The alt-reich fiasco that cost Berkeley $1 million

September 25, 2017

Eric Ruder and François Hughes explain how the far-right carnival of reaction at UC Berkeley fell apart--and why administrators have a lot to answer for.

THE FAR-RIGHT'S festival of hate scheduled for this week at the University of California (UC) Berkeley flamed out, leaving the university with a whopping bill.

For months, far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had been promising a "Free Speech Week" featuring some of the alt-reich's most high-profile speakers--former White House strategist Steve Bannon and right-wing bloviator Ann Coulter, among them.

Yiannopoulos talked a big game about getting the whole white nationalist set together to stick it to America's bastion of Ivory Tower liberalism.

As it turned out, however, the promised speakers either never agreed to appear in the first place or pulled out, and the student group supposedly sponsoring the event didn't meet its most basic obligations to reserve campus venues--and then abruptly canceled two days before "Free Speech Week" was to begin.

Milo's big talk turned into a tiny appearance on the steps of Sproul Plaza this Sunday with fellow Islamophobic bigot Pamela Geller and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich. The heroes of the alt-right had to be smuggled into the barricaded plaza through a special entrance, rather than the checkpoint that everyone else had to use.

Clockwise from left: Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter
Clockwise from left: Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter

UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof called the 20-minute appearance--which could barely be heard over the chants of counterprotesters--"probably the most expensive photo op in the university's history."

But amid your happiness at the far-right's epic fail, it's important not to lose sight of one of the most troubling aspects of the whole sorry affair: UC Berkeley spent $1 million--and was prepared to spend much more--organizing an event that the right-wingers couldn't pull off themselves.

In the name of free speech and civil liberties, a liberal university dedicated the time of countless staff members, spent more than $1 million and deployed a massive security force on campus, drawn from eight law enforcement agencies and other campuses, to enable a twisted collection of right-wingers to hold a hate-laced week of events that they didn't even follow through on.

SINCE FEBRUARY, when Yiannopoulos last spoke on the campus and encountered fierce protests, UC Berkeley has spent at least $1.4 million providing security and other logistical support for a series of appearances by the hard right's bigots, blowhards and bullies.

When Yiannopoulos and Berkeley Patriot, the student group hosting the event, announced plans for a week of speeches by white nationalist provocateurs, administrators again didn't hesitate. "The university was prepared to do whatever was necessary to support the First Amendment rights of the student organization," Mogulof said in a statement.

Perhaps this seems fitting, given that the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, begun in the fall of 1964, earned the campus a reputation as hallowed ground for defending civil liberties.

But this effort by the university to safeguard the free speech of reactionaries who line up behind the flag, white nationalism and Islamophobia--in other words, who are enthusiastic defenders of America's whole history of injustice against the oppressed and downtrodden--has nothing to do with "honoring" the legacy of the Free Speech Movement. It's a repudiation of it.

In 1964, left-wing students protested the UC Berkeley administration to win the right to organize politically on campus as part of the growing civil rights struggles in the surrounding community and beyond.

Under pressure from the business community, the UC Board of Regents cracked down on their organizing, banning student organization tables from Sproul Plaza. Though they eventually prevailed, the free speech activists had to face riot police and mass arrests to secure their rights.

Fast-forward 53 years, and again, there are the familiar lines of riot police. Only this time, administrators say that it's the police who are protecting the "free speech" of right-wing bigots like Yiannopolous and Bannon.

UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATORS justify the deployment of this police army with lofty references to philosophers of classical liberalism such as John Stuart Mill.

In her August 23 statement, UC Chancellor Carol Christ paraphrased two of Mill's key arguments about free speech: "The first is that truth is of such power that it will always ultimately prevail; any abridgement of argument therefore compromises the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. The second is an extreme skepticism about the right of any authority to determine which opinions are noxious or abhorrent."

But this only underlines Christ's hypocrisy.

Where was this liberal administrator's "skepticism about the right of authority" when the administration canceled a student-led class called "Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis" last September?

In the same August statement, Christ assured students, "If you choose to protest, do so peacefully. That is your right, and we will defend it with vigor. We will not tolerate violence, and we will hold anyone accountable who engages in it."

