In Berkeley, the reactionaries of the right and the radicals of the left come to blows and no one benefits—except, perhaps, for one man.
San Francisco magazine
May 9, 2017
Morning comes to a cul-de-sac in Daly City as Kyle Chapman prepares to become Based Stickman. The 41-year-old commercial diver wraps National Geographics around his torso, armoring his muscled six-foot, two-inch body. He conceals the bulk under a blue sweatshirt with a Texas flag on it, tucks the legs of his pants into combat boots, affixes a batter’s helmet atop his head, and slides a black spiked ring onto his finger. He walks out of his house to light a Marlboro in a small park nearby. He takes a drag while a photographer snaps his picture, then exhales.
“The water’s too choppy up here,” he says to the photographer, who, like him, used to live in San Diego. Back then, Chapman spent his days as a long-haired surfer bumming around Ocean and Mission Beaches. Now his hair is cropped short, and he’s too busy to surf Northern California’s angrier waves, but he still thinks of San Diego fondly. “I used to brawl on those beaches,” he says, laughing into the sunlight.
After Chapman finishes his cigarette, he walks back over to his home. He has a slight limp, earned 13 years ago after a marine kicked him in the knee during a brawl in Southern California. The small house, which he shares with his wife, his nearly two-year-old son, and a roommate, is neatly appointed. There are art prints by Picasso and Rothko on the walls. A bookcase is filled with libertarian favorites by Ayn Rand and Glenn Beck. Tropical fish swim in a large tank. One of his two dogs, a 14-year-old rescue from Tijuana, sits under an American flag that hangs over the dining table.
In his kitchen, he pours himself a glass of water and quietly rehearses the speech he plans to give later that day. Under a magnet on the fridge there’s a photo of Chapman grinning and standing with a half dozen bare-breasted Thai trans women. (“My friends always comment on the photo,” he says, “but they don’t know that it’s actually a bunch of dudes!”) He proudly shows me another photo of himself, this one with his siblings and parents taken at his sister’s wedding. In the picture, Kyle, smiling, has grown a soul patch, making him a dead ringer for Fred Durst. “I don’t like being a celebrity,” he says. “I really want my old life back.”
He claims that he’d prefer to concentrate on his work, diving at offshore oil rigs along the California coast. And he fantasizes about finding the time to go surfing again. But for now, against his better judgment, he’s consumed by a different struggle. The Berkeley police have arrested Chapman twice in the last six weeks, once for felony assault with a deadly weapon. By the time the sun sets today, April 15, Chapman will see a Berkeley jail cell for the third time.
Among the dozens of right-wing protesters whose recent street clashes with counterprotesters in Berkeley have captured national attention, Chapman is an icon, a mascot, almost a superhero—a masked vigilante armed with a shield and club. The photo that led to Chapman’s fame was taken at a confrontation between left- and right-wing protesters in Berkeley in March. Chapman is captured from a few yards away and to his left. His right hand is extended in mid-swing, gripping a long, thin wooden club that’s a moment away from connecting with its target: the head of another man who looks as if he is cowering. Chapman’s face is covered by a gas mask, and his batter’s helmet is adorned with a decal bearing a skull and crossed rifles and the words “2nd Amendment Homeland Security.” His non-stick hand carries a circular wooden shield painted black with an American flag and a silver V running across it. A small Texas flag is visible on his blue sweatshirt. “I got arrested, they took me to the jailhouse,” he wrote on Reddit later. “I have to say Berkeley [police] treated me quite well. Several of the officers whispered to me in confidence that I was a hero for what I did standing up for my fellow Americans.”
The day he was arrested, that picture ended up on 4chan’s /pol/ forum, an anonymous and nihilistic message board that disseminates some of the Internet’s toxic waste. There the hive mind dubbed Chapman “Based Stickman”—based being Internet slang for not caring what other people think of you, a reappropriation of the original coinage by the Berkeley rapper Lil B (aka the Based God), who intended it to mean positivity and tolerance. Chapman and his supporters claim he was acting in self-defense when he was swinging his stick. They fault the police for not breaking up the attacks that led to that defensive act. The next day, the financial news blog Zero Hedge, known for its fawning coverage of Vladimir Putin, published an article titled “A New Super Hero on the Right Arises: Behold the ‘Stick Man,’” and a crowdfunding campaign for his legal defense fund was started on WeSearchr, a “bounty” site preferred by the alt-right; it has raised more than $87,000 to date. As Chapman was being released on bail, his new fans were busy setting videos of Stickman to Hulk Hogan’s theme song, “Real American.” They photoshopped a Banksy-style graffiti silhouette of Stickman in mid-swing, and redubbed him the Alt-Knight. They even depicted him fending off a horde of demons as if he were the hero of the computer game Doom.
