A prankster attempted to fool women in Berkeley, California, into attending a fake protest on Saturday as millions marched across the country.
However, the prank backfired as the hundreds in attendance marched through the campus of the University of California at Berkeley anyway.
As Berkeleyside first reported Sunday, someone going by the name of “Sam Cox” posted an event on Action Network, the online organizing tool used to plan many of Saturday’s marches, calling on protesters to meet at U.C. Berkeley’s Memorial Glade at noon. According to Berkeleyside, the event was then promoted on several resources for Saturday’s march, including a website rounding up all the women’s marches in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Cori Kesler is one Berkeley resident who saw the event listed online and decided to march there rather than braving the crowds in nearby Oakland. But when she got to the meeting location for the protest, there were about 50 women with protest signs waiting for someone to get things started.
Daniella Thompson, also of Berkeley, similarly found the event on Action Network while looking for a protest closer to home. But the morning of the event, she noticed the event page had been changed to include an image of white supremacist icon Pepe the Frog raising his middle finger. The image has become a symbol for some of Donald Trump’s more extreme supporters in recent months. And she, along with other attendees who had registered online, received a message in Russian:
Berkeleyside later translated the messsage: “I pranked many Americans! Hahaha. Not surprising that people [do] don’t have such low test scores and one of you got this right/privilege that I am Russian national. ha ha haha. Goodbye!”
Thompson decided to show up anyway, not at all concerned that the event would be populated by alt-right trolls.
“This is Berkeley,” she said. “What could possibly happen?
Eventually, Kesler and Thompson said, several woman decided to take charge and get the march started without the organizer. The protesters, about 200 to 300 strong, marched through the campus, and returned to the initial meeting spot. By that point, most people in the crowd were well aware that the march had been planned as a prank.
“When we found out about the prank, it actually energized people even more,” said Jasmine Jaksic, who received a message “from” Pepe shortly after arriving on campus. “We trolled the troll.”
They decided to continue to the protest, gathering on the steps of U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Library. Since there had been no official organization for speeches, one man ran home to get his PA system. Several people then spoke to the crowd, sharing stories of why marching was important to them. The speakers were of all ages and backgrounds, including a 7-year-old girl, and a man who had recently retired from his job at the U.S. Postal Service. A young woman spoke about how she had a heart procedure just days before, but still felt it was important to attend the march. The man who brought the amplifier sang “The Impossible Dream,” from the Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha.” (You can watch a video here.)
“It felt really good to be able to use my voice to energize the crowd and speak from the heart,” said Zephira Derblich-Milea, who spoke twice at the event.
It’s not clear who the would-be prankster was, as the phone number the person put on the event page went to a wrong number. The Action Network has since removed the references to Pepe and blocked the user from the platform.
“We blitzed that guy’s account for violating our terms of service,” said Action Network executive director Brian Young.
Some attendees expressed concern that the troll had collected their personal information, including full names and email addresses. But overall they described the march as a success, pointing out the irony of a scam bringing people together.
“Yes, we were fooled by a scammer, but the joke was on him,” said Kesler.
Derblich-Milea, a lifelong Berkeley resident, described the event as “inspiring,” noting the large numbers of families with children in attendance.
“Whoever this person was clearly doesn’t know who we are in Berkeley, because nothing like that was going to derail us,” she said.
“I’m proud of my fellow Berkeleyans for not having let this troll spoil the day,” said Thompson.
Berkeley’s impromptu march was one of many sister marches that popped up across the country. Even in towns with less than 10,000 residents, protesters turned out in folds to march for equality.