I recently started working as a news intern at the East Bay Express, a weekly newspaper in Oakland, California. My first assignment was to report on the "No to Marxism in America" protest in Berkeley. Many on the left claimed this alt-right protest was a neo-Nazi extension of Charlottesville. Those on the right claimed it was a protest against Marxism and ANTIFA, an extreme left, and sometimes-violent political group.
Counter protests were scheduled. Everyone else got nervous.
The true intent of the conservative protestors turned out to be a moot point. The right wing organizers, who claimed they feared for their follower's safety, canceled it.
The Counter protests stayed on schedule, just in case the right still showed up, I guess. Considering the "No To Marxism...” protest was canceled, I thought covering it would be a breeze. Tensions would be low, we'd all sing “Kumbaya,” and be home by lunch.
So on the morning of the protest, when I got an email from my editor advising me to be wary of tear gas, I almost spit out my cereal.
'Tear gas?' I thought. 'But the other team quit, what does anyone have to worry about?'
I chalked up the warning to media hysteria and started worrying about more important things. Did I have enough snacks for the day? Did I remember to take my allergy medication? After stuffing my backpack with apples and bottles of water, I took a BART ride to Berkeley, 50 SPF slathered all over my face.
At first, it looked like I was right. The police had a strong presence, and to use California lingo, it had a very chill vibe. There was even a brass band, and while they weren't playing “Kumbaya,” they were playing "Down By the Riverside," which I prefer anyway. The biggest concern most protestors seemed to have was finding shade from the summer heat.
I should add that if you don't know me, I just returned from living in Spain for two years. While you may have gotten used to this crazy, political climate, it's still pretty foreign to me. So when a bunch of guys with bandannas, sticks, and gas masks showed up, I was shocked and curious. Who were these bizarre Captain Americans, dressed in all black? Some even had elaborate, homemade shields. If the activists weren't so intimidating, it would've been kind of adorable, in a bad Halloween costume sort of way.
People in the crowd filled me in on the masked crusaders. Apparently they are apart of ANTIFA, the group I mentioned earlier. '
Then, a group of ANTIFAs charged through the crowd like a low budget version of Brave Heart, shields raised high in the air. Low level chaos ensued. Not cars burning or window breaking. But people started running in random directions, and others were yelling, "tear gas, tear gas!" I even witnessed a group of ANTIFAs take a man down. Later, I saw a video of the beating - or at least I think it was the same one - on Twitter. But at the time, all I saw was a pile of elbows and shields.
I have no idea who the victim was, or what his political affiliations were. But I do know that 7 on 1 is hardly a fair fight.
My journalism training abandoned me. My thoughts were racing, and I didn't know where to go, let alone what to report on. Luckily, I saw one guy in the crowd who seemed to know exactly what to do. While everyone else was running around yelling or frozen in fear, he was standing calmly off to the side, fiddling with his camera.
I started with the most pressing question I could think of: is that big cloud of smoke tear gas coming towards us and should I run?
He said he didn't think so, probably just a smoke bomb set off by a protestor. You would know if it was tear gas, he said. It makes a real loud noise.
And for the next couple minutes, the real schooling started: The logistics of covering a protest. He taught me to hug the side of the street during stampedes, and what to do if you're hit with pepper spray or tear gas. He taught me not to be afraid of the protestors. They have a way of knowing who is a bystander, he assured me. Who was this seasoned journalist, this fearless reporter who had all the answers?
So I asked him who he was working for. "You have obviously reported on protests before?"
Nah, he said. I'm just a resident of Berkeley.
Come back for more thoughts on my adventures in the East Bay. Coming randomly at computers and mobile phones near you.