BERKELEY, Calif — For the third time this year, people convened in the California city of Berkeley to attend, or to protest, what was being labeled a “Freedom Rally” or “Free Speech Rally.” The scene quickly turned violent as tensions mounted between the two gathering factions. The event was over before it had a chance to really begin. According to the police report, there were 11 injuries and 20 arrests with more possible after video footage is reviewed.
Many news outlets have labeled Saturday’s event a pro-Trump rally describing a politically-based scenario pitting Trump supporters against his opponents. While others have called it a Patriots Day free speech rally, championing the right to be heard. Liberty Revival Alliance (LRA) founder and event organizer Rich Black said, “We are the heroes this country needs.”
While pro- and anti-Trump rhetoric did flow through the event, and many people attended solely for that purpose, the rally ultimately was neither a political protest nor a free speech rally. It was a public show of the deep and troubling divides stirring just beneath the surface of the current social climate in the U.S., and what Esquire magazine has described as a confrontation between “anti-fascists and white nationalists.”
Prior to Apr. 15, Black himself made an attempt to distance the event and LRA from such notoriety. In a post, he said, “I know there are many concerns regarding allegations of the LRA and this event having association with Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, or Workers Party groups. I assure you that we do not have any association with anyone who promotes these radical views or hateful rhetoric. they were there, and they were vocal.” He released a second, similar statement Apr. 19, in which he supports the actions taken against Antifa, but denounces any connection to groups defined as white supremacist.
However, Black’s initial statement did not appear to ease concerns, or shift the direction of the event. It even angered some event supporters.
In the end, Esquire‘s assessment is evident not only in photographs and videos coming out of the rally, but also in the general discussions within online forums.
It is also evident in the reasons that drove some Pagans and Heathens to attend the rally.
“It’s a provocation from the alt-right. Just like Milo [Yiannopoulos] and just like the rally in March,” said local Pagan and trained street medic Brennos Agrocunos Gunn. He was at the park Saturday with friend and fellow medic Laine Mardollsdottir.
As Gunn explained, “They come to Berkeley because Berkeley is Sodom and Gomorrah in their mythology. They come here, to one of the most diverse communities in the country to antagonize the residents and then cry ‘fascists’ when the residents react badly to having Nazi salutes in their faces and being told that they’re going to be taken on helicopter rides.”
His assessment is corroborated by LVA supporters who rallied behind the idea that patriots need to go where they are not welcome. One supporter publicly quoted abolitionist and activist Abigail Kelley Foster, who is credited with saying, “Go where you are least wanted, for there you are most needed.”
Gunn added, “Everyone on the counter protest side would much rather be doing something else, but also have a strong commitment to not allowing white supremacists have a platform in our town.”
Mardollsdottir said, “I acted as a medic during the protest, helping people who had been maced or hit with pepper spray or otherwise harmed during the confrontation.” Mardolssdottir is a Freyjasgydja and priestess of the Golden Flame, and she was not the only Heathen at the rally.
“It was heartening to see Diana Paxson and other members of the Heathen community put themselves in harm’s way in the fight against racism and bigotry.”In an email interview, Paxson said, “My friends and I attended under the banner of the Alliance for Inclusive Heathenry, which exists to organize and provide a context for individuals and groups to work together for specific events, such as the Heathen Hospitality Suite at Pantheacon or booth at the World Parliament of Religions in 2015. This was the ‘group’s’ first political event.”
Paxson nor alliance representatives attended the two previous rallies held Berkeley, but they felt this one was different.
“I viewed the first alt-right attempt at a rally in Berkeley with the disdain it deserved,” Paxson explained.
“However the one this weekend was advertised as including representatives from Identity Evropa, and more important, Steve McNallen of the [Asatru Folk Assembly] as a speaker.”
She went on to say, “I felt that if someone was going to publicly present Heathenry as a religion for European-Americans only, someone needed to be there to present Heathenry as a culturally-based but inclusive religion. […] Too many people already think Heathens are racists or neo-Nazis. We have to counter the bad PR.”
Along with the Alliance were members of The Troth and Heathens United Against Racism. In a statement, HUAR said, in part,”We learned that Stephen McNallen intended to be at the April 15th alt-right rally after seeing a post from Nathan Damigo, the founder and leader of the alt-right group Identity Evropa.”
As a result, members unanimously voted to support a HUAR presence. The Heathen contingent carried their own banners and signs.
As for McNallen, he was in fact at Saturday’s rally wearing a helmet. In a public post Apr. 13, he asks who will be joining him at the event, adding that he was not going attend at first because Trump “isn’t exactly in [his] good graces right now.” However, when he realized it was a “Free Speech March,” he changed his mind.
McNallen added, “Besides, I think some folks are expecting me, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint them.”
