By Carlo David and Frances Dinkelspiel
It was not the evening local Republicans had anticipated.
UC Berkeley students, local residents, and people from organizations not affiliated with Cal descended on Sproul Plaza on Wednesday night to protest Milo Yiannopoulos, the conservative provocateur and writer for right-leaning news site Breitbart. The event, hosted by the Berkeley College Republicans, was part of Yiannopolous’ “Dangerous Faggot” tour of college campuses nationwide, which many have viewed as an effort to sow discord.
At 5 p.m., protesters began to assemble outside the ASUC Student Union building, where Yiannopoulos, 32, was slated to speak about “cultural appropriation” at 8 p.m. in the Pauley Ballroom. University of California Police had set barricades up around the building’s perimeter.
As organizers entered the building, protesters chanted: “Shame!” Others held signs decrying Yiannopolous as a fascist. Jerome Pansa, a Berkeley undergraduate, was among those who showed up early. “Staying home would be complicit in perpetuating hate speech,” said Pansa. “While we should not give him the attention he craves for, so much is at stake.”
Despite seeming hostility from protesters toward attendees of the speech, the demonstrations at first remained calm. But not for long.
Around 5:50 p.m., about 150 men and women in black clothing marched toward the plaza. Many were carrying heavy sticks with black and Communist-themed flags, their faces obscured with bandana masks and hats pulled low on their foreheads.
It was the beginning of a long evening.
The protesters dressed in black, some of who called themselves “Black Bloc,” or “Antifa” or who were members of BAMN – By Any Means Necessary, started to throw rocks at the police gathered near the student union. They set off what UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett called “commercial grade fireworks,” and threw Molotov cocktails. They tore apart the metal barricades and threw them into the windows of the Amazon store on the first floor of the student union, shattering the windows.
Most dramatically, the anarchists set fire to a set of portable lights. At times the flames leaped more than 6 feet into the air, prompting cheers and shouts from many bystanders. Blow horns and drums could be heard echoing through a vast horizon of students fleeing the scene.
Within 20 minutes, around 6:15 p.m., the event was officially canceled. Yiannopoulos was secretly ushered out of the building to an undisclosed location. He later posted a video on his Facebook page bashing what he called the far left.
“They will not allow any speaker on campus, even someone as silly and harmless and gay as me, to have their voice heard,” said Yiannopoulos. “They won’t allow students to hear different points of view.”
While Yiannopoulos did not get the chance to speak to a room of a few hundred people (the event was also scheduled to be live streamed) after he was secreted off campus he gave interviews about the violent demonstrations to Fox News and other outlets. He then gleefully reported that his forthcoming book, Dangerous, for which he was paid a reported $250,000 advance, had made its way into the top 30 books on Amazon. Yiannopoulos will not be visiting the Cal campus today, as he did at UC Davis earlier this week after another one of his appearances was canceled, as he left for Washington, D.C., according to his Facebook page.
Even though Yiannopoulos’s talk was canceled – the stated goal of many groups – the protests continued for hours, becoming, in parts, increasingly violent as the night progressed. Some masked protesters engaged in paramilitary tactics, throwing debris towards the officers, who responded with pin and paintballs, Bennett said at a press conference later in the evening. No tear gas was used.
Bennett said there were not any serious confirmed injuries. But individuals in the crowd were hurt. One man was hit in the head with a bike lock. Another woman was pepper sprayed while she was talking to a reporter. A few people wandered around the crowd with blood dripping from their heads.
It was a remarkable as well as an ironic image for a plaza that was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke.
“We condemn without reservation the violence that was on display and the desires of a few that tainted the actions of many to engage in legal and lawful protest and those who interfered with the ability of [Yiannopolous], the Berkeley College Republicans and members of the audience to exercise their First Amendment rights,” said UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof.
“This is not a proud night for this campus, the home of the Free Speech Movement,” he said.
By 6:30 p.m. the demonstration was divided in two. While the anarchists stayed close to the Pauley Ballroom, waving their flags and sticks, more than 1,500 people stood peacefully on the steps below Sproul Hall, which was lit up in the colors of the LGBTQ movement. A brass band played and many students danced on the plaza.
The police by then had taken a mostly hands-off approach, which they continued all night. Many were massed and visible in the MLK student union and some stood on the balcony with their paintball and pepper ball rifles. UC Police regularly issued warnings that the gathering was an unlawful assembly and ordered people to disperse within five minutes or face arrest. However, the police never acted on that threat.
Around 8 p.m., the crowd suddenly left and crowded along Telegraph and Bancroft Avenues. Some protesters overturned trash cans and set them on fire while other protesters cleaned up the garbage and put out the fires. Cars got stuck at Durant and Telegraph. Protesters would not let them through. At one point, a driver in a white sedan got frustrated and tried to drive through the crowd and had a man dangling off the front hood for a while. Berkeley Police had an unconfirmed report that a car had hit someone, but no one with injuries reported the incident. But Telegraph Avenue was left mostly unscathed.
