On Sunday, while covering Berkeley’s Rally Against Hate, Al Letson—host of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal podcast—found himself shielding a man from the blows of far-left black bloc protesters. The clip of his intervention has been shared widely across social media by critics of the antifa movement.
I interviewed Letson about the incident, and what it’s like to cover antifa and the alt-right more broadly, Monday afternoon.
Osita Nwanevu: So walk me through how you ended up protecting this guy. Who was he?
Al Letson: No idea who he was. The longer story is that there was the rally—I think one thing that people should know is that it was mostly a peaceful rally. It wasn’t like anarchy and fighting and brawling everywhere. It was mostly a peaceful thing. Most of the protesters there were not what I would call antifa. They were a mixture of people. The antifa were definitely there, but I would say that they were maybe 20 percent of the crowd? But they were there, and they showed up in force.
So [far-right activist] Joey Gibson was doing his “Patriot Prayer” thing—he came through with like two other guys, and he was antagonizing the black bloc, and it really escalated. So they started chasing Joey and this guy. They ran across the street—I’m literally right next to Joey while all this is happening, so I know this to be true—they ran into the police, and the police kind of protected them. But this other guy—I’m not sure if he was with Joey. It looked like he was, but I’m not sure. He was running in kind of a different place, and he stumbled—or someone tripped him—and then four or five people surrounded him and began to kick and hit him with like a flagpole. And I was just filming it, but at some point I looked behind him and I saw a whole mass of people coming, and I just thought that they were going to kill him. And, you know, I didn’t want anybody to die. So I just dropped my stuff and dove in and got on top of him. Originally I wasn’t planning on getting on top of him; I just wanted to shield him. I wanted to break it up, but then I realized there were too many of them, and there was no way that was going to happen.
There’s been a rumor going around on social media—which has been promoted by conservative writers—that this man was simply going to a grocery store. Is that true?
No, I don’t think that’s true at all. He was there with Joey, and I think he was filming the rally, if I remember correctly. I know he had a camera. And I think that they took the camera from him. But I’m pretty sure he was out there with Joey filming the whole thing.
Did stepping in calm down the antifa demonstrators? And were there other fights before this?
I pretty much left after that. After that, I was burnt. But I saw people having small skirmishes here or there. Mostly it was running people out of the square—like someone would try to say something, and they would get chased out. That happened twice, maybe three times. It was very small, very contained. It was not like this chaotic scene that you see in the video. Absolutely, that did happen. It was crazy there. But it was mostly a peaceful situation.
I think there’s been a tendency to conflate the question of whether it’s moral to physically confront the alt-right with the question of whether that kind of action is actually effective. What are your thoughts on the broader debate we’ve been having about violence?
What I’m seeing happen is that the violence from the far left is beginning to create an equivalency in both the media’s mind and a lot of other people’s minds between the alt-right and the alt-left. And I don’t think that there’s an equivalency there. What you’re talking about with the white nationalists, white supremacists, alt-right, whatever they want to name themselves—they want an ethno-state. They want people of color, LGBTQ people, and everybody that’s not white out of this country. And we’ve seen what that looks like in Nazi Germany. We know what that means. You’re not going to get people to peacefully line up and walk out of the country. So, you’re talking about people who are advocating genocide and then equating them with people who are fighting against advocates for genocide. And there’s no equivalency there for me. Obviously if someone’s talking about the genocide of a race or getting rid of people, it’s much worse than someone who is doing violence to protect those people. But I think violence creates that false equivalency. So I think it’s something that we as a country and the black bloc and others have to think about.
You interviewed Richard Spencer right after the election in November, and that kind of dialogue has been held up as a productive alternative to direct confrontation or preventing figures on the alt-right from expressing their views. Did you find that conversation productive? Do you think you actually delegitimized him in any meaningful way?
Yeah, I feel pretty strongly about this. I think that there is a way that I engage that is about exposing them and allowing our listeners and anyone listening to see exactly who this person is. I think that there are ways that you can engage them where you are giving them a platform, and that’s not what I ever want to do. But for me—I didn’t know who Richard Spencer was until maybe a week before that interview. And therefore, if I don’t know who he is, I can’t see the foundation that he’s laying out to build his organization and spread his concepts. Only in the light can we dispel this stuff that’s growing in the dark corners. So, that’s the way I see it: I’ve got to keep my eye on this guy.
At the same time I want to be cognizant of how I do that. I don’t want to call anybody out, but I’ve seen interviews where, after the interview, the host and that person are buddy-buddy. Richard Spencer and I are never going to be buddy-buddy. I know he’s coming on to my show because he’s trying to speak to his audience, and I’m having him on because I’m speaking to mine. And so I’m pretty clear about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and what I want to say.