On Wednesday evening, Milo Yiannopolous, notorious for his divisive rhetoric as an editor of the right-wing Brietbart News, was slated to speak at the University of California at Berkeley amidst heavy backlash from the student community. Yiannopolous was invited to speak at the university by the Berkeley College Republicans and similar to last month’s events at UC Davis, the event was cancelled due to the night’s escalating protests.
What was intended and started out as a peaceful protest by students against Yiannopolous evolved into physical action as over 150 protesters clad in black—members of the anarchist group Antifa, who enaged in Black Bloc tactics —emerged on the scene, instigating violence and utilizing “paramilitary tactics to engage in violent destructive behavior designed to shut the event down,” according to the university.
Clashes between these protesters and law-enforcement quickly escalated as members of Antifa began throwing smoke bombs and commercial-grade fireworks towards police, smashing windows of the student union, and starting a large bonfire. Despite the university announcing the cancellation of the event approximately an hour and a half after protesters began to gather, the crowd refused to disperse. UCPD urged students and community members to stay indoors and avoid venturing near the protest around 7 pm last night, encouraging those present to “leave the area immediately for their own safety."
While the destruction of property and violence demonstrated last night may not have been the doing of UC Berkeley students, students rallied early the next morning to clean up the aftermath of the protest in a show of community and respect for their campus.
Chancellor Nicholas Dirks released a statement this morning addressing the protests and the aftermath of the events, stating that “UC Berkeley condemns in the strongest possible terms the actions of individuals who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students, and used violent tactics to close down the event. We deeply regret that the violence unleashed by this group undermined the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence.”
Here, UC Berkeley students weigh in on the protest and their experiences:
Regarding the protests, I think it was at first admirable of the students to band together and try to prevent a controversial speaker they believed went against their values and the values of this campus in general. I wasn't actually there, but I was watching the live video and even after they police cancelled the event, students still refused to disperse. I think that destroying the MLK so violently like that (so named after Dr. King who advocated peaceful protests) is completely wrong and destroys the purpose of what protests should be like. — Iris Xing, freshman
I also don't agree with those who say it's the anarchists who are solely responsible [for the violence], not Berkeley students. Protesting comes with big responsibilities and those went to protest and occupied space should share those responsibilities. Although most were there to observe out of curiosity, many students were cheering, if not condoning the actions taking place. Many were there to cheer on burning the "Make American Great Again" hat and many were okay with punching a man who expressed support for Trump and racial, sexist slurs. I'm not saying that he was right (and he is definitely morally wrong), but violence should not be the step to take. A large crowd will always be judged by a few individuals of extreme action, but I think that is the responsibility of the crowd to organize and prevent violence like how the Women's March these past weeks was very successful due to pre-organized efforts. — Jerry Park, sophomore
I was standing yards away from a man who started spouting racism expletives and the people in bandanas started pepper-spraying him and beating him over the head with sticks. I saw him fall over in the middle of the street onto his face with blood covering his head. While I feel no sympathy for someone who is openly racist, it was terrifying to watch someone get assaulted like that, and it quite obviously wasn't the best way to deal with the situation. There was also another man who was taking a rock and shattering the bus stop awnings with it. After the fire died down in front of the student union, I went over to see the Amazon Center and I was really disheartened to see the destruction of our campus by outsiders. I feel like they hijacked what was supposed to be a fun, peaceful dance protest to express their general frustration towards the current political climate, and it was wrong of them to destroy our school property under the guise of being part of our demonstration. — Madeline Tucker, sophomore
Many of the peaceful protesters left after it started to become violent, and the protest was supposed to be an actual dance party. It was Antifa that hijacked the protest event and many of the protesters had no intention of becoming violent. Do not let the media scapegoat university students for the actions of violent anarchists clad in hatred.
