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From MLK Park to seditious conspiracy: Berkeley’s bloody past with Proud Boys, Oath Keepers

The Jan. 6 House Select Committee will air its first public hearing Thursday night with a focus on how two far-right groups coordinated before the Capitol attack. Many became aware of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers in days leading up to and after the 2020 election, but those two groups had a presence in the Bay Area long before their leading members were charged with seditious conspiracy. 

The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were instrumental players in the spate of pro-Trump, “free speech” rallies that often sparked violence in progressive cities across the country. Portland, Oregon skirmishes caught a lot of attention for obvious reasons, but the groups also made a habit of bringing their largely unwelcome message to the Bay Area, particularly in Berkeley.

In the spring of 2017, “March4Trump” and similar rallies seemed to pop up nearly every other week in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park (a.k.a. Provo Park). The city had drawn alt-right ire after the Milo Yiannopoulos incident at UC Berkeley. 

It was rumored the self-proclaimed provocateur intended to publicly name undocumented Cal students during a campus speaking event on Feb. 1, 2017. In response, a mostly peaceful protest formed outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building, but calm quickly turned to chaos when a militant group of demonstrators arrived. 

The speaking event was ultimately canceled due to safety concerns, making Berkeley — birthplace of the Free Speech Movement — a target for Trump supporters, alt-right trolls, emerging militia groups and white supremacists for years to come. The events were typically framed as defense of free speech by organizers who claimed to be peaceful patriots, though group members were often caught threatening violence on social media, and several were caught on video inciting and engaging in fights with antifascist protesters. 

The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were prominent in nearly every alt-right rally, march and demonstration that riddled Berkeley and, to a lesser degree, San Francisco and Oakland. They were there on April 15, 2017, which marked the bloodiest battle seen in Berkeley for years. 

Aaron Levy-Wolins/Golden Gate Xpress A injured man receives treatment during a bloody battle between alt-right and counter-protesters at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, Calif., on April 15, 2017. (Courtesy of Aaron Levy-Wolins/Golden Gate Xpress)

Five months later, members of both groups attended the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. According to the Justice Department, both groups were not only at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but dozens of seditious conspiracy indictments indicate leaders of both groups – Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers and Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys – went to great lengths planning the insurrection attempt. 

For journalists who covered the Berkeley rallies in 2017 and beyond, including myself, it was startling to hear the former president publicly tell the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Proud Boys members, who have been spotted alongside Trump confidant Roger Stone on several occasions, did just that. The comment was made during a presidential debate when he was given an opportunity to denounce white supremacist and militia groups, which he declined to do.  

Thursday night, the nation will hear testimony from British documentary filmmaker Nick Quested, who was embedded with the Proud Boys prior to and during the Jan. 6 riot. Quested filmed as Tarrio and Rhodes, and a handful of others, appeared to hold a 30-minute planning meeting in a Washington D.C. parking lot on the eve of the Capitol attack.

Parler Screenshot of former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio’s Parler account message ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. In the message, he suggests members disguise themselves as Antifa.

The DOJ has obtained evidence suggesting members of both groups played key roles in the violent attempt to stop the electoral vote count that confirmed Joe Biden as president. Some of that evidence will be shared with the public during the House select committee hearing. While the facts may shock some viewers, they will not come as a surprise to Bay Area journalists all too familiar with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.   

For those who’ve paid attention since 2017, the road from MLK Park to insurrection was never much of a stretch.

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