Last semester’s protests at the University of California, Berkeley, challenged liberal presumptions about who exactly the good guys were. Anti-fascists, or antifa, clad like ninjas and hellbent on silencing a speaker (the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos), smashed windows and set fires. Clashes with right-wingers erupted again at rallies in March and April in support of free speech (a “messy pepper spray mosh pit,” as one anti-fascist described it).
The antifa collective, fueled by an emboldened right wing, has become a growing subculture, particularly on West Coast campuses. Fearful of being doxxed (having your personal information posted online) by “alt-right trolls,” anti-fascists are cautious about their identity. Most don’t even communicate over social media or phone. And many protest as a black bloc, a tactic ascribed to 1980s Germany in which a group protests anonymously, faces concealed by T-shirts, bandannas or masks to avoid detection and protect from pepper spray.
Antifa is actually more label than organization, its believers connected by calls to action on websites like It’s Going Down. Anarchist, communist or just liberal, they oppose fascism with militant zeal. But some formalize into affinity groups like the Pastel Bloc; dressed in pastels — a play on the head-to-toe uniform of black bloc — they offer medical attention during protests.
Black bloc is often seen as mostly white males looking to wreak havoc for their cause. A half-dozen Berkeley antifa members who agreed to speak on record to us saw merit in that stereotype, but since the Trump inauguration, they said, those behind the masks represent the spectrum of gender and race. “People showing up to the protests are the ones with the most to lose,” said Neil Lawrence, a Berkeley student. Part of his decision to go public as a transgender anti-fascist is to counteract the stereotype.
The night before the April 15 Patriots’ Day protest, Mr. Lawrence stayed up most of the night making sandwiches. Before he headed out to meet up with other anti-fascists, he grabbed a box of matzos, too — it was Passover. The antifa wanted to show up en masse to demonstrate opposition at an alt-right free-speech rally. Announcements on fliers around campus called for a Defend the Bay Bloc Party and Cookout, with a request to “Bring friends, a mask and food to share if ya can.”
When the antifa got there, some with makeshift weapons and M-80 firecrackers, fighting broke out (each side blames the other). Mr. Lawrence didn’t engage. “I’m 5 feet 2. I know what my assets are in this movement, and being able to throw down physically isn’t one of them.” His role: “There’s power to being a body in the mass.”
Mr. Lawrence has been involved with the anarcho-punk scene since high school. His first black bloc protest was last winter. “Violence is frightening,” he said. “I get it. Violence is messy. It’s not elegant.” But he argues that today’s high political stakes justify violence. “Whatever you can do to throw a wrench in the gears is valuable.”
Mr. Lawrence allowed his full name to be used to bolster his credibility in explaining a movement he believes is misrepresented in the media. In particular, he wants his experiences as a trans student to illustrate its increasing diversity. “That is who the hammer falls on,” he said. “That’s whose existence in public is being criminalized in so many state legislatures right now. I never felt like a target walking down the street until the climate shifted so radically in the age of Trump.”
Mr. Lawrence is graduating this summer, nearly a year early, a decision reinforced by how Berkeley has dealt with the turmoil. “I don’t want to be on a campus where I’m looking over my shoulder all the time, but the people I’m constantly looking over my shoulder for can stand on the steps of Sproul” — where the Free Speech Movement was born, in 1964 — “and give a press conference.”
“Everyone just kind of wants to keep their head down, and the administration is really hypocritical about what’s going on, for all their talk about wellness and campus climate. A pretty big part of me feeling safe on my campus, it doesn’t seem crazy to say, is that there not be any Nazis here.”
Sitting in his dorm room at the end of the school year, surrounded by tomes by anarchist thinkers, a freshman of Muslim descent named Dan was explaining his political journey. Suharto’s forces had killed his grandfather during the Communist purge in Indonesia. The family immigrated to Southern California but was never political, fearful of suffering repression again.
So Dan discovered Marx on his own, in the high school library. He moved on to Noam Chomsky and Peter Kropotkin. “I started to realize: What’s the use of reading about things when you don’t really apply them in real life? And so, you know, the 2016 presidential came on and this was the first time I really got in politics.”
