Local and national lawmakers have released statements condemning militant anti-fascist group Antifa following violence at a Berkeley protest last week.
The condemnation comes after skirmishes broke out Sunday during an anti-Marxist rally and a subsequent counter-protest against racism. Those who repudiated the violence include Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Adam Schiff, and others.
"Our democracy has no room for inciting violence or endangering the public, no matter the ideology of those who commit such acts," Pelosi said in what was arguably the strongest disavowal of the group from a Democrat. "The violent actions of people calling themselves Antifa in Berkeley this weekend deserve unequivocal condemnation, and the perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted."
A majority of the estimated 4,000 counter-protesters who flocked to downtown Berkeley remained peaceful throughout the four-hour event. But footage of black-clad Antifa members beating down right-wing activists quickly went viral on social media, sparking a debate about the methods used by the anti-racist, anti-capitalist group.
Several journalists also reported being threatened or assaulted when taking photographs of the masked protesters, another strategy that Antifa has repeatedly used to protect themselves against possible doxing and identification.
A decentralized group with no national leadership, Antifa's goals are to end the oppression of marginalized people through direct action, according to Mark Bray, a Dartmouth historian who wrote a book on the subject.
The group has maintained a large presence at several high-profile protests in the Bay Area, including the demonstration against a UC Berkeley speaking engagement by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Antifa members were seen breaking windows, smashing ATMs, and attempting to start a fire inside Wells Fargo. (It was extinguished by a fellow protester.)
Arreguin, who has faced criticism for the violence unfolding under his watch, opined that Antifa should be considered a “gang.” Prior to Sunday's protest, he had urged protesters to stay peaceful while demonstrating.
"They come dressed in uniforms. They have weapons, almost like a militia, and I think we need to think about that in terms of our law enforcement approach," he told a CBS-affiliate KPIX.
On Sunday, 13 people were arrested in connection with the protests.
A Twitter account linked to Berkeley Antifa dismissed Arreguin’s comments and expressed doubt at the motivations behind them.
“What the mayor and the chief of police are worried about is not militias or gangs. It's the erosion and irrelevance of their power,” the tweet thread said. “They want to attack a now unified left movement that wants to go beyond liberal ‘free speech’ and towards total freedom and autonomy.”
A statement from House Speaker Paul Ryan referred to Antifa as a "scourge" on our country.
"Speaker Ryan believes, as is obvious, these individuals are left-wing thugs, and those who are committing violence need to be arrested and prosecuted," Ryan’s spokeswoman Ashlee Strong said in a statement provided to The Daily Caller.
While being grilled by CNN’s Jake Tapper, Schiff, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said there was "no justification" for the violence, but cautioned against drawing false parallels between Antifa and self-styled white supremacy groups.
"Millions of people are gathering around the country — and have since this president was inaugurated — in the most peaceful forms of protest," Schiff said. "We can’t allow the Commander-in-Chief to somehow equate the handful of people that would make those protests violent with any kind of sentiment that condones white supremacist or neo-nazism."
The condemnations come on the heels of a deadly white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, VA, where one anti-racist protester was killed and dozens more wounded. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups have been on the rise since the 2016 presidential campaign, during which Donald Trump rode a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric to the White House.