most. Or second most, after driving low-income minorities out of hopelessly expensive neighborhoods so that tech millionaires can live in them. They planned counterprotests! Lots of them. The events list ran to multiple pages.
There would be “empathy tents” and “mobile dance” counter rallies. They slated candlelight vigils and Michael Franti concerts, “anti-hate” marches and “Flowers Against Fascism.” One event was titled “Calling All Clowns”—a “call for anti-racist, anti-fascist clowns to descend upon Crissy Field to mercilessly ridicule any neo-nazis, white supremacists, or alt-right trolls who dare show their face.” Then there was the invitation for concerned citizens to deposit “your dog poop on Crissy Field” in order to “leave a gift for our alt-right friends.” A Guardian headline-writer billed this the “Turd Reich.”
Joey, for his part, wasn’t worried about menacing clowns or dog droppings. He was worried that his rallies would come to resemble Altamont, a hellscape of dark and eruptive violence. Since rally-goers would likely be outnumbered by hecklers and antifa ninjas by about 10-to-1 in one of the most aggressively liberal enclaves in the world, Joey was growing increasingly uneasy with the security arrangements, or lack thereof, by Park Service and law-enforcement officials.
Convinced the security situation would resemble an antifa turkey shoot for his attendees, Joey canceled Liberty Weekend. I heard the news on TV during my flight. But when I landed, he told me there was no need to board a return flight home. He was still going to pop up around town, and “there will be craziness—they will still come after me.” He wasn’t kidding.
'Tiny,’ left, and Joey, center, at a Patriot Prayer march in Portland, June 30 (Photo credit: Helena Zemanek)
Joey and ‘Tiny’
I meet up with Joey and his ever-present sidekick, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, in front of their budget hotel on San Francisco’s Lombard Street. Joey doesn’t look so much half-Japanese as like a Latino gang-banger, in head-to-toe black (including his Patriot Prayer T-shirt), with generous arm ink. Tiny, you might have guessed, is named ironically. He’s a 6′6″, 345-lb. Samoan. His favorite food, he says, “is food.” Grabbing a bear-paw’s worth of his own flesh, he says, “I ain’t fat, I’m stab-resistant.”
We pack into a compact rental Toyota so small that the steering wheel crushes Tiny’s crotch. Joey always buys the full-insurance package, since antifa has done everything from slash his tires to douse his car in degreaser to strip the paint job. He has been punched, pepper-sprayed, hit in the head with silly-string cans, and choked (“he looked like a dolphin,” Tiny mocks, making limp flipper motions with his hands). Tiny shows me a slash wound on his arm, courtesy of an earlier antifa encounter at one of their rallies, and a gnarled bruise on the bridge of his nose, where he caught an axe-handle from a nominal ally who thought Tiny was antifa and whacked him by mistake.
All of this sounds like the Crips versus the Bloods for white people (or for Japanese and Samoans, as the case may be). Joey is fully aware of the ridiculousness. Never particularly political—he detests labels, but allows that he’s a moderate libertarian with a strong taste for freedom—Joey came to activism through anger, as most people do these days. “I’m surrounded by anger all the time, and I really struggle with that,” he says of the often unsavory people he crosses paths with, both on his side and the other. Joey himself, though, rarely loses his cool, and even in high-pressure situations appears as calm as a Zen monk.
A Washington state house-flipper who has also spent the past decade coaching high school football (he was a starting high school quarterback himself), Joey counted himself a vague Trump supporter. Like many people, he enjoyed watching someone upset the establishment. But he was radicalized after watching online the aftermath of the June 2, 2016, Trump rally in San Jose, where departing rally-goers were hunted down, egged, and beaten like dogs in the street by vicious mobs. For those who thought Trump rallies got violent—and they occasionally did, with hecklers getting decked and candidate Trump sometimes rooting on the deckers—there are hours and hours of online footage of Trump supporters catching sustained abuse from “liberals,” assuming that term any longer applies.
Joey believed that a person should be able to attend the political rally of his choice in America, or to wear a MAGA hat in a place like Portland, Ore., without worrying about getting hit in the face. So he started Patriot Prayer in 2016—it has no employees, and he takes no money from it. He began throwing rallies and marches in liberal cities on the West Coast. In the early days, his rallies had overtly pro-Trump themes. These days, mentions of Trump have mostly been scrubbed from his own rhetoric, as he knows even invoking the name can be alienating. (Plenty of those who show up at his events are ardent Trumpers, with whom he maintains an easy rapport.) Instead, his emphasis is on freedom and unity. When I ask him to distill his message, he says, “Unity, peace, love, truth—these simple things,” sounding not at all like your average Trumpkin. “People get mad when I say that, because they say that’s not good enough. They want more specifics, like ‘What’s your view on abortion?’ They want all these political messages.”