In real life, though, Chapman doesn’t look or carry himself like an Internet meme. On this sunny spring morning, he looks more like your kid’s Little League coach. Or the guy next to you at the bar. Or the driver in the pickup truck in front of you as you cross the Bay Bridge going east, en route to America’s 21st-century Weimar: a park named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown Berkeley.
On an afternoon two weeks before he met me at home, Chapman hung at a coffee shop near AT&T Park in San Francisco, sipping green juice. He was there to meet three college students, two men and a woman, one wearing a T-shirt that read “Make Taxation Theft Again.” They had traveled here from Fresno County, San Jose, and Arkansas, respectively, to meet Based Stickman.
“Everybody get your fist up,” Chapman said, gathering his fans around him. “The fist of self-defense.” I snapped a picture for them with one of their phones. For the next photo, the four each made an OK sign with their fingers. “It’s a W and a P,” explained one of the students, Chris Johncox of Prather. “They’re trying to make it into a white power symbol, like they made Pepe the Frog a hate symbol.”
In an era rife with ideological dog whistles, Chapman makes for a rather blunt one. He embodies an image of unreconstructed, Texas-accented, guns-cocked white manhood: one part John Wayne, one part John Wick. It’s largely men like him who powered Donald Trump to victory, propelled Marine Le Pen into the French presidential runoff, and took Britain out of Europe. If it feels as if the political center no longer holds, it’s because of guys like Chapman pounding on the gates.
Nowhere has the reaction to this nationalist march been more vehement than here in the Bay Area. The first stirrings of citizen-on-citizen political violence came at a Trump campaign rally in San Jose in early June 2016 that turned into a mini-riot as demonstrators jumped on the roofs of cars, threw eggs and water balloons, and stole red “Make America Great Again” hats off the heads of Trump voters and lit them on fire. Later that month, a battle between white supremacists and self-dubbed anti-fascists on the grounds of the state capitol in Sacramento sent 10 people to the hospital with stab and laceration wounds. In February, protesters set fires on the UC Berkeley campus to force the cancellation of a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, then an editor at Breitbart News. On March 4, Trump supporters held a rally in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley. Left-wing counterprotesters descended as well, and a bloody melee broke out as the two sides battled with clubs, knives, pepper spray, fireworks, and fists. Then came April 15, when the two sides went at each other again at another pro-Trump rally. As violence has crested in the Bay Area, more often than not, Chapman has been there to ride it.
“A lot of people can bitch on the Internet, but you went out and did something,” Johncox said to Chapman.
“The idea is that we get you young men out on the street,” Chapman replied. “You guys have obviously taken the red pill.”
The young trio pressed Chapman for advice. They don’t say it outright, but their question hung implicitly: What kind of people should they be? What does it take to be a patriot? Chapman obliged. “As men, if somebody punches you in the fucking face, I don’t care how big he is, you punch him back,” he said. They nodded. “If we adopt that complacent, gelded, emasculated frame of mind, our republic is gone. We’re done. This is a rough world, and you’ve got to man up to make it.”
As they left, Chapman offered one more piece of advice, telling the two men, both overweight, to join a gym. To the woman he didn’t say much, except to call her “sweetheart” and ask, teasingly, if she was their sidekick. “They’re my sidekicks,” she responded, more to herself than to him.
Like any superhero, Stickman has his archnemeses. He calls them “neo-Marxists” and “domestic terrorists.” They call themselves anti-fascists, or antifa (accent on the ti). If you think of Stickman as a thuggish white nationalist, you might be inclined to see the loosely organized antifa as they view themselves: as guardians of community in the face of a fascistic menace. But the reality, given their own proclivity for violence, antipathy toward the press, disdain for mainstream political parties, and tendency to wear masks and hoodies while they punch people, break windows, topple dumpsters, burn flags, and lob fireworks, is that the antifa functions less like an immune system than like an autoimmune disease—white blood cells that have gone haywire and started attacking their own body politic from within.
