What will it take to stop the right in Berkeley?

May 23, 2017

Mukund Rathi, a UC Berkeley law student and one of the organizers of protests against the right, looks back at the struggles of the past semester and at what's ahead.

A POLARIZING semester has ended at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the past four months, the right wing has focused its strategy for provocations and mobilizations on the campus and the city, and the university administration continued its offensive against free speech, but this time under the scrutiny of national and international media.

While the semester began with several thousand people mobilizing against one of the right's events, more recently, the picture of protest has been smaller numbers of masked Antifas battling with far-right goons in the city streets. Looking ahead, there is no sign that Berkeley will cease to be a major political battleground.

There are lessons to learn from the past four months that can not only inform our expectations of future events, but also what students and activists can do to shape them.

First, the right wing is getting organized, and it won't go away by itself or because of bureaucratic actions by the UC administration. Not only did Donald Trump's victory give the far right a national opening, but all parts of the right have gotten an institutional foothold in Berkeley through the Berkeley College Republicans (BCR).

Students march against Trump and the far right at UC Berkeley
Students march against Trump and the far right at UC Berkeley

Second, there are at least thousands of people who want to actively oppose the emboldened right wing. If we want to defeat the right, we need to organize these people. To do so, we will to need to push back against the mainstream media offensive attacking student protests, and we will also need to contend with the strategies and tactics of the Black Bloc that weaken the possibilities for larger mobilizations.

Last, organizing a stronger movement against the right will require taking up debates around free speech. A successful campaign will need to defend the democratic right of free speech and reclaim its legacy as something that the oppressed, not the right wing, have always struggled for.

THE FAR right has been emboldened nationally since Trump's victory, with an accompanying rise in incidents of harassment and violence, especially toward Muslims.

This has taken a particular form in Berkeley, where the thousands-strong protest against former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos on February 1 drew national attention. Despite this turnout, the mainstream media focused on the actions of a minority of Antifa activists who, late in the protest, set fires and broke windows. Predictably, press accounts condemned all protesters as "violent" and backed up the BCR's disingenuous free speech rallying cry.

Having seen leftists to fight, conservatives to defend and ideological cover from mainstream sources, the right wing began converging on Berkeley.

The College Republicans have provided organizational footing for this convergence. The BCR has used its status as a student organization and its claims to champion free speech to bring far-right provocateurs like Yiannopoulos, David Horowitz and Ann Coulter to speak on campus.

The BCR and its allies understand that they have something to gain whichever way these events go.

If the speeches take place, they are able to project far-right politics from a campus venue and to provide space for individual and organized bigots in the audience to develop and grow.

If the speeches don't take place--whether they are stopped by the university administration or disrupted by protest, leading to their cancellation--the BCR can use friendly media coverage to project their ideas anyway, while acting the victim because they have been "suppressed." This provides further opportunities to organize behind the cloak of "free speech"--a right that the far right wants to curtail when it comes to other people.

THE FAR right's presence on February 1 was actually minimal. It's unclear how many fans planned to attend Yiannopoulos' speech, but they were outnumbered and out-organized by the thousands of protesters. There were a few activist bigots, including one camera-ready provocateur, who started some fights--including with me and other organizers--but they were ultimately chased away.

One month later, on March 4, the right wing rallied at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, off campus in downtown Berkeley, as part of a national mobilization called in support of the Trump administration.

In Berkeley, the event was initiated jointly by Richard Black, a right-wing libertarian from Southern California, and the Proud Boys, a self-described group of "Western chauvinists" that was also at the Yiannopoulos speech. The right-wingers numbered under a hundred. Antifa activists, backed by more than 100 counterprotesters, clashed with the right, and the hate march never began.

The BCR planned to bring David Horowitz, the Islamophobe and provocateur who poses as a conservative intellectual, to speak on campus on April 12.

Due to a security assessment from campus police, deemed necessary due to the February 1 protest, the UC administration said that the only available venue was 10 blocks away from the main campus and the only available time was during the afternoon, during classes. So the BCR canceled the speech and launched a "Berkeley Hates Free Speech" campaign, with an op-ed by Horowitz and flyers plastered around campus.

ON APRIL 15, the right wing returned to MLK Civic Center Park in greater numbers for a "Free Speech Rally" organized by Black's new Liberty Revival Alliance.

There were several hundred supporters of the far right mobilized from around the West Coast. About 50 members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia of former cops and soldiers, provided security. The Proud Boys returned, as well as several notorious far-right individuals and organizations, including the white supremacist group Identity Evropa.