But politics, as the last several years have evidenced, are by definition divisive. They have both amped up and divided us as a people. “We have to focus on the division, first,” Joey says. “The division is allowing extremists to be involved.” He learned that lesson the hard way earlier this year when Jeremy Christian showed up in the crowd at one of his rallies in Portland, spewing hatred and Nazi talk. Joey and his cohorts were wigged out by him and showed him the door. A month later, Christian stabbed three people on a Portland commuter train, killing two of them, after they came to the defense of two girls at whom Christian was barking anti-Muslim slurs. Proving that people are never simple—especially insane ones—Christian was largely portrayed as a Trumpkin/far-right tool, although he’d written on his Facebook page: “Bernie Sanders was the President I wanted.”
Tiny, 21, also came to politics through anger. Convinced all Trumpkins were racists, “I’d drive around and beat them up,” he says nonchalantly. When he couldn’t find any to sass him back in street encounters after he’d provoked them, he’d go home and watch other Trump supporters get pounded online. “It made me happy. F—in’ racists getting beaten up,” he said. While looking for more anti-Trumpkin-violence to enjoy, he clicked one day on video from one of Joey’s rallies. “He gave a speech” about love and unity, says Tiny. “Everything he said made me confused. I thought all these f—ers were violent and racist. So I kind of had a change of heart and reached out to Joey. If I had found out about antifa before finding out about him, I’d have been antifa, too.”
Here, Joey chants a favorite antifa chant: “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!”
Together, Joey and Tiny represent a sort of yin and yang of antifa foes. Joey doesn’t begrudge any of his comrades defending themselves if they’re attacked, which plenty, along with Tiny, lustily do. For instance, there’s Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman. Stickman gained Internet folk-hero status, along with his nickname, by breaking a wooden signpost over some antifa ninja’s head after they’d invaded a Trump rally in March in one of this year’s Battles of Berkeley. We head over to Stickman’s house just south of San Francisco for a strategy session and then again later to watch the Mayweather/McGregor fight.
Providing Krispy Kremes and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer as he chain-smokes American Spirits, Stickman, a squared-off salvage diver who looks like the fifth Baldwin brother, tells me that he faces eight years in the pen for some of his Braveheart exploits—all captured on YouTube, of course. Perhaps even worse, the judge said he’s not allowed to go anywhere near sticks, putting a crimp in the trademark. While Stickman admits he’s a “Western chauvinist” (his antifa adversaries love to portray him as a supremacist), he’s called the participants in Charlottesville “racist alt-right f—in’ Nazis.” His Asian wife and child appear while I’m there, once again complicating assumed narratives.
At Crissy Field, the originally scheduled Patriot Prayer rally site,
a counterprotester, left, argues with a Patriot Prayer supporter,
at right, August 26. (Photo credit: Helena Zemanek)
Tiny, a former youth pastor and now a strip-club bouncer, will proudly show you Internet footage of himself dropping an antifa combatant like a sack of wet cement when he foolishly chopped at the mighty Samoan. But he says Joey never, ever fights back. While Joey’s years on the gridiron suggest he can both take a hit and deliver one, Tiny says his strategy seems to be “making people feel badly about beating him up.” He’s never seen Joey throw a punch, no matter how much he’s assaulted. For the sometimes-violent racket that he’s in, it’s a very Gandhi/Jesus approach. I point out to the 33-year-old that he’s the same age J. C. was when He died. It seems to bother Joey for a second. “Well, my birthday is in November,” the married father of two says.
Joey admits he’s not some perfectly pure-of-heart missionary, that he’s also a bit of a provocateur. Though how provocative should it be, he wonders, to attend your own free-speech rallies in liberal enclaves in a free country without wishing to be physically attacked? Media types frequently charge that violence follows his rallies, and indeed it does. Precisely because antifa brings it. Blaming Patriot Prayer for provoking antifa into attacking them at their own events is a bit like blaming black marchers for provoking racist Alabama policemen into creasing their skulls with billy clubs for traversing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s both a denial of basic human freedoms and victim-blaming of the highest order.
