Organizing for an alt-right delete at Berkeley

Sarah Wheels reports from Berkeley on the latest confrontations over right wing mobilizations--and on the next steps to build a bigger anti-racist movement.

Speaking out against the far right and threats to free speech at UC BerkeleySpeaking out against the far right and threats to free speech at UC Berkeley

AN ONGOING controversy at the University of California-Berkeley over whether right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter would speak on campus following the cancellation of her event by the university administration came to a head on April 27 when "alt-right" groups targeted Berkeley for the third time in recent months and confronted left-wing, anti-fascist protesters while claiming to defend free speech.

Coulter, who was originally invited to speak on April 27, but whose speech was cancelled and then rescheduled due to security concerns, waffled about whether she would appear on campus anyway. Her supporters rallied, using the cancellation to their advantage to claim that the right's free speech rights were under attack.

Meanwhile, the media speculated that there would be another round of violent clashes.

Anticipating this, Berkeley city officials and UC Berkeley administrators mobilized hundreds of officers from every police department in the area, both on and off campus, which had a chilling effect on protest. There were at least five arrests on Thursday, including one incident of racial profiling in which police detained a Latino member of the Underground Scholars Initiative, a group of formerly incarcerated students at UC Berkeley.

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TWO SEPARATE rallies were planned for Thursday, regardless of whether Coulter showed up or not.

Alt-right and anti-fascist protesters faced off at Martin Luther King Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley. Dozens of right-wingers turned out, clearly emboldened by their rampage in April, when they mobilized at least several hundred from up and down the West Coast, ready to inflict violence on the outnumbered counterdemonstrators.

This time, the police operation kept the two sides apart, and the right didn't get to attack those who stood and chanted against them in the park.

There was another gathering on Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus, where the International Socialist Organization (ISO) announced its "Alt Right Delete" initiative in opposition to the right-wingers and in defense of free speech.

Alt Right Delete is an effort to build a larger mobilization capable of confronting the racists and reactionary in Berkeley. It also aims to reclaim the ideals of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 1960s from the right-wing's distortions and reinvigorate its radical, socialist and anti-racist roots.

As Mukund Rathi, a law student at UC Berkeley and member of the ISO, explained at the demonstration:

The Berkeley Free Speech Movement arose out of the struggles of civil rights activists and socialists against segregation and anti-Black racism in California. These activists, many of them students, were engaging in militant demonstrations and sit-ins to win equal rights for Black people...

It is absurd for the far-right provocateurs, white supremacists and the College Republicans to claim this legacy...

The greatest threat to free speech, on college campuses and elsewhere, comes from these right-wing forces. They will use violence against those who wish to speak and assemble freely. And this should not surprise us--we can't possibly believe that white supremacists and neo Nazis have anything but violent hostility towards their opponents.

Due to the massive police presence and the threat of far-right violence, many people were discouraged from turning out to the rally on campus. Among the 30 to 40 who did, some held signs reading "Fascist-Free Campus" and "Immigrants Are Welcome Here," and chants rang out in defense of immigrant students, refugees and workers.

Coulter's racist and xenophobic views are abhorrent, but it does not benefit the left if the university denies her a venue, giving her and the bigots who celebrate her a chance to play the victim.

We believe it is important to distinguish between the right of students to protest Coulter's speech and the university canceling a forum where she was to appear. A defense of free speech from the left needs to oppose the state and other authorities exercising their power to censor speakers, because this will inevitably be used against left-wing speakers and activists. Our power lies in mobilizing the largest number of people possible to confront the right.

UC Berkeley, along with many other universities, has a record of shutting down speakers in solidarity with Palestine, repressing student workers and silencing sexual assault survivors. Protecting the right of the oppressed to fight back against these attacks means defending free speech rights.

Effective opposition to Coulter and alt-right speakers can take shape without relying on the university officials to intervene, which will ultimately jeopardize the left. The goal of Alt Right Delete is to build a movement that protests right-wingers like Coulter effectively, through a mass mobilization of students and members of the Berkeley community, without curtailing our right to speak freely.