Billowing smoke, black masks, raging bonfires, bashed skulls — the images coming out of protests like the riots at the University of California, Berkeley, this week are enough to make someone believe that there's a war of civilizations being waged right here in America.
The internet commentariat is responding in kind, boiling over with seething indignation over how these protests have gotten out of hand.
Over the past few months, conservative media has been constructing a new narrative around protesters, one of left-wing domestic terrorism. Where before, right-wing outlets focused on the "social justice warrior" crowd as an alleged threat to free speech, now anti-fascists and protesters are the new target of conservative imagination. And the fixation on leftist violence could generate dire consequences — a broad crackdown on protesters at the height of a new activist movement in America.
That crackdown has already begun.
The Battle for Seattle
The Berkeley riots, where students shut down an appearance by alt-right icon and conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, were only the most recent outbreak in a mounting series of clashes. Another scheduled Yiannopoulos appearance — at the University of California, Davis — was shut down by protesters on Jan. 13.
One of the demonstrations against a Yiannopoulos event, though, stands out: one where an anti-fascist was shot.
At the University of Washington in Seattle, posters adorned with swastikas were put up then quickly removed in the run-up to a Yiannopoulos event scheduled for Inauguration Day, according to University representative Norman Arkans.
By the time Yiannopoulos was set to appear, hundreds of protesters, including masked anarchists adorned in black, gathered in the university's "Red Square" to protest. During the various scuffles, one of the anti-fascist organizers, a staple in the anti-fascist community in Seattle, was shot.
According to the university police, two men claiming involvement in the shooting turned themselves in and were quickly released without charges.
In response, the local chapter of College Republicans put out a statement to the anti-fascists: "If you keep prodding the right, you may be unpleasantly surprised what the outcome will be," the group said, later adding, "it's time your flame is put out." The group later said in an interview the remarks were "impulsive."
"I am concerned what we are witnessing is a positive feedback loop — a process that amplifies its end product by its own influences," Kai Frenay, secretary for the College Republicans chapter, said in an interview. "Increasing white supremacist rhetoric leads to increased violence from extremists within Antifa" — shorthand for anti-fascist activists — "and vice versa."
For now, Seattle has settled down. But anti-fascist organizing is popping up across the country. Masked contingents — known as "black blocs" — of anti-fascists have shown up at protests against Yiannopoulos in New Mexico, at counter-inaugural protests in Nebraska and at the John F. Kennedy Airport protest against Trump's travel ban for refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations.
A black bloc isn't a group so much as it is a protest strategy, one that's used in tandem with other protest strategies — often alongside peaceful demonstrators, sometimes offering protection from police brutality and counter-protesters. Whether or not a black bloc is a productive element in a protest has been a debate amongst anarchists and organizers for decades.
But the short-term consequence of the sudden emergence of black blocs could be a swift response against all protesters — at a time when protests movements of all stripes are booming.
"Violence from opponents of fascist regimes usually gives more intense, overt power to that regime," Nitzan Lebovic, the chair on Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University, said in a November interview. "In any of the cases I know, it plays right into the hands of the regime, and is used as an excuse to harshen the punitive measures against critics."
An integral step in that "regime" response is a concerted effort on the part of the right-wing media to portray these protesters as terrorists who need to be dealt with using state force.
The left-wing terrorist bogeyman
In today's era, those demands can be traced through social media. Find any vandalism porn video posted to Facebook by any major news network, and the most-liked comments will be deriding the protesters as vandals, animals and thugs — often with calls that protesters be shot.
Right-wing websites then channel that populist rage.
Breitbart, formerly run by close Trump advisor Steve Bannon, has run a slew of articles painting leftists as "extremists" and black bloc protests as "left-wing terrorists [who] need to be treated as such."
Meanwhile, Yiannopoulos has pivoted his lectures at college campuses away from obsessive focus on "social justice warriors" and toward anti-fascist protesters as the true threat to free speech and democracy.
"Strangely enough, it is the people opposed to me who are actually dangerous, ranging from violent threats against me to violent protests," Yiannopoulos said, citing an email sent to event attendees as evidence.
None of this is to even mention the years-long effort by conservatives on Fox News to paint Black Lives Matter as a hate group.
These campaigns against protesters are working. At least five states are planning anti-protester legislation, and some of the proposed laws impose steep penalties on civil disobedience, including death.
Indiana legislators are introducing a bill some call the "stop traffic and you die bill," requiring police to dispatch all available officers if there is a protest of just 10 or more people blocking traffic. The bill would allow officers to disperse the protests by any means necessary, "even to the point of costing lives."
In response to the Standing Rock protests, North Dakota legislators want to ramp up the penalties for rioting charges to a Class B felony — for which the maximum sentence is 10 years in prison — so that protesters awaiting trial get to sit in jail instead of rejoining protests. In the two counties where those protesters await trial, between 77% and 85% of eligible jurors already presume them to be guilty.
Meanwhile, Trump himself has suggested that U.C. Berkeley lose federal funding for shutting down Yiannopoulos' talks as a consequence of protester pressure.
"If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?" Trump tweeted after protests Monday night shut down the Yiannopoulos event.
The massive demonstrations across the country don't show any signs of slowing.
"Since the tide and power has turned to the right, and so far to the right, we're going to have an activated left," Heidi Beirich, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, said in a phone interview. "And that means a potential for violence."
For now, violence is a growing and glaringly visible piece of the left's activist portfolio. They hope, at great risk, that when the shattered glass is swept away and the dust settles, it was all worth it.