This time, the right-wingers were ready for a fight, armed with pepper spray, knives, Tasers and sticks. They outnumbered the counterprotesters, who were mainly Antifa. Hundreds of scuffles began in the park and spilled out into the streets, along with several separate marches by each side. A viral video shows Identity Evropa founder and Cal State Stanislaus student Nathan Damigo punching an Antifa woman who was later stalked and threatened online.

The April 15 mobilization took place amid the controversy on campus over the BCR's plans to bring Ann Coulter to speak on April 27. As throughout this year, the bureaucratic actions of the UC administration have only added fuel to the far-right fire, while doing nothing to contribute to a challenge against its hate and violence.

The UC administration eventually announced it was canceling the speech for security reasons. Coulter said she would speak anyway on the 27th, after which the administration offered May 2 as a date when a secure venue would be available. Coulter rejected this date, noting that classes would be over.

After days of playing chicken, during which the BCR filed a lawsuit against the university for First Amendment violations, Coulter announced the day before April 27 that she wouldn't appear.

Far right forces, however, mobilized again at MLK Park on April 27, with a couple hundred demonstrators from varying right-wing organizations geared up for a fight. This time, however, Antifa activists were absent for most of the day, only holding a smaller counterdemonstration at the end.

On campus, hundreds of cops set up barricades and patrols, and locked up main buildings. A long list of prohibited items on Sproul Plaza, the campus's main demonstration area, included "bicycle U-locks" and "hard or frozen fruit or vegetables." The $500,000 show of force certainly discouraged people from joining the International Socialist Organization's "Alt Right Delete" protest.

The politics of right-wing forces at these various events have ranged from conservatives and libertarians who primarily celebrate Trump to open white supremacists. But all the different individuals and organizations are united around challenging the left, and they are emboldened enough to mobilize regularly.

At UC Berkeley itself, white supremacists have repeatedly posted their flyers. Some BCR members identify with the alt-right--members of the campus right wing have been repeatedly interviewed by and photographed with far-right figures such as Damigo.

ANY ANALYSIS of the situation in Berkeley and what will come next should start with the fact thousands of people were willing to come out to protest Trump's inauguration on January 20 and Yiannopoulos's planned speech on February 1. This should remind us of a continuing truth: people want to fight back.

But there are real obstacles to organizing an ongoing fightback. The most obvious is the confidence of the far right, which is mobilizing larger numbers than have been seen in years. Their violence is instilling fear in people about attending protests.

Despite the right's violence, both conservative and liberal commenters still claim that the solution is intellectual dialogue--and that oversensitive "snowflake" students just don't understand this.

The mainstream narrative remains the same: Conservative speakers are being silenced by millennials who don't understand the importance of free speech. Coverage of the violence focuses on opponents of the right, not the right itself.

Thus, the New York Times coverage of the Yiannopoulos protest focused exclusively on the behavior of the Black Bloc protesters, while the much larger numbers who didn't engage in property destruction were either lumped in and ignored or dismissed as the dupes of "outside agitators."

Since then, liberal writers like New York magazine's Jonathan Chait have decried the spread of "illiberal" tactics on college campuses suppressing the "marketplace of ideas." Even Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested that students are "intellectually weak" if they don't want to engage in a "polite way" with far-right provocateurs.

The right's violence on April 15 ought put to rest the fantasy that there is a polite dialogue to be had with them, but the media have continued to treat the reactionaries with kid gloves--the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times have repeatedly profiled the BCR--and focused on the minority of activists committed to Black Bloc tactics, to the exclusion of all others.

IRONICALLY, THERE is a similar dismissal of mobilizations of large numbers of people among the Black Bloc.

In an op-ed article for the Daily Californian, members of Berkeley Antifa wrote: "You may disagree with our actions [at the protest against Yiannopoulos], but if it protected even one student from being targeted, then we are not ashamed."

The Black Bloc method of a self-selected minority acting on behalf of larger numbers couldn't be stated more clearly. So what happens if the people the Black Bloc claims to protecting have a different idea about what should be done? There is no room for participatory democracy in this organizing model.

And there is another problem that is just as important: The Black Bloc justifies its actions as protecting students from being targeted, but they have failed at exactly this.

The Antifa action on February 1 didn't turn the tide against Yannopoulos and the BCR--that had already been accomplished by a large demonstration that ringed the venue and made it clear that Berkeley rejected the right.

In reality, the Antifa action did the opposite of protecting the vulnerable. It hogged the media's attention from anyone else who had a message to send that night; it put many more people at risk of being attacked by police; and it converted demonstrators who had been acting on their own behalf by protesting into spectators.

Unfortunately, this last dynamic has continued ever since February 1. Those who might have come out to protest the far right in March and April were less likely to do so after the character of protests was redefined into actions carried out by small groups focused on physical confrontation.

