Spotlight on Leah Millis

 
TID: 
 
This is a powerful and intense image. Can you tell us some of the backstory?
 
LEAH:
 
Thanks Ross. First of all, thanks for having me on.
 
This image was taken at the first pro-Trump “free speech” rally that happened in MLK Jr. Civic Center park in the heart of downtown Berkeley. The rally was held in response to the incident that had happened a few weeks earlier on Berkeley campus, wherein a group of anarchists arrived at a protest that was in response to a Milo Yiannopoulos event and shut it down through violence and property destruction. 
 
The pro-Trump rally was met with a counter protest group that was made up largely of a group of anarchists, anti-facsist (or antifa) protesters and some anti-Trump protesters.
 
TID:
 
What was it like when you first arrived to the event?
 
LEAH:
 
When I first arrived there two distinct groups of people on either side of the park. The side of the park that lined MLK Jr. Way was populated with anti-Trump protesters as well as a growing group of people dressed in all or mostly black, many wearing masks. We have a very active group of anarchists, some call themselves antifascist or are also known as antifa here in the Bay. Some other groups on the anti-Trump side were By Any Means Necessary and the Pastel Bloc. On the other side of the park, amassing near the Peace Wall, of all things, the pro-Trump supporters gathered. In the beginning there were verbal arguments, insults and some people were trying to have constructive conversation. Eventually, though, the groups grew on either side. At one point a handful of Trump supporters showed up wearing helmets, with protective shin armor and homemade wooden shields.
 
 
One of them (who was later identified as Kyle Chapman or #BasedStickMan) carried a bag of doweling rods that had small American flags attached to the ends to give the impression, I gather, that they were just flag poles. At that point I had a bad feeling that things might go south. I noticed that Chapman had a spiked ring on. Soon scuffles began to break out. Eventually the park, that was split into opposing sides was a small battlefield. Fights were breaking out left and right and smoke bombs (I believe from the anarchist side), M80 explosives (powerful firecrackers) and pepper spray all began flying around. 
 
TID:
 
Some of these images are from different events, but you’ve mentioned that there’s a lot of the same people, same intent. What have you learned from this? 
 
LEAH:
 
The images here are from that first pro-Trump event and then there was a “round-two” rally that was labeled a freedom of speech rally that drew many more people, especially from out of town. But both events had reoccurring characters. Many of the pro-Trump people that I photographed at the first event were at the second one. Kyle Chapman had become an internet star, known now as Based Stickman or the Alt-Knight, someone had caught him breaking a stick over an anarchist’s head on video at the March 4 event, and the video went viral.
 
There were also a number of known "alt-right” or white supremacist groups and supporters who showed up including Identity Evropa. The Oath Keepers also made an appearance and there were also your run-of-the mill pro-Trump supporters. Like the first event, there was an answering antifascist (antifa), BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) and generally anarchist and anti-Trump group.
 
The second event devolved into violence much more quickly and was much worse in my estimation than the first event. There were people on both sides who really seemed like they wanted to kill each other.
 
 
Some of my colleagues believe there was also teargas thrown by civilians at the second event. I can’t be totally sure, but there was a lot of pepper spray, bear mace and smoke bombs. There were also tons of those m80 explosives. In summation, each event felt like a battle. I remember one moment during the second event where everyone was running down Center street, there was smoke (or teargas) floating in the air, everyone was coughing and choking, people were grabbing each other and throwing each other to the ground to fight and every few feet those explosives were going off. In those moments I did not feel like I was in Berkeley anymore, I didn’t recognize my country in those moments. 
 
I learned a lot of things from these events, but mostly I learned that we have a deep divide in our country. We have an ideological divide which is being deepened on the daily by social media and geographic separation. I fear people are writing off these clashes as simply radical left vs radical right.
 
Sure, the people initially dressed for “battle” may have been the most radical, but what about those who would never have fought who showed up and became violent because everyone else was? What about the effect these things have as they ripple through the internet, through social media? Each side is painting a different narrative and each side is gaining momentum. 
 
TID:
 
I’m sure covering events like this involve a lot of problem solving. What types of problems have you encountered, and how have you worked through them?
 
LEAH:
 
The biggest issue at these events is safety. There are several different factors that I keep in mind while I am shooting at these events. I have to keep an eye on both sides and on the police. We have had a select few violent encounters with the Berkeley PD before and we have had many violent encounters with some who like to dress in all black and wear masks at local protests (anarchists).
 
I’ve been personally physically attacked by some in that group and I have pulled anarchists off of one of my colleagues before as well. So during these events, I am trying to capture each side but I am also constantly keeping an eye out for people who might want to target me. In these last two events that I photographed I had no issues with either the anarchists or the police.
 
