Five people who participated in a counter-rally against a pro-Donald Trump protest last March are on trial for misdemeanour assault amid calls for the charges to be dropped.
The trial is set to begin Wednesday morning in Oakland, California, after being delayed one day.
During the “March 4 Trump” rally, around 300 people, including supporters of right-wing US President Donald Trump and counterdemonstrators, descended on nearby Berkeley on March 4, 2017.
Clashes broke out between the opposing sides and several arrests were subsequently made.
During the scuffles, pro-Trump demonstrator Daniel Quillinan sustained injuries. Kyle Chapman, another far-right protester, intervened. He was filmed attacking people at the rally with a stick.
Chapman, who was later elevated to far-right fame as “Based Stickman”, was also arrested.
Owing to that incident, anti-fascist counterdemonstrators Jeff Armstrong, Dustin Sawtelle, Nathan Perry, Scott Hedrick and Taylor Fuller were charged with misdemeanour assault over Quillinan’s injuries.
Perry was also charged with possession of a leaded cane, according to the local Daily Californian.
All five pleaded not guilty.
The defendants in Berkeley are among dozens of people across the country currently facing charges over their alleged involvement in anti-fascist demonstrations.
Shanta Driver, a lawyer for the five defendants, accused the district attorney and police of working with “fascists to prosecute anti-Trump and anti-fascist activists”.
“Protesters have a right to take action to keep their communities safe from Trump, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and fascist attacks,” Driver told Al Jazeera.
“Thanks to protesters who have come out against alt-right white supremacists, attacks like the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville have not happened in the Bay Area,” she said, referring to the 32-year-old anti-fascist activist killed in Virginia during the “Unite the Right” rally on August 12, 2017.
At the time of publication, Alameda County District Attorney’s Office had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.
Berkeley as an epicentre
By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a California-based anti-racist activist group, has dubbed the defendants “the Berkeley anti-fascist five” and called for the charges to be dismissed.
Driver, who is also BAMN’s national chair, said prosecuting the anti-fascists is part a crackdown aiming to prevent on “the most effective mass direct action from taking place in the future”.
In a press release, BAMN alleged that Quillinan was injured while “violently attack[ing] protesters”.
BAMN went on to call on local community members to “fill the court room” during Wednesday’s hearing in Oakland and to “defend these five local heroes”.
Throughout 2017, Berkeley became an epicentre for far-right rallies and clashes with anti-fascists. The rallies saw violent confrontations between anti-fascists and far-rightists, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
In February of last year, anti-fascists rallied at the University of California – Berkeley (UC – Berkeley), throwing stones and setting fires outside a campus building when far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was preparing to deliver a speech.
The event was cancelled, and Yiannopoulos was evacuated by police.
Five weeks after the March 4 Trump rally, on April 15, a far-right rally dubbed a “free speech” protest also descended into clashes.
During the scuffles, far-right activist Nathan Damigo, then leader of the far-right group Identity Evropa, was caught on film sucker punching a female anti-fascist activist.
On August 27, when thousands of people flooded the streets of Berkeley, black-clad anti-fascists engaged far-right demonstrators participating in a “Say No to Marxism” rally. More than a dozen people were arrested.
Several other demonstrations took place in Berkeley and surrounding areas throughout the year.
During Trump’s inauguration, more than 230 people were rounded up and arrested at an anti-fascist and anti-capitalist march. Charges were dismissed for many and others were found not guilty, but more than 40 still face felony charges.
In Sacramento, California, three anti-fascist activists, including BAMN’s Yvette Felarca, are facing felony assault charges over their alleged involvement in clashes with a white supremacist group during a June 2016 rally.
William Planer, who participated in the rally with the far-right Traditionalist Worker Party and Golden State Skinheads, is also facing felony charges over those clashes.
Driver said that “standing up to fascism is vital” in the age of Trump, whose 2016 election emboldened far-right groups across the country.
“Defending these five anti-Trump protesters is the most important way to defend our movement right now, defeat Trump’s neo-fascist base and get Trump out,” she concluded.