When Joey draws antifa out to show themselves, it’s not really conservatives he’s trying to reach. Conservatives already loathe antifa, he says. Rather, Joey’s interested in appealing to good, honest middle-of-the-road liberals. He likes them and believes there are plenty of them still out there. They’re just not terribly vocal at the moment when it comes to suppressing their own extremists, who seem hellbent on suppressing everyone else. As with some of the rancid elements of the right, when the moderates are quiet, extremist voices become amplified. “I’m also trying to help conservatives understand that they have a warped perception of liberals, because the good liberals are keeping quiet.” Joey says. “You go on YouTube and see thousands of videos of social justice warriors acting like crazy Batman because that’s what gets the views. You’re not going to see a video of a normal liberal making sense, you know?”
Joey holds the door open for liberals in his freedom-loving unity movement, and some, including liberals of color, have joined. One African-American liberal I meet, Ryoga Vee, signed on after having an antifa member call him a Nazi and then try to set him on fire with a road flare when Vee attempted to attend Milo’s Berkeley speech out of curiosity. “I don’t care who you vote for,” Joey says, so long as you’re pro-freedom.
When Joey first started protesting, and was still operating with a lot of anger, he headed to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention. He saw an “anarchist and his stupid little buddy” holding a “f— the police” sign. Joey snapped, and ripped the sign in half. “His buddy came up to the other guy and said, ‘You need to tell the police!’ ” (Presumably, not the same police referred to in the sign.) “But I felt bad,” he says. “People just need to express what they believe. You think if I tear his sign in half, all of the sudden he’s gonna be like, ‘Oh, you’re right. I shouldn’t say f— the police’? So I gave him 20 bucks for his sign. He was just shocked. He thought I was going to beat them up. He was like, ‘Do you want change?’ I said no. He said, ‘Thanks, man, I appreciate that.’ ”
It’s a lesson he has to learn over and over again: Treat people like they’re human, and they’ll cease merely to be one-dimensional objects of scorn. Joey tells me he used to be a bad person. After high school, he had a wild, self-destructive streak. He dropped out for a time, willingly going homeless, though he came from a decent, stable family. He tramped around for three years, backpacking everywhere from Hawaii to Mexico, camping in the woods and sponging off girlfriends. He used people. He used a lot of drugs, whatever was available. He even did a short stint in jail for breaking into a restaurant and “stealing 1,200 bucks just for the fun of it.”
But Joey came back. People helped him. He remembered who he was and got his heart straight again. Maybe because of his own time in darkness, he thinks everyone’s redeemable and anyone can be helped, including those we think are bad guys who don’t even know they need it. This is a truth that he thinks we’ve all but forgotten.
Two counterprotesters in masks cross Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park
to join an antifa mob. (Photo credit: Helena Zemanek)
With Patriot Prayer’s rallies canceled at the last minute, the Patriots who made it to town anyway decide to have a press conference. They slate it for Alamo Square, across from San Francisco’s Painted Ladies. But the cops, still fearing violence, fence it off before they can get there. Unable to find a secure indoor venue, the Patriots notify some reporters, tell them not to announce the particulars so that antifa doesn’t disrupt them, and have a hurried presser in a pasture at a far-flung community center down the peninsula in Pacifica.
An ethnically diverse group of Patriots address the assembled reporters. One of them, Will Johnson, announces that he is a black American and a Christian. “This is not a neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally,” he says. “I don’t know where they got that from. I actually called Nancy Pelosi’s office and asked her to change that. There’s no way I am a white supremacist.” Looking at this black man with dreads, reporters laugh, but press on anyway with skeptical questions about the Patriots being potentially violent, forgetting that the entire reason we’re in this out-of-the-way place is to stay one step ahead of antifa, whose stated goal is shutting down “white supremacists” like an African-American man saying “we’ve got to stop this fighting in America.”
When a cop informs the Patriots that their whereabouts have leaked on social media, the press conference is hastily concluded, and Joey, Tiny, and I beat it back to the Toyota. With many of the counterprotests proceeding despite Liberty Weekend being canceled, Joey wants to pop up all over the city anyway in order to have “dialogues,” reasoning that if people can just talk to him, some of their anger and fear will recede. It does and doesn’t.