On a recent Sunday in a classroom at the California Institute of Integral Studies, a nonprofit university in SoMa, a group of antifa members gathered for a public meeting, part of a two-day conference organized by a group called Northern California Anti-Racist Action. Topics included “First Aid for Demonstrations: Chemical Weapons,” “Combating State Repression to Strengthen Radical Organizing,” and “African Ways of Knowing: Alternative Epistemologies for the Revolution.” I took a seat in the back of the room and listened to a rambling discourse by one of the anonymous contributors to It’s Going Down, a popular antifa website, on the dangers of the alt-right and “possibilities for resistance.” If Superman had Bizarro, his physical and moral inverse, then Stickman has this guy: a beefy white anarchist of a certain age who talked passionately, if not always coherently, about the importance of physical struggle in the age of Trump.
There was an apocalyptic feeling in the room, like it was a doomsday cult convinced of the veil’s imminent tearing away and the advent of the New Jerusalem. Trump’s election had torn away the polite lie that covered up the oppressive American state, the speaker made clear. Soon it would be time to man the barricades. It was important, he mentioned in passing, for us all to own guns.
The talk meandered, in part because it wasn’t so much focused on the far right as on the weak liberals in the Democratic Party who, the speaker believed, either don’t recognize the true dimensions of the fascist threat or are conspiring with it. The enemy, as he saw it, is as much moderates and liberals as it is Republicans and white supremacists. This refrain has become one of the dominant ones of the new anti-fascist movement. “On the Left, many people refuse to understand the fascist threat growing outside of their door,” wrote the Northern California Anti-Racist Action in an unsigned blog post just before the April 15 riot in Berkeley. “It’s up to those of us who see the extreme danger in rising far-Right violence to take note and take action.”
Chapman grew up in San Diego and Houston, boxing, studying jujitsu, and playing baseball. After a fight at his high school in San Diego left a friend dead, he moved to Houston, planning to join the navy. In 1993, at the age of 17, he committed a robbery while on a three-day drinking bender, and he served four years in the Texas prison system instead. “They call it the gladiator prisons,” he says. “Nothing but riots and fighting constantly.” Chapman went in a long-haired, underweight surfer. He returned hard. In 2001, while living in San Diego and earning his diving certification and his associate’s degree in marine technology, he stole Valentine’s Day presents—jewelry and perfume—for his girlfriend. For that, he did three years as a penal laborer, fighting fires across the state. Then, in 2008, he sold a gun to a federal informant, violating his parole and earning a conviction and more prison time for unlawful firearms dealing.
Around the time of the gun sale, he was volunteering for Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, helping loft a blimp near the San Diego airport that read “Google Ron Paul.” In the 2016 cycle, Chapman—who moved to Daly City in 2015 with his wife, a paralegal, and their son—initially supported Kentucky senator Rand Paul, though he thought that the younger Paul’s traditionalist deference held him back during the debates. “Going on the attack is not in the nature of many Texans,” Chapman says, referring to the state where the younger Paul was raised, and so he shifted his support to Trump.
Chapman is a lively conversationalist who enthusiastically rattles off conspiratorial takes on history, culture, and politics. Of the Trump age, he says: “This is the new civil rights movement. Just like the civil rights marches that occurred in Birmingham were pushed back not only by the police department in the South, but also by the southerners that didn’t want desegregation, this is the same thing.” He also believes that the Federal Reserve had something to do with the Kennedy assassination, cell phones cause brain cancer, Bill Clinton is a pedophile, Hillary Clinton may have stolen gold from Libya, global warming is a hoax, Barack Obama is plotting to destroy the Trump presidency, and Mexican immigrants have a “real problem” with rape. If Alex Jones has mentioned it on Infowars, Chapman likely subscribes to it.
Chapman denies that he’s a bigot, although he tells me that he doesn’t “have an issue with white nationalists” and laments that his potential grandchildren might “grow up in a hellish South Africa–like environment” thanks to the “softening of the herd.” Before the second Berkeley rally, word got out that Chapman’s wife is Asian American. (Like their opponents on the far right, antifa tend to doxx their enemies, releasing private personal information online in order to humiliate and cow.) That set off a fervid round of debate on Reddit: Was Stickman a race traitor or to be praised for landing an “Azn waifu”? In the middle of the controversy, Chapman wrote a post on his Facebook page distancing himself from neo-Nazis and white supremacists. “Tone down the violence and racism talk,” he wrote. “I’m definitely not about that shit.” That led Nathan Damigo, the founder of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa and a student at Cal State Stanislaus, to criticize Chapman’s race-neutral conservatism. “Why would the ‘based’ stick man cuck on race?” he wrote on AltRight.com, adding that he nevertheless thought it prudent to continue their alliance. (Damigo later achieved his own Internet fame after a video of him punching a young antifa woman went viral.)
