On February 1, controversial alt-right speaker Milo Yiannopolous’ final stop of his book tour, at University of California, Berkeley (UCB), was cancelled due to violent protests.
Protestors gathered on Sproul Plaza at 5pm, outside the MLK Student Union building where Yiannopolous was due to speak at 8pm. A resistance dance party were playing live music, there were peaceful student protestors and onlookers, as well as anti-fascist protestors dressed in Black Bloc attire.
By 6pm the Black Bloc protestors began throwing rocks and firecrackers at the building, as well as tearing down barricades, in an attempt to prevent Yiannopolous from speaking.
At 6.15pm the UCB Twitter feed announced that Yiannopolous’ event was cancelled. They later released a statement confirming the UCPD cancelled the event for safety reasons.
Berkeley College Republicans, who had invited Yiannopolous to speak, posted this statement via their Facebook page, “Today, the Berkeley College Republicans’ constitutional right to free speech was silenced by criminals and thugs seeking to cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’ tour…It is tragic that the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement is also its final resting place.”
Despite the cancellation, the crowds did not disperse and the police fired rubber bullets from the balcony above and issued multiple dispersal orders.
The Black Bloc protestors proceeded to knock over a flood light outside the building and lit it on fire, this caught onto a nearby tree. The windows of the Amazon Student store were also smashed and covered in paint.
The University have since released a statement that night blaming the violence on “150 masked agitators”.
“Agitators also attacked some members of the crowd who were rescued by police. UCPD reported no major injuries and about a half dozen minor injuries. Mutual aid officers from the city of Oakland and from Alameda County arrived at Berkeley around 7:45 p.m. to assist UCPD and Berkeley city police”, the statement said.
According to Patrick, a Junior, UCB medical students came to Sproul with medical gear to assist their fellow students.
Joe, a UCB J-School Grad student, saw multiple people being attacked by the Black Bloc protestors.
“The Protestors seemed to have no want for a peaceful protest. On four different occasions I picked people up off the ground and deterred violent aggressions. I even helped a young woman who was maced”, he said.
Many have criticised the protestors for shutting down the event, particularly in light of Berkeley’s long history with free speech.
Lisa, a UCB student, was holding a sign ‘UCB the home of Free Speech since 1964’. “I strongly oppose this talk that’s going on, its spreading racist propaganda”, she said.
When asked why she was holding that particular sign and did she believe the right of free speech applied to Milo she said, “not when its spreading hateful ideology and perpetuating violence”.
Ben, a 21-year-old UCB student, had purchased tickets to see Yiannopoulos. Watching the protest unfold, he explained, “He has a different viewpoint to what you normally see at Berkeley and I wanted to hear what he had to say. By reacting this way, the protestors are just giving him a platform on mainstream news”.
“Hypocrisy! That’s all I have to say”, Ben’s friend chimed in. “They all preach free speech and tolerance but look at this”, he continued.
When asked if he would pay to see Milo come back to Berkeley again, Ben said he would.
On January 26, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks released a statement supporting the decision to allow Yiannopolous to speak on campus.
“While UC Berkeley does not endorse Yiannopoulos’ controversial views or tactics, the campus would continue to uphold the values of the Free Speech Movement by sanctioning Yiannopoulos’ presence and protecting his freedom of expression”, he said.
But this decision attracted vast controversy and condemnation, with 12 Faculty members writing a letter to Dirks requesting Yiannopolous’ invitation be rescinded.
The crowds on Sproul had calmed considerably by 7pm, but the atmosphere was still tense. After the crowd did not heed the dispersal orders, police in riot gear approached the northern entrance of Sproul at Sather Gate at 7.45pm.
Protestors then began marching out of campus, down Telegraph Ave and into Berkeley. Along the route they smashed ATMs outside the Bank of America, lit fires in waste bins and littered the streets.
Shallom said she was not proud to be a Berkeley student today, “Protestors haven’t acted with the love and acceptance that we preach. This isn’t the right way to react, violence wont defeat violence”.
The protestors were soon blocking the roads. At the Durant and Telegraph intersection, a white BMW tried to drive through crowd, but as it came out the other side someone was clinging onto the hood. Rather than stopping it continued at speed up Durant Ave.
The march split in two at this point, with some chasing the car up Durant and others heading towards Shattuck – the main shopping thoroughfare in Berkeley. Those who proceeded to Shattuck smashed windows, set flares off inside a bank and looted a Starbucks.
Around 200-300 protestors continued North towards University Ave and back onto campus, but were met by a line of police in riot gear, a line blocking the south entrance to Sproul was also formed. With their way obstructed the protestors turned back and eventually began to disperse. The protest ended by 10.30pm.
President Trump tweeted the following day threatening to withhold federal funds from UC Berkeley for failing to practice free speech.
Yet, the co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, Gary Orfield, has stated that the executive branch does not have the authority to do so. President Trump can withhold federal funding from public institutions if they violate civil rights – as Obama threatened in May 2016 over transgender student rights – but this rule does not apply to free speech.
“This was necessary”, UCB student Riley told me, “Hate speech is not the same as free speech, this wouldn’t have happened if they had just shut him down in the first place.”
“From day one of Trump’s inauguration people have marched and protested like this. It’s going to remain tense over the next four years, but we need things like this, we need to continue struggling for what we believe in”, Patrick added.
** Some names have been changed at individuals requests to protect identities. **