We hit Crissy Field, the originally scheduled rally site. There are just a few protesters, scattered antifa, and an overwhelming police presence. Everyone is still nervous violence will go off. Whatever dialogue could occur is mostly drowned out by a screaming woman in a shirt that reads “F— you, f— you, f— you, f— you, have a nice day.” Further dialogue is obscured by an antifa member holding two eardrum-shattering horn sirens. The cops hustle us off, suggesting we have to leave, as though the Patriots are the disturbers of the peace. On the way out of the park, another group of Patriots get their car stoned by antifa.
We stop by a restaurant, where I see a multi-generational family sitting. They are clearly protesters, as one has a “Stop Trump/Pence Fascist Regime” sign sticking out of a stroller. Another wears a Cuban revolutionary hat. Two have “Indivisible” T-shirts on. A gray-haired woman literally has flowers in her hair. I walk over to their table and ask if they’d like to meet the man they are protesting, who is sitting at the bar, nursing a Patrón while Tiny has a Sprite. Their faces grow pinched. They look uneasy. “No, thank you,” one of them says sternly. “Have a nice day.”
Afterwards, we walk down to Civic Center, where an all-day protest wrapped up about 30 minutes earlier. Joey’s presence there causes an immediate stir among the stragglers. A panicked woman in a “Resist” shirt closes a security gate, as though he might crash the stage and boost the sound system. She films him with her iPhone, as though Joey’s a dangerous wild animal she spotted on safari.
Others end up forming a circle around him, with spirited exchanges taking place as bike cops press in on all sides. A demented Indian guy wants Joey to reclaim the symbol of the swastika, which the Nazis appropriated from his people. “That’s your battle,” Joey says. There’s a Black Panther who wants to kick Stickman’s ass for allegedly pepper-spraying him at a rally, and he’s hoping Joey will give him his address. Joey won’t, but the Panther says he respects him anyway for coming down and facing the people. There’s a huffy white beardo in a rainbow “Orlando” shirt who keeps interrupting Joey accusatorily, while trying to give the floor to people of color, who he deems worthy of listening to. A masked-up antifa blasts a horn siren a foot away from Joey’s ear for a good 10 minutes, while a man dressed in a Super Girl costume, complete with red boots and cape, yells at him to stop.
A forceful black surgical nurse who calls herself a liberal ends up fiercely defending Joey and Tiny against all comers, turning the tables on liberal hypocrisy. “They’re so progressive, but they go home in their BMWs back to Glen Park, where they don’t have to walk through Tenderloin shit.” She shames people for slandering these black men as white supremacists when “we’re missing one vital element, which is whiteness.” Joey sheepishly points out that he’s not black, he’s Japanese. “You’re a person of color,” the woman barks. “I’ll take that,” he says.
The exchanges last for an hour. Though Joey stays serene throughout, the conversation rages around him like a whirlwind. It is raucous and rude but occasionally affirming and generous. It’s untidy, but there’s something beautiful about it, as there often is when people just stand in front of each other and interact, instead of regarding each other from a distance with mutual suspicion. Close your eyes and shut off the antifa horn siren, and free speech can sound a lot like music.
Pete V, a Patriot Prayer supporter, passes in front of masked and black-clad antifa ranks
in Berkeley, moments before they attack him. (Photo credit: Elijah Nouvelage / Getty)
Mayhem in the park
The next day in Berkeley, a different tune is played. A small band of Patriots decide to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, where the “No to Marxism” rally was to be held. It has now been appropriated by thousands of impromptu protesters. The Patriots will make a stand for free speech, without actually expecting to be able to talk. I ask Joey what the objective is today. “Not dying,” he says.
From the jump, it’s a goat rodeo. Our four-car caravan gets separated coming out of the hotel parking lot. When the Patriots try to rendezvous, their radios aren’t working. “Why do we need radios?” wonders Joey. “Couldn’t we just use phones like everyone else? The veterans like to have their fun.” When we get to Berkeley, nobody can find parking near each other, while staying 10 or so blocks away from the action in order to protect the cars. As the ex-military types among them seem to take a half an hour to kit up (pads, tear-gas goggles, GoPro cameras, etc.), Joey and I both have to take a leak. We do so stealthily in a nearby park. Joey doesn’t want to get caught on camera literally pissing on Berkeley. Bad optics.