On April 10, the Monday before our morning meeting in Daly City, Chapman popped over to Berkeley. Carrying an American flag, he recorded a video on his cell phone, encouraging people to join him for the upcoming demonstration that weekend. “Most of the inhabitants of this city are cowards who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag,” he says, his voice shaking from the adrenaline coursing through his body. “This type of shit is not for our women to do. They were not designed for this. This is time for men to be men.”
A few minutes after he recorded the video, he got into a fistfight with a skateboarder at MLK Park. Both men spent the night in jail.
To the audiences of cable news, Berkeley right now seems like a festering estuary, its shores lapping with far-right trolls and far-left snowflakes. But, of course, that’s not at all the case. At UC Berkeley, life goes on—and finals season is coming up fast. One day in late April, I ask Carly Miller, a sophomore studying political science, what she thinks about the MLK Park riots that have taken place over the past month. She looks confused. “The what?” she asks. “I spend my weekends in the library,” she says with a touch of apology.
Indeed, activists, pundits, and even President Trump tend to over-ascribe meaning to what happens in the liberal cauldron of Berkeley. Manu Meel, a freshman studying poli-sci and economics, is one of the leaders of a new student club called BridgeUSA that aims to narrow the divide between right and left. “We shouldn’t excuse fascism,” he says, “but we should be able to talk.” The club brings in speakers and holds debates and discussions in which students talk to each other about the Muslim travel ban, free speech, and illegal immigration. “We have to get out of our ideological bubbles,” Meel, a self-described liberal, says. “To weather the Trump presidency, and to heal American politics, a productive resistance strategy is talking, listening, and including. That’s not sexy. That’s lame. It doesn’t get the media to show up.”
One of the people Meel talks to is sophomore Pieter Sittler, the former vice president of the Berkeley College Republicans (BCR). Being a Republican student at Berkeley has been a source of low-grade anxiety for generations—one of President Trump’s speechwriters, Michael Anton, told me he felt under siege while he went to Cal in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But this year has been a particularly fraught one for campus conservatives. In addition to the riot that shut down Yiannopoulos’s speech, BCR members have faced sporadic harassment. While one member gave an interview on the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft after the election, two men stopped their car, assaulted him, and stole his “Make America Great Again” hat. This winter, a man stole an email sign-up list from the BCR table on Sproul Plaza and sent threatening emails to the students who had signed up. Two weeks ago a chalk message appeared on the sidewalk in front of a dorm building that read, “Kill BCR.”
But Sittler does not fit the stereotype of the right-wing campus provocateur. “No violence is justified,” he says, adding that in the Republican primary he voted for Ohio governor John Kasich.
The Berkeley Farmers’ Market, usually stationed next to MLK Park, is officially closed today, April 15, because of the pro-Trump rally. Only one vendor, Riverdog Farm, has ignored organizers’ stay-away message—“We’ve got to sell these onions,” shrugs a man working the stall. Across the park’s grass, a group of black-clad leftists roll up on bicycles blasting a rap song with the chorus “Fuck Donald Trump.” They’ll play a metal-rap mix all day long—a fine soundtrack for street fighting. The police have created a line with orange plastic fencing that runs down the center of the park in an effort to keep the factions—alt-rightists and antifa—separated. Two masses form on either side of this demilitarized zone, shouting at each other and filming with cell phones.
“It’s like going to a drag race,” says one onlooker, who tells me he lives around the corner. “Everyone is just there to see the crash.” As he says this, a smoke bomb thrown from the leftists’ side goes off, and the rightists rush across the line to fight with fists. The cops separate the combatants, making a few arrests. My eyes water from the pepper spray that both sides shower on each other. After that first burst, things calm down for a little while; this is just an amuse-bouche.
