1st Amendment Promises Right to Speak, Not Right to Fight

THIS IS WHAT I KNOW--Since Campaign 2016, a chasm has erupted and the fault lines continue to crack. As protesters gathered on April 15 from Fifth Avenue to Pershing Square to demand President Trump release his tax returns, heated -- and violent -- exchanges ensued between pro- and anti-Trump camps at a Berkeley park that was the scene of a stabbing, as well as at least 20 arrests for assault with a deadly weapon and several felony assaults. 

Police say seven protesters had to be taken to the hospital and at least eleven were injured. Between 500 and 1,000 were gathered in the park at the height of the protests with about 100 moving the fights to a nearby intersection. 

This melee was a three-peat -- following earlier episodes of violence and vandalism in February after UC Berkeley cancelled a scheduled talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, former editor of Breitbart. Last month, a mix of about 500 pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators resulted in punching, spraying and clubbing.

This Saturday, a pro-Trump group had scheduled a “Patriots Day free-speech rally and picnic” in Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley. Anti-Trump protesters responded with a counter-rally. Police banned any potential weapons, including pepper spray, mace, baseball bats, and glass bottles. A Farmers Market held next to the park was cancelled.

Fights broke out despite the precautions as police in riot gear worked to keep sides apart and members of a citizen militia protected Trump supporters. The two sides were separated by a barricade, which did not stop people from throwing cans and bottles.

While our First Amendment Rights of Speech and Assembly are essential to democracy, the disturbing trend that appears to be happening in Berkeley is hopefully not the harbinger of violent exchanges across the country.

Many of us have experienced divides and rifts between family members and friends over politics and more deeply, over the values that are represented by those politics, whether protection of human and environmental rights or globalism vs. isolationism. The violent protests are symptomatic of these deep divides -- and the divisiveness in our country is profoundly troubling.

With hope, we can heal as a nation and we can put these days of hostility and violence behind us. The 1st Amendment promises the right to speak freely, not the right to fight. Reminder: Democracy is not a bystander sport. Closing the divide begins with me … and you.

(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles writer and a columnist for CityWatch.)