While the preparations continue, I grow impatient. “Let’s go! This is Berkeley, not Somalia,” I say. Joey agrees and isn’t sure it’s wise to come in with a large contingent anyway. It makes it look like you’re spoiling for combat, and fighting is not his intention. So he stalks off towards the demonstration with me, Tiny (now in goggles and football shoulder pads), and a political rapper who plays Patriots events named Pete V, aka Political Muscle. Pete looks like a pirate with a stars’n’stripes do-rag, which in these parts doubles as a bull’s-eye on your head.
On the walk up to the square, Joey’s several paces ahead, seemingly in another zone, not even noticing the protester in the “Nasty Woman” shirt who starts filming him, as though she’s doing surveillance. After all the hype, he is now so infamous in Berkeley his face is instantly recognizable, and people act like it’s Jesse James walking into a bank. They elbow each other, scandalized.
From the moment we hit the square, the “Nazi” catcalls start. Whatever’s happening on the stage seems to cease to exist, and the energy around us turns very dark, very fast. Joey, Tiny, and Pete start walking with greater purpose, on the balls of their feet, almost like fighters entering a ring or Christians entering the Coliseum, except instead of facing one lion, they’re facing thousands. As the chants rain down (“Nazis are here! . . . F— you! . . . F—ing fascists!”), we near the stage thinking we might find some kind of buffer zone, since the police knew that some of Joey’s original rally-goers would show up. But there isn’t one. Our progress is halted when we run up into a small clearing snug up against a barrier. And behind that barrier, near the park’s “Peace Wall,” is a wall of human blackness.
A hundred or so masked-up antifa ninjas and affiliated protesters seem to simultaneously turn. It looks like we’ve interrupted al Qaeda tryouts. Joey, Tiny, and Pete all raise their hands high in the air, and flash peace signs, a conciliatory gesture. But nobody here wants peace. Not with fascists on the scene. As Joey nears the barrier, one of the ninjas swings and misses. Then the barrier topples, and they pour over, chanting, “Fascists go home!”
As I’m reading the action into my recorder, antifa slides around me on all sides, nearly carrying me off like a breaking wave. The boys are about 20 yards off and walk backwards. Pete catches a shot right on his stars’n’stripes dome from a two-by-four and goes down, blacking out for a second. Tiny, trying to protect everybody, pulls him up with his massive Samoan hand and pushes him out of the scrum. The mob ignores Pete, as he’s just an appetizer. Joey is the entree.
First he catches a slap in the head, then someone gashes him with something in his ribs. He keeps his hands up, as though that will save him, while he keeps getting dragged backwards by his shirt, Tiny trying to pull him away from the bloodthirsty ninjas. Someone crashes a flagpole smack on Joey’s head, which will leave a welt so big that Tiny later calls him “the Unicorn.” Not wishing to turn his back on the crowd, a half-speed backwards chase ensues, as Joey and Tiny are blasted with shots of bear spray and pepper spray. They hurdle a jersey barrier, crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Way while antifa continue throwing bottles at them. The mob stalks Joey and Tiny all the way to an Alameda County police line, which the two bull their way through, though the cops initially look like they’re going to play Red Rover and keep them out. No arrests are made. Except for Joey and Tiny, who are cuffed.
The attackers pepper-spray rally organizer Joey Gibson as Tiny Toese
pulls him away. (Photo credit: Amy Osborne / AFP/ Getty)
A crack reporter for the Los Angeles Times will later write that they were arrested for charging the police, which couldn’t be less true. A Berkeley cop tells me they were arrested for their own safety (and weren’t charged). When I catch up and reach the police line, the cops won’t let me past to follow my subjects. My reportorial dispassion has worn thin. I yell at the police for doing nothing, for standing by while two men could’ve been killed. One cop tells me there’s a thin line between solving one problem and being the cause of more, as though they’re afraid to offend antifa. I am sick at what I just witnessed. Angry, even. I wheel around on some protesters, asking them if they think it’s right to beat people down in the street. “Hell yeah,” says one. I ask them to cite anything Joey has said that offends them, as though being offended justifies this. A coward in a black mask says: “They’re f—ing Nazis. There’s nothing they have to say to offend us.”
All around me, good non-antifa liberals go about their business, pretending none of this has happened, carrying “Stand Against Hate” signs. There’s the sound truck with preachers in clerical garb, leading a “Whose streets/our streets” chant. There’s the gray-haired interdenominational “Choral Majority” singing peace songs: “There’s no hatred in my land / Where I’m bound.” I want to vomit on the Berkeley Peace Wall.
