With his microphone still in his hand, Al Letson, a Jacksonville native who hosts a National Public Radio show, used his body as a human shield to protect a right-wing activist being beaten by protesters at a rally Sunday in Berkeley, Calif., and managed to stop the brutal attack.
“I don’t care for what this guy stands for, but he’s a human being, you know?” Letson said in an interview Monday from California, where he is now based as host of “Reveal,” an investigative radio show.
He said he didn’t really have much time to think before he jumped into the fray. “I thought they were going to kill him, and I didn’t want anyone to die.”
Thousands of people came Sunday to downtown Berkeley to show disapproval of a planned right-wing rally called “No to Marxism in America.” Rally organizers Saturday said they were canceling the event, though a few of the right-wing supporters did show up, as did about 100 left-wing anti-fascist protesters known as antifa, according to news reports.
Video footage shows Letson, who was covering the event and had his recording gear strapped to him, jumping in to protect a man being beaten with sticks and kicked by protesters clad in black, the uniform of the antifa. Letson said he was hit a few times but not injured.
Antifa beat down apparent alt-righter. pic.twitter.com/WVdDJqLKmA— Shane Bauer (@shane_bauer) August 27, 2017
Letson said most of the rally was peaceful, but he found himself in one of a handful of violent outbreaks as he was recording Joey Gibson, the organizer of the “No to Marxism” rally. The man who was later beaten seemed to be with Gibson and was verbally egging on the counter-protesters, he said.
Letson saw five people attack the man, who fell to the ground, and then saw about 20 more people coming up behind them, both antifa members and others, Letson said; in the confusion, it was hard to tell.’
That’s when he acted, running over and putting himself between the victim and the attackers.
Video shows other people running in to stop the attack as Letson shielded the beaten man, who left after tear gas was fired into the area to break up the fight.
Letson is not sure what happened to the man after that, though he did hear from him later.
”He’s reached out to me on Twitter,” Letson said, “but honestly I looked on his Twitter feed and I’m just not interested in being part of a narrative on either side. I’m a journalist … I did what I feel was right as a human being, but honestly I’m not interested in having a kumbaya moment with him.”
In a story on the website of Reveal, Amy Pyle, the organization’s editor-in-chief, said: “Our editorial policy is clear: we are unbiased observers not participants. However, in reviewing the video, it is clear that Al did not take sides. Instead, he responded as any of us might if we saw another human in distress.
Someone dives on top of another guy being beaten by Antifa, begging them to stop, fleeing behind police lines. Intra-left blows exchanged. pic.twitter.com/bz2zFEB25j— Jack Smith IV (@JackSmithIV) August 27, 2017
Warning, this video contains profanity.
“Reveal” is a public radio show produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting. As host, Letson had a long interview with white nationalist leader Richard Spencer last November about his desires for a white ethnostate, and after this month’s violence in Charlottesville, Va., the show once against focused on extremist hate groups.
Letson said the antifa movement, a loose-knit group that believes in confronting white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, too often uses techniques that backfire.
“They don’t understand how much they damage the cause they are fighting for,” he said.
Before going to “Reveal,” Letson was a playwright as well as host and executive producer of “State of the Re:Union,” a public radio show based in Jacksonville. It won the Edward R. Murrow Award for its last three seasons and the George Foster Peabody Award for its last season.
Letson said that, as a journalist, he’s reluctant to be part of the story, but on this day in Berkeley he felt he had no choice: “Human first.”