By midday the park is nowhere near full, though it looks crowded if you’re watching on a Facebook Live stream. One side chants, “U.S.A., U.S.A.” The other chants, “Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” Dozens of reporters are here from BuzzFeed, Reuters, Mother Jones, and just about every local media outlet. A little after noon, Chapman slips into the park and takes the microphone to give the speech he has been practicing all morning. He hasn’t donned his shield or gas mask yet. “It is time we pushed back,” he growls into the mic. A brawl has started over on Allston Way, which runs along the park’s south side. Stickman points to the fighters. “These are domestic terrorists,” he says as a firework explodes. “Their ideology is of mass murder.”
I’m sitting on a concrete wall nearby, next to a young woman named Ava who’s just about to graduate from USC. She affiliates with the right and complains about the “social justice warriors” at her school. But the violence doesn’t seem to appeal to her. “I like all of the speakers but one,” she says, pointing to Stickman. “Kyle Chapman’s just out for himself. He’s a piece of shit.”
As Stickman finishes his speech, the antifa drag a dumpster toward him. That seems to be some kind of signal for the real fighting to begin. Stickman and his cadre abandon the microphone stand and rush toward them. The two sides push the dumpster this way and that, eventually bringing it around the corner to Center Street. People are throwing bagels, oranges, and water bottles at one another. Pretty soon the crowd is standing nose-to-nose on the park’s north side, shouting at each other. “Throw the first punch already,” someone yells impatiently. They pace back and forth, savoring the foreplay. Both sides will later allege that the other instigated the violence.
Stickman’s in the center of the crowd, and I can just make out the Nike swoosh on the side of his black helmet. “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys plays on the loudspeaker, and the punches begin. Stickman gives as much as he gets. He and dozens of other people make up the nucleus of the fighting. Small explosives—probably M-80s—go off at regular intervals, exploding like the touchdown cannon on Tightwad Hill. There is much yelling, and the air is a mist of pepper spray. Antifa members dump trash in the middle of the intersection and light it on fire.
Someone grabs a MAGA hat off someone else’s head and lights it on fire. An alt-right chant goes up: “You can’t run, you can’t hide, you can have a ’copter ride.” (I looked it up later online: It’s a reference to the Argentinean junta killing leftists during that country’s dirty war by dropping them out of helicopters into the ocean.) On the side, an antifa lifts his mask up to bring a vape pen to his lips. One pro-Trump person offers a can of Pepsi to an antifa woman, a callback to the recent Kendall Jenner ad that I have to admit is pretty funny.
As I’m standing watching the fight, a firework goes off at eye level just yards from me. Ears ringing, I stumble away from the crowd. A helicopter from the Oakland Police Department flies overhead, but I can’t hear the blades spinning. Near the far corner of the park, a street artist has set up an easel in the middle of the street and is painting the scene as it looks from a block or two away. Looking at the smoky scrum on his canvas, you can’t tell the anti-fascists from the fascists. It’s all one mob.
As my hearing returns, the fight moves up toward the BART station on Shattuck. Police close the station temporarily, and trains continue on to North Berkeley or Ashby without stopping. On Twitter, Berkeley residents share pictures of children playing, dogs frolicking, and normal life continuing unimpeded, each reading, “Meanwhile in the real Berkeley.” By the end of the day, 20 people are arrested and 11 injured, all of them apparently combatants. Weapons confiscated include sticks, dowels, poles, stun guns, mace, bear spray, an ax handle, pepper spray, and a “can filled with concrete.” Many of the protesters have brought American flags with stout wooden handles that double as clubs. The police take as many of these away as they can. The symbolism is obvious, and depressing.
As the riot winds down, I spot Chapman stumbling back from the fracas. He leans on someone and his face is an angry red blotch, his hair matted with sweat and his eyes blinded by pepper spray. Berkeley police will arrest him soon, but not quite yet. Finding a little grass, Chapman stumbles down to the ground and lies on his back, calling for milk to wash the pepper spray out of his eyes. Someone holds him down as another man pours it from a plastic gallon jug onto his face. As the milk goes into his eyes, he screams in pain and his legs convulse. He rolls onto his side and spits, repeatedly. Then he stands back up.
A little unsteady, Chapman walks back toward the melee, now more than a block away, up by the BART station. I go to talk with him. He shows me the blood that coats the exposed knuckles under his black gloves and his black ring. The barbs splay out, askew. “I dented my spikes on a Commie head,” he tells me. He has an unopened can of Pepsi in his other hand.
Chapman wants to go back into the fight, but first someone recognizes him. “Stickman!” the man shouts, and asks for a selfie. Chapman poses for one, then another, and another after that.