And to those of you who cheered on, who joined in on the “fun,” and who continue to defend the actions of the violent anarchists who smashed in windows, who bashed in a man's head with a shovel, who painted our university's image in a red light that discredits our reputation to the world: Congratulations. Because of you, Milo doesn't just get to speak to hundreds or thousands at MLK- he gets to speak to millions across the globe through FOX News and other news sources. You've succeeded in shutting down 'white supremacist' speech at UC Berkeley, and have now exposed the entire world to more intolerant, anti-intellectual, alt-right views. And when you defend the actions of the violent—just remember that people always side with those perceived the most peaceful. — Lilyanna Fu, freshman
Regarding the violence that erupted in the midst of an initially peaceful protest,
Chancellor Dirks condemned the actions of the few engaged in violence, stating that “The violence last night was an attack on the fundamental values of the university, which stands for and helps to maintain and nurture open inquiry and an inclusive civil society, the bedrock of a genuinely democratic nation.”
The issue many students had regarding the protest beyond the violence demonstrated by non-Berkeley students was the topic of free speech and what constitutes a fair exercise of the First Amendment right, taking into consideration Berkeley’s very own Free Speech Movement of the 1960s.
I believe in protest in the sense of free speech because it allows people to voice their concerns and opinions. What I don’t believe in is the action conducted last night when violence was used to stifle other people's speech. Free speech is allowed in our Constitution because it leads debate and discussion pertaining to the issues at hand. When one group completely shuts down another group’s speech, they are no better than what they are trying to protest. Warranted, there are thoughts that people outside of the UC community enacted these riots because they just wanted destruction. I don’t believe that the violence was conducted by Berkeley students and it’s pretty sad that there is now an association with our school and rioting. — William Kyi, freshman
Once we start a violent protest, we are proving that we don't accept some particular forms of speech, denying the rights to freedom of speech. Some may say Milo is dangerous and needs to be silenced. but once we violate free speech to others, we have nothing to say when a possibly totalitarian government led by Trump deems the liberal opinions "dangerous.” — Jerry Park, sophomore
I think violence of this sort is really in vain and only serves to empower the people and ideas that the protest is against. Furthermore, we can't just assume all or even most of the protesters were Berkeley students. The protesters shouldn't get to choose which ideas are expressed just like how the government shouldn't get to choose. Imagine if Milo came, and no one but the Berkeley College Republicans showed up. Wouldn't that create such a more powerful impact against conservatism? — Yiming Ye, freshman
I am extremely disappointed at the protests that occurred here at Berkeley. I don’t understand the point of protesting/rioting to the point of not allowing the person to speak; one of the main points of free speech (supposedly a Berkeley thing) is that all sides should be allowed to speak. Sure you may not agree with what the other person has to say, but at least let them talk and let their own words try to influence the people around them. I think the actions of the protestors speak louder than words and these actions absolutely do not look good publicly. Protesting this much only gives more attention to the side you’re attacking, giving them huge national coverage and probably giving them much more supporters than if you had just let him talk. From what I’ve seen and heard, most of the rioting occurred from non-Berkeley students, but I can’t be 100% confident that Berkeley students did not join in the physical and property abuse. This definitely ended horribly for the protesters/rioters because they literally took several steps backwards. — Charles Wang, senior
Initially I felt so empowered, knowing everyone that night was united against a cause worth fighting for. However, when protestors began to throw fireworks at the MLK building and started a huge fire, I couldn't help feeling agitated by the stupidity of their actions. By instigating acts of violence, they were undermining their cause. Later on, when I found out they destroyed Berkeley's, Chase Bank's and Bank of America's property and started clubbing people on the street, I no longer supported the cause. Protesting peacefully is a justified and admirable cause. Protesting violently through vandalism and means to physically harm another is neither. As UC Berkeley students, I hope we can speak out against the violence that occurred during the protests. I for one will not accept any labeling of our campus as unsafe, threatening, offensive, or "too liberal." Sadly our actions, though difficult to admit, did curtail someone's right—the same right we claim to preserve—to free speech. — Elsa Yang, freshman
“We are proud of our history and legacy as the home of the Free Speech Movement,” said Chancellor Dirks. “While we have made clear our belief that the inflaming rhetoric and provocations of Mr. Yiannopoulos were in marked opposition to the basic values of the university, we respected his right to come to campus and speak once he was invited to do so by a legitimate student group.”
Speaking on behalf of the university, Chancellor Dirks stressed that “We are now, and will remain in the future, completely committed to Free Speech as essential to our educational mission and a vital component of our identity at UC Berkeley.”
Lead Image Credit: Stanley Shiau