How a Group That Defended Affirmative Action Evolved Into an Anti-Trump Force

Nearly 22 years ago, student activists at the University of California at Berkeley borrowed the famous words of Malcolm X — “by any means necessary” — as the name of an organization they had formed to defend affirmative action.

They waged battles in California and Michigan, mobilizing students in the fight to preserve policies that considered race in admissions.

Since its founding, the group has expanded its reach beyond a single issue, and its membership beyond individual campuses. Its members have joined national movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and have taken on the issues of sexual assault and immigrants’ rights.

The group has engaged in “mass militant direct action” to accomplish its goals, said Yvette Felarca, a founding member. That can mean staging walkouts and demonstrations, or physically obstructing actions that the group disagrees with.

Even in a city as liberal as Berkeley, however, the group is not without its critics. The very name of the organization hints at an “ends justify the means” approach to activism that has sometimes sparked controversy.

In recent months, its members have clashed with supporters of President Trump, including members of the so-called alt-right, an extremist movement whose members embrace a range of white-supremacist, anti-Semitic, and sexist views. Those battles demonstrate that the group has embraced a new cause that stretches beyond the bounds of colleges campuses: “Defeat Trump by any means necessary.”

This past Saturday, a “Patriot Day” rally organized by Trump supporters brought hundreds to a park in the city of Berkeley. Police officers wore gas masks and riot gear as they waded into the confrontation between pro- and anti-Trump forces.

At least 21 people were arrested that day, and seven were transported to the hospital for injuries, CNN reported. The city police said in a statement that there were “numerous reports of pepper spray being used in the crowd.”

Mercedes Cunningham, a junior at Berkeley and a member of By Any Means Necessary, said she and her peers were ready to protest on Saturday, though they were not prepared for how brutal the rally became.

“You saw a couple hundred people wearing gear and initiating fights knowing they had the upper hand,” she said. “All of us had war wounds from that event.”

By Any Means Necessary

Ms. Felarca remembers an earlier time of radical protest — the Occupy movement. As a leader of the group now, she’s the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the University of California police, the Berkeley campus, and the system’s Board of Regents for the “brutalizing of Occupy protesters” during Occupy Cal, in 2011.

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She has seen how the Berkeley chapter has evolved to tackle new issues over the last few years, and has led the group in its anti-Trump phase.

She said that means their regular weekly meetings now focus on aggressively shutting down far-right speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, whose talk on the Berkeley campus was canceled in February amid violent protests. The group had planned to protest a speech this month by the conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, but on Wednesday, Berkeley administrators called off the event, citing concerns about the potential for rioting.

Ms. Felarca, a Berkeley middle-school teacher, was criticized for defending the violence that led to the cancellation of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s appearance. A petition to have her removed from her school district drew at least 4,000 signatures.

Last month, when demonstrators held a “March 4 Trump” at Berkeley, the group planned a counterprotest, advising its members to “bring a hat or something else to cover your head and a bandanna in case of tear gas.” The Berkeley police arrested 10 people that day, confiscating weapons from supporters and opponents of Mr. Trump.

Ms. Cunningham took part in the clashes in Berkeley last weekend. She had a bandanna covering her face, she said, when she was pepper-sprayed “pretty badly” and punched in the face.

Ms. Cunningham said her chapter had been anticipating the event for a few weeks, noting that the city’s history of progressive activism had helped attract the Trump supporters who rallied there.

At the start, she said, there had already been altercations between pro- and anti-Trump activists, and some Trump supporters were dressed in armor and helmets. To Ms. Cunningham, that signaled that they had traveled to the rally for the sake of inciting physical conflict. And when she was faced with violence at the rally, Ms. Cunningham fought back.

“I don’t believe people should just get hit in the face and turn the other cheek,” she said. And so she defended herself when she was punched in the face, she said.

Ms. Felarca took a similar view of the group’s tactics, saying that the news media’s characterization of violent and nonviolent activism “is inaccurate and misrepresents the real dynamic of struggle.” She said that racists and fascists were responsible for violence, and asserted that stopping those conflicts “is in fact self-defense and a way to prevent future violence.”

The Group’s Appeal

Ben Lynch, a space-sciences researcher, has been at Berkeley since 2006. Before that, he was part of the group’s efforts to defend affirmative action in Michigan. He sees the organization’s activism as appealing to people like him.

“With the increase in far-right organizing activities and hate crimes and threatening harassment,” he said, there’s been a corresponding increase in far-left organizing, too.

“Students come to Berkeley to be part of that radical tradition of activism,” Mr. Lynch said. “We offer something that’s completely outside of the standard academic set of experiences.”

After an event like Saturday’s, Ms. Cunningham said the group usually draws more attention and new members. She said at least 10 new faces had joined a core group of 10 to 15 regulars to discuss the rally and plan coming protests.

For example, the group is planning efforts to secure the campus and city as a “sanctuary” for people who are in the United States illegally. It created a “Don’t Walk On By” campaign, in which members will stand physically in the way of federal agents who seek to detain and deport people. Ms. Felarca said the group plans to mobilize students and faculty members to set up alerts and emergency responses that are intended to block law-enforcement officers from actually removing anyone.

“It’s all about building the youth-led and student-led movement” to defeat Mr. Trump, Ms. Cunningham said. “We made it part of our agenda, Trump must be defeated by any means necessary.”

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