At a Trump campaign rally in Costa Mesa, he and friends, still in high school, began shouting obscenities and “Viva Mexico!” and got into some scuffles. “People were yelling at us and spitting on us and trying to physically attack us, and if it weren’t for security we probably wouldn’t get home in one piece.” At Berkeley, he contends he didn’t start any confrontation. “I did get a few punches at me and I did return them in kind. A biker for Trump tried to run me over with a motorcycle, and another one tried to pull a knife on me. I remember throwing a traffic cone at one person, which was pretty funny.”
The antifa didn’t protest at the April 27 rally supporting Ann Coulter, whose talk was canceled for that day by a university fearful of violence. “Someone like Coulter, she’s pretty much nothing to us,” Dan explained. “There’s a different level of threat here. Milo Yiannopoulos, he’s at the vanguard of a new right movement that’s much more dangerous than the conservative establishment.” Yiannopoulos supporters, he said, had displayed anti-Semitic posters and Nazi salutes at the free speech rallies.
Dan said he supports the right of conservatives to speak on campus, but fascism must be stopped — by violence, if necessary. “We’ve seen in history that the very fact that we allow certain people to talk normalizes their speech, and there’s the possibility of their narrative being accepted and even being widespread in the society.”
He predicts more violence for the new school year. Mr. Yiannopoulos has announced a weeklong tent city on Sproul Plaza this fall, vowing in a Facebook post to “bring an army if I have to.” And the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro plans to speak in September.
Nathan Damigo was caught on video punching a woman in the face and he’s not apologizing for it. “I feel that I was completely within reason,” Mr. Damigo said via Skype from his home in California’s central valley. The punch that went viral was during the Patriots’ Day rally in Berkeley last semester, in support of free speech. Mr. Damigo said he had seen the woman swinging a foot-long bottle at Trump supporters. “It was swing or get swung on,” he said of the punch.
The video helped elevate Mr. Damigo to the pantheon of young, influential white nationalists. He said his organization, Identity Evropa, which advocates racial separation, now has 450 dues-paying members on dozens of campuses.
“We are organizing people to put pressure on the institutions to engage us in dialogue,” he said, “to challenge their students to greater exposure to ideas they are censoring on campus, to bring a greater amount of literature into classes, to expand the speakers they’re bringing in. There’s an incredible amount of political nepotism on campus, which has led to ignorance about us, and quite a bit of strawmanning in regard to what it is we truly believe.”
Mr. Damigo joined the Marine Corps right after high school, serving two tours in Iraq. Reintegration was difficult, and he began binge drinking. One night, in what he believes was a PTSD flashback, he pulled a gun on a cabdriver of Middle Eastern descent and took $43. “I freaked out, didn’t know where I was, thought this guy was trying to come through my checkpoint and just flipped out on him,” Mr. Damigo said. “After it happened, I felt very guilty about it.”
In prison on a four-year sentence for armed robbery, he began reading, taking a particular interest in race. His reading list included “White Identity: Racial Consciousness in the 21st Century” by Jared Taylor and “The Bell Curve,” whose co-author Charles Murray was prevented from speaking at Middlebury College earlier this year. “And yes, I read David Duke, if you want to throw that in there.” From the other side of the argument was “The Triple Helix” by Richard Lewontin. He earned an associate degree in social and behavioral sciences while incarcerated and on release immediately enrolled in Cal State.
Mr. Damigo started Identity Evropa last year after watching videos of the French anti-immigration youth group Génération Identitaire. “Policies of mass immigration have been called by the new right ‘the great replacement,’” he said. “There’s a paradox in screaming racism at a people while promoting policies that would lead to the destruction of their identity and their culture.” He was attracted, he said, “to the group’s willingness to go where most right-wing people hadn’t gone before, which is into the activist front.”
“I spent years researching the history of left-wing agitation,” he said. “The reality is that the narrative regarding race and identity and diversity today is the way it is because of the activism of left-wing groups. Our countering narrative on it, like Milo Yiannopoulos, Christina Hoff Sommers, Jordan Peterson, they’re getting shut down. So I said, there is a superior strategy to coordinated action, and that’s something we have to replicate.”
When school resumes, Mr. Damigo plans to “step it up” by setting up tables on campuses with Identity Evropa T-shirts and banners. And at U.C. Berkeley? Mr. Damigo laughed. “We’ve got some plans.”
Andrew Beale and Sonner Kehrt are graduate journalism students at the University of California, Berkeley.