 
The police were also extremely hands-off and have been criticized for that. Aside from those factors, people are throwing explosives, rocks, bottles, each side have weapons, bear spray and at the last one a few people even had knives. I basically am just constantly keeping an eye out and I definitely depend on my colleagues in the field.
 
Also, I wore a bulletproof vest to the second event as a precaution suggested by my editor. Noah Berger is a local freelancer who we have hired to team up on the coverage with me for these events and we are constantly checking in with each other and looking out for each other. I am so grateful to have Noah there, not only do I know that he will get good photographs while I am sending but it eases my mind a little knowing he is there for support.
 
TID:
 
We’ve talked on the phone earlier a little about this. You mentioned that you’re seeing a larger trend emerging within this. Can you talk about this?
 
LEAH:
 
So I kind of went into this earlier when I was talking about how divided our country is becoming. We are now seeing battle lines that have been drawn. Right now the two groups on either side, closest to each other, seem to be antifa and alt-right. But to be clear, we cannot over simplify it. At these events I saw plenty of people who would be considered much more moderate on either side who got involved or sucked in.
 
Not only would I point to these “battles for Berkeley” as some are calling them, but I would also point to the shooting in Seattle that happened in January at a Milo Yiannopoulos event as signals of this emerging issue. Recently at Transylvania University in Kentucky a man walked into a cafe with a machete and knives and started asking people if they were Republicans or Democrats, saying that Republicans were safe. He ended up wounding two people. He later said he felt bullied for his conservative views. So I don’t want to be alarmist but having photographed two of these events, I just want to throw caution out there. I hope people start looking around and paying attention to how tribal these party affiliations are becoming.
 
 
TID:
 
Now, onto the main image/moment. Can you tell us what was going on in the main picture and how you worked to execute the picture? 
 
LEAH:
 
This image was taken two and a half hours after I had arrived at the event. At the point that I took this photograph the two sides were consistently fighting each other, they had already drawn blood and maced each other multiple times. The pro-Trump side had decided to try to do their march at this point and were blocked by the antifa, anarchist and anti-Trump people who linked arms to block their way.
 
This forced the crowd into the street. It’s unclear to me who exactly threw the first punch between these two. When I look back in my take, I see that the man on the right punches the man on the left, drives him against a bus that starts moving then they both topple into the street. The crowd converges on them at this point and all hell breaks loose. You can see that there was at least one other fight happening behind them at this point. I was just right in front of them and I just kept shooting, though I remember kind of feeling shocked. A few seconds earlier I was terrified one of them was going to get run over by the bus.
 
 
TID:
 
Did you ever feel in danger? If so, how did you handle the situation?
 
LEAH:
 
At that moment I don’t know if I necessarily felt more in danger or less in danger than I ever felt throughout the rest of the day. When I followed them around the corner, that was when it was more dangerous for me since that was away from the broader group of people. I remember Noah shaking his head at me as I pursued them around the corner.
 
TID:
 
What happened afterwards? Additionally, how about after the photograph ran?
 
LEAH:
 
These two had each other by the hair and in a deadlock until they went down to the ground and people from both sides separated them. Eventually the pro-Trump group did a small march for a few blocks around downtown Berkeley, all the while being pursued by the antifa, anarchist and anti-Trump protesters. When they got back to the park, there were more fights, more pepper spray and then eventually it kind of petered out. I don’t even know if the photograph ran, to be honest!
 
TID:
 
What has surprised you the most during coverage of these events?
 
LEAH:
 
Oh gosh. I am young, so I suppose I haven’t witnessed as much in my life and certainly not in my career as other photojournalists, but I have never seen sustained violence like this between two groups of people. The most shocking thing is that these lasted for hours, both events did. And it really seemed like people wanted to kill each other. It was so tribal, so visceral and personal for many, it seemed.
 
At one point at the second event a man on the pro-Trump side yelled towards the antifa side something about wanting them and their families to die. The hatred and the violence were the things that surprised me, the fact that people had so much hatred for each other that they could continue fighting each other like that for hours.
 
 
TID:
 
I’m always intrigued what photographers learn about themselves? What have you learned about yourself in covering such events?
 
LEAH:
 
I learned that I stay really calm in these high intensity situations. I already knew it for the most part, but it’s almost unnerving how calm I stay during these things. It’s only later when it really hits me that I seem to get unnerved. 
 
TID:
 
In conclusion, do you have any advice for photographers who want to do this type of work?
 
LEAH:
 
I suppose I would just say follow your instincts and wear a helmet. 
 
 
:::BIO:::
 
 
 
Leah Millis was born in Denver, Co and misses it every day. She has been a staff photographer at the San Francisco Chronicle since 2013.
 
You can see her work here: www.leahmillis.com

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