I’m made even more sick when I look down the road and see a punching, kicking mob form a circle around a new victim. By the time I roll up on them, an older man in camo-wear spits out from the maelstrom. As he runs to safety, an antifa thug runs up behind him, sucker-punching him as hard as he can in the back. I will go home that night and watch several more cold-blooded beatdowns on YouTube that I didn’t personally witness.
Masked counterprotesters kick and punch a Hispanic man in
Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, August 27. (Photo credit: Helena Zemanek)
A squad car rolls up on the mob, but the black masks block it. The cop throws his car into slow reverse, inching backwards, as if to say “please don’t hurt me,” while an antifa member yells “F— you, pig!” Finally, I start hearing whistling smoke grenades fired by the otherwise useless police, dispersing the crowd. I watch antifa retreat in every direction, some jumping fences and cutting through residential yards. As I run down the street, getting out of range, I’m joined by a middle-aged man I saw witnessing what I just witnessed, filming it on his phone.
His name is Bobby Hutton, or at least that’s the name he gives me. He’s not antifa. He looks and talks like a surfer dude, with long hair and aviator shades, and identifies himself as a political activist. He’s smiling, seemingly entertained by the spectacle. I ask him how he can smile, as if what we’ve just witnessed is all okay. “It’s politics,” he says, shrugging. “Politics is in the street. Always has been, and always will be.” I tell him I’m profiling Joey. “Oh, that’s fun,” he says. I add that I haven’t heard one disturbing, racist thing come out of Joey’s mouth. “I’m familiar with Joey’s presence,” Hutton says. “And you’re right that he stays on this side of white supremacy. But he’s a shit disturber. And if you wanna disturb shit, Berkeley’s always been a good place for that. There aren’t a lot of places in America where you can get this kind of opposition, and Joey knows that. Which is why Joey’s here.”
Hutton claims antifa has “legitimate political beliefs.” I tell him beating people down in the street to suppress their speech doesn’t sound very legitimate or American to me, and that eventually, if this nonsense continues, somebody’s going to get killed, just as someone was in Charlottesville. Violence, he says, still smiling, is “as American as apple pie. Berkeley pie.”
“You can’t like this,” I tell him.
“If you like the horseshoe theory of American politics,” he rejoins, “the far right and the far left are closer than either believe.”
‘We can’t just shut up’
My phone rings, showing Joey’s number, but it’s Tiny, telling me Joey’s been taken to the hospital. Tiny’s about to be released from police custody. He’ll pick me up on a side street behind the station, so as not to attract more antifa attention. When I get into the Toyota, I suggest that Tiny maybe ought to change out of his American flag shirt if he wants to be stealthy. A red-white-and-blue 6′6″ Samoan doesn’t exactly whisper, “Ignore me.” But Tiny is obstinate: “They wanna rip off this shirt? Kill me. Because it ain’t comin’ off.”
We head to the hospital. Joey is discharged, wearing doctor scrubs and socks, holding his clothes and shoes in a plastic bag, completely saturated with bear and pepper spray. They had to scrub him down in the shower for an hour to get it off, his skin burning all the while. I’ve taken the wheel of the Toyota, with Tiny sleeping in the cramped back seat after injuring his ribs. He insists they’re not broken, but his forehead is clammy, and he’s cold sweating.
Tiny and Joey, post-release. (Photo credit: Helena Zemanek)
I tell my battle-weary subjects I’ll treat them to dinner and drinks after their ordeal, but we’re getting the hell out of Berkeley, as I honestly don’t trust that they won’t be attacked again, here in the cradle of the Free Speech Movement, if somebody spots them. As we drive over the San Mateo Bridge, I ask Joey how he feels about what happened today. “I’m starting to love this town,” he deadpans. “It’s starting to be my playground.”
Then he gets serious. “We can’t just shut up, just be quiet, and let this evil continue. The darkness continues to get bigger and bigger in our country, and it will be gone. The country will burn, I’m telling you, if we don’t do things to stand up against it. We all take it for granted. We take for granted everything that we have. That’s why we have to wake up and understand. Goddamn, we have too much to lose.” His eyes well as he takes a long pause, looking out on the shimmering San Francisco Bay. “We can’t stand by, we’ve gotta stand up. And we’ve got to do it together, or it’s gonna be gone.”