Just before 9 p.m., some of the crowd headed toward downtown Berkeley. When they reached Center Street, some of the anarchists got violent. They smashed the windows of Starbucks and ransacked its interior. They smashed the doors and windows of numerous banks, including the Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo and Mechanics Bank, and set fire and vandalized a number of ATM machines. A number of phone stores also had windows smashed. But the spurt of violence in downtown Berkeley – where they were not confronted by police – was the ending action of the night.
Yvette Felarca, a BUSD teacher and a leader of BAMN, who has been captured on film engaging in violent resistance to right-wing speakers, declared the night a success.
“I think shutting down and forcing the cancellation of a white supremacist like Milo Yiannopoulos was a stunning achievement,” Felarca said around 10:15 p.m. (She was not dressed in black like many of the anarchists in the crowd, nor were the group of about six young people she was with.)
She said Yiannopoulos deliberately came on campuses to stir up trouble and his words encouraged people to act out against immigrants, gay people and people of color.
“It isn’t a question of free speech,” said Felarca. “This is about our right to be free of intimidation.”
The events that took place last night, in many ways, mirrored the national anger felt by many and the public response that emanated from the election victory of President Donald Trump. In the past two weeks, Americans have sought to channel their grievances, marching in historic proportions in big cities and the nation’s capital. For many, Yiannopoulos’ presence on campus reignited protesters’ feelings towards the Trump administration and its stances on social issues like immigration.
For Sophia Sobko, a Ph.D. student at the School of Education, Yiannopoulos’ hostile views towards minorities, women and LGBTQ Americans run deep. “I honestly am not sure what [tonight’s demonstrations] accomplish,” she said. “But it is important that we let [Yiannopoulos] know that his rhetoric is not okay.”
In a bit of irony, since Yiannopoulos’s speech was canceled, the College Republicans will not be charged the approximately $7,500 security fee they were supposed to pay, said Mogulof. (An anonymous donor had pledged to put up the money for the group.)
Debates loom over whether or not last night’s violence could have been prevented had the university yielded to demands from various campus groups to cancel Yiannopolous’ visit. “The university has no regrets,” Stephen Sutton, vice chancellor for student affairs, said in response. “We worked with the Berkeley College Republicans to have the event occur. We sat in meetings with them and we wanted them to have as successful an event as possible.”
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín this morning issued a statement condemning the violence.
“Destruction and violence are contrary to progressive values and have no place in our community,” his statement said. “I support those who peacefully come together in pursuit of a just and inclusive country that stands united with our immigrant population and the many others who are being targeted in this national political climate. Unfortunately, last night, a small minority of the protesters who had assembled in opposition to a speaking engagement featuring a prominent white nationalist engaged in violence and property damage. They also provided the ultra-nationalist far right exactly the images they want to use to try to discredit the vast majority of peaceful protesters in Berkeley and across America who are deeply concerned about where our country is heading.”
The university’s Mogulof also reaffirmed that the law prohibits the university from censoring groups and individuals’ right to exercise their First Amendment rights. “This university, in particular, is going to always uphold the Constitution, particularly the First Amendment.”
Another spokeswoman for the university, Christine Shaff said students were pitching in to clean up the city after Wednesday night’s demonstrations: “Berkeley students showed up at 5am in the rain this morning to clean up the plaza and nearby city streets. That’s the story that should be told this morning!”
Trump, in an early morning tweet, seemed to think the university had tried to stifle free speech (apparently after seeing a commentary on Fox News). He threatened to withdraw federal funds.
This morning, the university issued another statement condemning the violence and reiterating its determination to preserve First Amendment rights. The statement blamed “100 armed individuals clad in masks and dark uniforms” for the troubles. The full text of the university statement follows:
“UC Berkeley condemns in the strongest possible terms the actions of individuals who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students, and used violent tactics to close down a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos. We deeply regret that the violence unleashed by this group undermined the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence.
“The university went to extraordinary lengths to facilitate planning and preparation for this event, working in close concert with the Berkeley College Republicans. Dozens of police officers were brought in from UC campuses across the state. Numerous crowd control measures were put in place. But, we could not plan for the unprecedented. Last night the UC Berkeley campus was invaded by more than 100 armed individuals clad in masks and dark uniforms who utilized paramilitary tactics to engage in violent destructive behavior designed to shut the event down. At that point the University of California Police Department concluded that the speaker had to be evacuated from campus for his own safety, thereby bringing the event to an end.
“For the campus police the primary objective is always the safety and well-being of our students and the public. That is what informs their strategies and tactics. In that context we are relieved that, as of now, there have been no reports of serious injuries.
“We are proud of our history and legacy as the home of the Free Speech Movement. While we have made clear our belief that the inflaming rhetoric and provocations of Mr. Yiannopoulos were in marked opposition to the basic values of the university, we respected his right to come to campus and speak once he was invited to do so by a legitimate student group. The violence last night was an attack on the fundamental values of the university, which stands for and helps to maintain and nurture open inquiry and an inclusive civil society, the bedrock of a genuinely democratic nation. We are now, and will remain in the future, completely committed to free speech as essential to our educational mission and a vital component of our identity at UC Berkeley.”