But on August 27, when a coalition representing more than 100 endorsing organizations organized a Bay Area Rally Against Hate, the administration had the site of the protest barricaded, making it impossible for the thousands of counterdemonstrators to gather. Rally organizers made the decision to hold the gathering in the street--mere days after a right-wing thug murdered a protester in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Where was Christ's condemnation of the Berkeley police and their attacks on the street rally? Or, for that matter, at racist arrests at past rallies on campus?

With hundreds planning to participate in a rally at UC Berkeley on Monday--in solidarity with a faculty-led all-campus boycott in protest of the far right's failed "Free Speech Week"--the administration has promised to continue enforcing an impossibly draconian list of items banned from campus.

This serves two purposes: One is to provide a pretext for police to deny entry to anyone they choose, make any arrests they want and stop a rally of any size from gathering. Second, the list of banned items is so long and implies a level of threat so great that it helps to reinforce the police narrative that people really should just stay away.

IT'S EASY to punch holes in Christ's lecture about the virtues of free speech, but the problem goes beyond hypocrisy.

In particular, truth is not of such power that it will always ultimately prevail.

That's why students in 1964 had to organize a Free Speech Movement in the first place. They were demanding, among other issues, the right--which they already had, but were being denied--to organize in support of the right of Black workers to be hired, which they also already possessed, and were also being denied.

Free speech doesn't guarantee that the best ideas prevail. The theorists of classical liberalism argued for a world free of government tyranny, but that didn't address the demands of the officially disenfranchised or the oppressed or the poor. When it was first established, the U.S. which was founded on those Enlightenment principles, denied equal rights to women, Blacks and men without property.

Free speech didn't secure rights for those groups, but it was an essential tool for securing them--because ideas don't have force unless they organize and energize groups of people who will fight to make them a reality.

Therein lies the fundamental error of UC Berkeley's administrators. They are bending over backwards to give the far right an audience it wouldn't gain on its own--allowing it to reach those it desperately seeks to make its vision of a white nationalist ethno-state into a reality.

The UC Berkeley campus has been turned into a massive networking opportunity for the "alt-right," white supremacists and neo-Nazis to meet each other, hash out their ideas and put more force behind the violence and hate to which the 20th century declared, "Never again."

The UC Berkeley administration thinks this shows its commitment to "free speech." But it really shows something else.

First, their accommodating behavior flies in the face of everything history shows us about how the far right can be stopped.

They won't just go away if they're ignored. They won't be stopped if they're countered by more and better arguments. The appeal of the far right isn't its honesty, but its scapegoating that blames social crisis on the victims of that social crisis.

Such racial bullying must be countered by far larger mobilizations built around multiracial unity and standing together to fight for real solutions to the problems endured by all but a small minority in this society.

The administrators at the University of California don't enable mass events to foreground the views of the left-wing critics of the university and society. But they do worry about "abridging" free speech for the likes of the hate-spewing "alt-right"--despite the massive corporate megaphone enjoyed by Breitbart News and other far-right think tanks.

THIS EXPLAINS why Berkeley's administrators prioritize spending millions to support certain kinds of speech. They prefer set-piece debates featuring think tanks, with ideas defined by the narrow spectrum inhabited by the two corporate parties.

For the left to raise our volume to the level of their cash-fueled megaphones, we have to speak coherently and collectively. Our truths come from different sources--from self-organization, a demand for justice that enjoys broad support, democratically controlled movements and the capacity for mass mobilization.

The resistance to Trump and the emboldened right wing shows that we can organize a different way forward. That way is solidarity, of standing up against right-wing hatred and division. Our truths are embodied in the connections we make through mass rallies, the disruption we cause to the smooth order of the university when it provides institutional backing to right-wing thugs, and the power we derive from working together.

The danger for administrators like Christ is that once people on campus feel this power, it can lead them to explore further ideas: Ideas about students and teachers and workers using power to take back the university and make it about education and liberation rather than profit.

This is what Christ and others fear about protests and faculty boycotts--hence the ranks of riot police ready to make arrests and the checkpoints erected to defend "free speech."

We're the ones defending free speech from those who seek to use racism and violence to intimidate and silence us--and we're defending it from those institutions helping the right to pursue this strategy.

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