The result was that far right outnumbered their opponents on April 15. The Antifa didn't protect anyone from being targeted on that day--they were outnumbered, outmaneuvered and targeted themselves.

This is a challenge that we face in building a movement against the rising far right in Berkeley. The violence of the right wingers and police, combined with the unaccountable actions of masked Antifa, is discouraging the large numbers of people who oppose the racists from getting organized and protesting in their own right.

We went from several thousand people demonstrating against Yiannopoulos on February 1 to a few hundred or less when the far right rallied on April 15 and April 27. We need a strategy that reverses those numbers.

ANOTHER IDEA that needs to be challenged is relying on the university administration to defend oppressed students.

Not only does this take the focus away from organizing wider layers of people, but when it comes to the university canceling provocateur speakers, it puts the right to free speech--a right that our movement needs to defend itself--into the hands of administrators we have no control over.

In January, before Yiannopoulos' scheduled speech, more than 100 UC Berkeley faculty members wrote to the administration requesting that the event be canceled. Their letter claimed that Yiannopoulos' views "pass from protected free speech to incitement, harassment, and defamation once they publically target individuals."

Indeed, Yiannopoulos was reportedly planning to work with David Horowitz to create a witch hunt list to expose undocumented students to violence and deportation. While the BCR has First Amendment rights to host speakers, it doesn't have legal rights to host people who incite violence.

But the right knows this aspect of the law well, and its speakers are careful to toe the line. Case in point: the April court ruling that Auburn University couldn't revoke an invitation for white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak at a public-use auditorium on campus.

The judge in the case concluded that there's "no evidence that Mr. Spencer advocates violence." While his audience does the Nazi salute as he advocates the ethnic cleansing of non-white people, Spencer always uses the word "peaceful" first.

But even if the legal hurdle for canceling speeches were lower, it would be a mistake for the left to pursue this, because it would give administrators greater power to determine who gets free speech and who doesn't--and that power would be used against the left.

Last fall, the UC administration suspended a course on Palestine under pressure from over 40 on- and off-campus Zionist organizations.

Just like the various justifications used to cancel BCR speaking events earlier this year, the excuse was technical: the instructor didn't follow approval policies. But the policies weren't listed anywhere, and many other approved courses didn't follow them. After widespread criticism, administrators reversed themselves, and the course was reinstated.

This shows how easily some of the policies applied to the BCR and the right could boomerang against the left.

Beyond the issue of Palestine, there is the case of Grace Lin of the newly formed Undergraduate Workers Union at Berkeley, who was terminated after campus workers spoke up about harassment and other safety concerns. Again, a rarely enforced rule about student registration was given as the reason.

UC BERKELEY itself is a stellar example of the importance defending basic democratic rights. The famous Free Speech Movement of the 1960s began because the administration cracked down on student speech to snuff out civil rights activism.

But outrageously, the BCR and right wing nationally have tried to claim the legacy of this movement. The liberal media have largely bought into their dishonest narrative. In early May, the New York Times published a profile on a few conservative students at Berkeley, including BCR spokesperson Naweed Tahmas. The students recounted experiences of physical violence and interpersonal awkwardness as evidence that "being a Republican at the University of California, Berkeley, is hard."

The hypocrisy is so glaring, though unmentioned by the Times: The same right-wingers who call protest protesters "snowflakes" for rejecting bigoted ideas expect sympathy because UC Berkeley has "a lot of professors who hold some very liberal views."

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle published a laudatory profile on Tahmas of the BCR and Pranav Jandhyala, a member of BridgeCal, which claimed to be "fixing the political divide" by offering to co-host Ann Coulter's speech with the BCR. The profile is accompanied by ridiculous pictures of Tahmas and Jandhyala posing in front of the American flag.

The right-wingers are promoting a false narrative that they merely want to engage in serious intellectual dialogue, while the liberal university and its students ignore them or prevent them from spreading their message.

Unfortunately, they have gotten a hearing among liberals who should know better--like Bernie Sanders, who chided students for not engaging with Ann Coulter during the controversy over her planned speech last month. "What are you afraid of? Her ideas?" he asked.

Actually, we should all be fearful of Coulter's ideas, because she and the far right are determined to put those ideas into practice--in the form of hatred, oppression and violence. The threat of the emboldened far right is very real, and Berkeley residents have been forced to face that reality.

This is where the left has to emphasize the difference between our principled defense of the right to free speech and the idea that we should be interested in a give-and-take dialogue with the likes of Coulter and Yiannopoulos.

Defeating their ideas won't be accomplished by intellectually reasoning them away. They have to be protested. We need a movement that organizes large numbers of people based on the politics of solidarity, and we need to build it.

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