He did not publicly specify who those folks were, nor did he say whether or not he would be speaking. Neither AFA officials nor McNallen responded to requests for an interview to clarify that point or to respond to other questions regarding their participation.
However, what is clear is that McNallen was in attendance at the rally, but he was not there on official AFA business or even simply as a representative for the organization. McNallen made that point clear. Additionally, he stated that AFA was not involved in any capacity with the organizing group.
Whether or not McNallen was planning to speak is still unknown. In the Apr. 13 post, Black did mention that there would be a number of scheduled speakers who had not yet been publicly announced. Even if McNallen was on that alleged hidden schedule, he never got the chance to address the crowd. The rally was cut short when violence broke out prior to the scheduled noontime start.
McNallen left shortly after that point, as did Paxson and the members of the other the two Heathen organizations.“When it became clear that the alt-right and the antifascists were only interested in shouting at each other, not listening to anyone, my group kept to the periphery and spent much of our time displaying our placards to people driving by,” Paxson recalled.
“[We] got some approving honks.” They left when the police took out the tear gas.
Mardollsdottir and Gunn stayed longer to assist injured people, which was their initial purpose for attending.
“I was given a warning to leave at a certain point by allies in the crowd,” said Mardollsdottir.
“This was when the police began deploying tear gas and arresting folks in earnest (as a transgender woman being arrested is dangerous for me in ways it may not be for others). I returned to help half an hour or so later when the conflict had moved and the police presence was less intense.”
Mardollsdottir said that she left between 11:30 am and noon. During that short time, she stayed nearby on local streets, keeping in contact with Gunn who was still in the park.
“He gave me updates and I returned when it seemed like I was at less risk than I had been,” she said.
Gunn added, “Having street medics on the ground in the middle of the fighting puts us into a position where we might be able to save someone’s life. First responders generally won’t go into a dangerous situation, and I’ve watched law enforcement stand by while people get stabbed right in from of them.”
When Mardolsdottir returned to the park, the tensions had not yet abated. “There was a small crowd of white supremacists taunting protesters. A few fist fights broke out around me but no one was seriously hurt,” she recalled.
“They dispersed soon with Antifa holding the scene,” she noted. “The police started to block exits from the intersection that we were at so we decided the day was done at that point.”
In retrospect, Gunn said, “My real fear is that someone is going to get seriously injured or killed at one of these; they keep getting uglier and uglier.”
He attended both the Yiannopoulos protest and the Mar. 4 one. Gunn added that he spent a lot of time trying to prevent the Milo event from happening at all by having discussions with people at the University of California – Berkeley. That event, scheduled for February, was cancelled after violence broke out on campus.
When asked if they would attend another similar rally, both Gunn and Mardolssdottir emphatically said yes. “I’ll go out again if any of these idiots come back and try this again, which they will,” stated Gunn.
“I was grateful for the opportunity to help and would be grateful to return to support the fight against fascism and racism,” Mardolssdottir said.“Being a devotee of two goddesses associated with battle I felt that helping was obligatory where possible, so my attendance was at least in part an act of devotion.”
Paxson, on the other hand, said she probably wouldn’t attend again unless there was a notable Heathen element as there was in this case. “The alt-right paramilitary blue-shirts and the black-clad Antifa went looking for a fight and got it,” she said.
“Until we can organize a sufficient number of people who are interested in communication and peaceful protest I will avoid rallies.”
As noted by Paxson, regardless of intent or advertising, these events are more about the conflict than about building bridges or fixing problems. Just as McNallen brought a helmet, so did many others. Violence was expected, and for some clearly the plan.
After the dust settled, the stories and accounts coming out of Saturday’s clash suggest that the violence had eventually been reduced to a battle specifically between “Antifa and paramilitary blue-shirts,” as suggested by Paxson. This was a battle that Black and other rally supporters have since celebrated.
Regardless, the conflict was not one between two opposing political groups as suggested by some media outlets, but rather of ideological factions. And, for many in attendance, religion, whether it be Christianity or Heathenry, is a definitive and essential part of their world view.
Bible versus and shouts of “God bless” were just as present as any of the Heathen signs.
For Paxson, the intersection between race, culture, and religion are complicated. She said, “I have loved European culture since I got into medieval studies in college, and was attracted to Heathenry in part as a way to avoid misappropriating any of the other cultures I was interested in, however ancestry is only one element in ethnicity, and affinity and adoption can outbalance it.
“Heathens say ‘We are our deeds,’ and deeds mean more than DNA. Those who are called by my gods I will not deny.”
As suggested by Gunn, the tensions do appear to be escalating. Where this conflict goes next is yet to be seen. At this time, one pro-Trump group is reportedly planning another patriots rally May 1 in Los Angeles.