Making sense of what happened at Berkeley

February 8, 2017

As many as 2,000 people turned out at the University of California-Berkeley on February 1 to confront the hateful message of "alt-right" leader Milo Yiannopoulos. The demonstrators vastly outnumbered supporters of Yiannopoulos, who was given a forum to speak by the university knowing full well that he planned to call for a campaign against undocumented students on campus, among other repulsive attitudes.

The mass gathering disrupted Yiannopoulos' meeting. Some time into the protest, a small number of people associated with the "Black Bloc" started to carry out their own actions, breaking windows, throwing firecrackers at police and setting a generator on fire. Virtually all of the media's coverage was devoted to the "violence" committed by this small minority of protesters. In the days following, anti-racists have debated the question of whether the far right should be protested, and if so, what tactics should be used.

International Socialist Organization member Derek Wright was at the protest in Berkeley and wrote his viewpoint for a post on Facebook, which we publish here in edited form.

MILO YIANNOPOULOS has a vast platform from which to spew hate speech and has the approving ear of some of the most powerful people in the world. His rights are not in danger, and he is not a persecuted victim. Protesting him was the right thing to do.

Property destruction is not violence. Most of the nearly 2,000 people who were there to oppose Yiannopoulos were neither violent nor destructive. The only thing anyone is talking about is the actions of an anonymous group of 50-100 people, who put the rest of us in danger without our consent.

1. Free speech is still alive and well (for now). Close to 2,000 of us were able to assemble and raise our voices against white supremacy, xenophobia, misogyny and the growing threat of a fascist movement in this country, which is being emboldened and encouraged by people like Yiannopoulos. We chanted, sang, picketed, danced and marched.

Milo wasn't able to spew his hate speech and incite far-right students and community members to commit atrocities and hate crimes, but not because the state decided to silence him. No one asked the police or the National Guard to shut him down. That would have been a violation of his constitutional rights.

Students at UC Berkeley protest far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos
Students at UC Berkeley protest far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos

Instead, it was students, faculty, staff and the wider community who raised our voices in a public space to say "we resist your agenda."

We all start with a right to say what we wish. But we have to take responsibility for what we say. If someone is trying to incite people to commit hate crimes, they don't deserve an open and uncontested platform. We have a right and a responsibility to challenge that kind of speech any time it tries to gain an audience, by exercising our First Amendment rights (while we still can).

2. The extreme irony of Milo Yiannopoulos being able to give lengthy interviews in the fawning mainstream media to complain about how his right to free speech is in danger seems to be lost on many people.

This man is one of the editors of a "news" website with national circulation, Breitbart News. One of the co-founders of this far-right mouthpiece, Steve Bannon, is now the chief adviser to the president, and currently sits on the National Security Council--one of the responsibilities of which is authorizing secret assassinations of "enemies of the U.S. government," including U.S. citizens.

Yiannopoulis has numerous opportunities to say whatever he wants virtually uncontested, and he has the ear of some of the most powerful people in the world. Unfortunately, his platform for hate speech is both very safe and very dangerous.

3. Whether we shut down his event or not, Yiannopoulis has and will continue to pose as the persecuted victim. He didn't want to have to cancel his event, but he's intent on making the most of it after this happened.

He would have rather riled up the Berkeley College Republicans and the wider community of even further-right forces. He would probably have gloated and told them what a victory it was to be able to assemble here in the "belly of the liberal beast." And he still would have spun his narrative about being the "wildly popular" speaker who's the "hottest thing on campuses"--but gee, only 30 people showed up at Berkeley because they were too afraid of all the "intolerant liberals."

Either way, he claims he's a victim, and people repeat it. That doesn't make it true.

4. Breaking windows and setting things on fire is not "violence." It's property destruction. In many cases, it's pointless or even harmful. It is almost always a venting of anger, and often a way for a hardened minority to "prove" (mostly to themselves) that they're being truly "radical." But generally, it's not helping to build a wider and stronger movement.

There were some allegations that anti-racist demonstrators initiated violence against the handful of right-wingers around the plaza. If this happened, it was the action of a small few who didn't represent the vast majority of the crowd. But there is evidence that the few instances of violence against people were either started by the right wingers or were calculated provocations so the "victims" could pose for the cameras.

However, the bigger theme in the media coverage was to focus on property destruction and describe this as "violence," too.

I'm not morally or philosophically opposed to breaking things in some situations. Tactically, it usually doesn't help, but there are times when property destruction is valid and effective. The Boston Tea Party was a historic and celebrated moment in the founding of the U.S.--in that case, an unruly "mob" broke into places they weren't supposed to be and ransacked private property.

During the struggle for Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi--perhaps the most famous and influential advocate of principled and spiritually based nonviolence--called for people to seek out and burn any English-produced textiles. He helped organize massive public bonfires for the purpose. Clearly, Gandhi had no confusion that property destruction and violence are the same thing.

A window should not get the same rights and sympathy as a human being. Breaking one is not the same as harming the other.

5. The large majority of the participants in the "massive" gathering (I love it when even the mainstream media uses that word for our protests) were being neither violent nor destructive. We were chanting and singing, waving signs and picketing. Some were just watching, but standing in solidarity with the protest.

Most of the people I saw and heard were upset that the 50 to 100 people were taking the more destructive actions. Generally, people were rightfully pissed off that the student union building was being damaged, that it looked like one of the trees in the plaza was going to be engulfed in the flames of a generator that was set on fire, and that we all had to breathe the toxic smoke of burning plastic, diesel and rubber.

We were close to 2,000 people in the plaza, and the huge majority was there to protest the far right. We were already loud and strong enough to get them to cancel the event. We didn't need anyone breaking glass, setting fires, or setting off fireworks and aiming them at the police.

But an anonymous, self-appointed and unaccountable minority of the crowd took those actions, and now that's all anyone is talking about.

Those folks put the rest of us in serious danger. There were columns of riot police in formation nearby. They could have easily decided to come in swinging clubs, as they have many times in the past--firing rubber-coated bullets, deploying chemical weapons and more.

Thankfully, none of that happened. I can't believe I'm writing this, but I actually agree with the quote from the UC police spokesperson who said the cops "showed remarkable restraint."

This small group of adventurists was doing about as much to provoke the police to attack as I've ever seen. Sometimes, weeks or years later, it comes to light that some of these people were actually undercover cops, deployed to stir things up and make the protest look bad, to make people afraid to participate, and/or to give the rest of the force an excuse to unleash.

For whatever reason, the order to clear Sproul Plaza was never given that night. I believe, although I have no proof, that it was a conscious choice to let the "riot" basically do whatever it wanted, so the only media footage would be fires and broken glass, not students getting beaten and sprayed by militarized cops. There was a little bit of that, but not enough to get any media attention.

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