We were outnumbered at the “Battle for Berkeley,” and we can’t afford to let that happen again. The Handmaid’s Tale reveals exactly why.
I originally sat down to write about being in the age of Trump and watching the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, a new series from Hulu that debuts April 26, with a couple hot takes to offer the masses.
Then I went to what is being called “the Battle for Berkeley” on April 15, and I realized that any SEO-friendly thinkpiece I could write was complete and utter bullshit compared to the call to awareness The Handmaid’s Tale is. I was struck by the similarities between the rise to power of Gilead, the fascist religious regime controlling the world of the main characters — particularly Offred — in The Handmaid’s Tale, and the rise to power of Trump, Pence and the alt-right.
Related: How White Millennials Became Neo-Nazis
Be forewarned: there are some spoilers (especially relating to the third episode), but if you’ve read the book, you won’t be too surprised.
“This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will” — Aunt Lydia
With some horror, I watched the video of Kyle Chapman smugly parading the streets of Berkeley to prove that fascists had nothing to fear. It was a week before the planned “Defend the Bay” counter-protest, a picnic designed to help shut down the Nazis who wanted to rally in Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park under the banners of free speech and anti-semitism. Chapman openly bragged about his planned violence against antifascists while using homophobic insults — until some teenagers confronted him, telling him and his cronies to leave. I wondered how many people had witnessed Chapman’s threatening and instigating behavior and kept walking, figuring that if they ignored it, it would all blow over.
As we now know, his call to arms was responded to.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s this moment where men, armed and armored, enter a pre-Gilead Offred’s workplace to enforce a new rule firing all the women from their jobs. You watch as the women tentatively pack their belongings, looking questioningly at the unarmed men around them — their coworkers, perhaps even their friends, who are letting this happen. Many of the men cannot meet their female workmates’ eyes — they do not approve of what is happening, of course, but they don’t disapprove enough to put themselves at risk. They believe that there’s no way this sort of extremism could last. They learn how wrong they are.
“I think it’s another kind of army” –Offred
Offred, before the regime of Gilead has trapped her, is shown at a protest with her friend Moira. The scene looks familiar to me: cops with riot shields, hands on their batons, people shouting their dissent and waving signs. The riot line approaches and the activists retreat, while officers with live rounds parade ahead of the shields. While the scene is tense. The protesters, who turn to boo at this move, have not yet learned how far the police may go to “protect and serve” the interests of the capitalist upper classes.
They receive a harsh lesson about “freedom of speech” as the cops repeatedly and without provocation gun down protesters’ fleeing bodies.
Some of the weapons brought to Berkeley on the April 15 were police and military grade, but they were not used by police in uniform — as far as I could tell, they were brought by the “defenders of free speech” on the fascist side of the fence. Looking at online forums where the alt-right gather and organize, it seems likely that some of the MAGA hat-wearers were off-duty cops wanting to beat on antifascists with even less concern for consequences than they’d have in uniform.
The alt-right have been forming an army and they are being allowed to do so by law enforcement. We must recognize that the two are working hand in hand. We cannot afford to be sloppy or reactionary in this fight against fascism, with the stakes ever increasing and their brazenness becoming ever more prominent. This is the beginning of a war, and if we don’t respect it as such, we will lose the high ground before we even know we have it.
“Under His Eye” — a Gilead greeting
We are under their eye. The alt-right is watching us when we speak out online, when we report on protests, when we offer medical care or bail support to activists. They are waiting to doxx us, to harass us at our homes, our workplaces, to threaten our families. Even now, 4chan is churning out lists of alleged antifa organizers, encouraging their self-righteous mob into psychologically torturing those they feel “deserve it.” It’s funny how this is all done under the cover of free speech.
And it’s not just the fascists who are observing our every move, our every word. It is also the police, who are learning that it is equally effective to stay out of the fray and film the combatants, giving them leisure to post photos of only the people they decide are “violent.” It is no coincidence to me that, despite the fact the alt-right are often unmasked and blatant about their assaults, it is the antifascists whose masks have slipped, who have ended up needing bail money. The police are making conscious decisions about whose violence is and is not acceptable.
Just as Offred begins to realize that Eyes are everywhere — some obvious, some subtle — that it’s impossible to know who and where is truly safe, we must realize the danger we are in and mask up. We must learn to cover our trails.
“Trusting anyone is dangerous” — Ofglen
One of the core themes of The Handmaid’s Tale is that Offred is always unsure who she can trust. Realistically, she cannot trust anyone — that’s one of the points of a fascist regime, which makes snitching a way to save your own skin. Scared people are easy to break. While Gilead and the Eyes count on that fear, we must recognize the ways in which law enforcement also relies on it, asking us to name our fellow protesters.
We cannot necessarily trust our own, either. I saw that some alt-righters on 4chan were suggesting, after April 15, that it would be an effective tactic to pretend to be medics and spray people seeking care in the eyes with bleach or battery acid. Others giggled at the possibility of giving out snacks laced with laxatives as a way of “conquering” antifascist protest. While the likelihood that they will follow through on these threats is slim, it is still a possibility, meaning that there will be that extra layer of wariness to accepting help from someone you don’t know at a protest. Since community care is vital in these situations, figuring out ways to encourage some basic trust in mutual aid without sharing names or strategies is going to be an ongoing hurdle.
Ofglen: “There’s a way to help them. You can join us.”
Offred: “I’m not that kind of person.”
Ofglen: “No one is until they have to be.”
I know this all sounds terrifying. Not everyone can be on the ground for these protests, and that is OK (though I do want to caution against glossing over how many Black folks, disabled folks and other at-risk people are out in the streets). But the resistance is not just those offering assistance at the front lines. It needs childcare and emotional care, a place to sit down for a meal, a place to safely organize, a place to teach each other. It needs more bodies, more hands, more resources. We were outnumbered at the “Battle for Berkeley,” and we can’t afford to let that happen again.
— Sarah Pinsker (@SarahPinsker) January 21, 2017
What struck me after April 15, and the liberal response to April 15, was that this is how Gilead happens. It happens with the eroding of our right to protest, and with uneven distribution of consequences from law enforcement. It happens when people we think are on our side when it comes to social justice don’t show up for us, or, worse, shame us for taking direct action. It happens when we all look at each other and say “this can’t last, right?” hoping that it’ll go away on its own while the fascists build militias.
We have to be that kind of person now. So link hands, join the fight, and illegitimi non carborundum (don’t let the bastards grind you down).