A day after violent protesters clashed with university police and damaged campus properties, leading to the cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos’ event, continuing tensions loomed over the UC Berkeley community.
Returning to normalcy on campus in the aftermath of a violent protest was not easy. For some, it was even uncomfortable.
On Sproul Plaza, right below the Pauley Ballroom, where Yiannopoulos was slated to speak Wednesday night before violent protests prompted UC to cancel his talk, there was a long line of students Thursday getting their morning dose of caffeine. Every couch was occupied and every table was filled with stacks of books and laptops.
The silence was almost deafening.
Outside, ashes from a generator that angry demonstrators set on fire the night before could still be seen on the ground. Smashed and broken windows had been replaced with wooden panels. One tree had been badly singed. Campus officials have estimated the damage to be around $100,000.
Yet Sproul Plaza was cleaner than one might expect after such a destructive protest, in part because a group of students had spontaneously organized a brigade, through Facebook, to clean up the plaza. They arrived before dawn (university clean-up crews were already at work) with brooms, dust pans, trash bags and gloves to try to restore order, and later moved over to Telegraph Avenue, too,
“We started at Sproul Plaza around 5 a.m., primarily focusing on picking up trash and stacking extra barricades off to the side,” Tanwei Chen, a second-year energy engineering major, told the news site, The Tab. “Once the plaza was cleared enough to power-wash, some volunteers left to rest or attend class. A smaller group went along Telegraph then Shattuck. Though we picked up some trash, we spent most of our effort on picking up broken glass.”
Clubs and organization had lined up their usual array of tables on Sproul, including the Berkeley College Republicans, whose table was draped with an American flag, hoping to recruit interested parties. There were also the regular collection of campus outsiders preaching about a myriad of things – socialism, the Second Coming, or the present administration’s plan to subvert democracy.
But the façade showed several cracks.
Around 11:40 a.m., Jack Palkovic, a Cal student and member of the College Republicans, was being interviewed by KTVU at the intersection of Telegraph and Bancroft when two men in a car pulled over. They jumped out and tried to take off Palkovic’s red Trump hat, according to the television station. UCPD arrested two men, who were not affiliated with the university. Two men were arrested on suspicion of battery, grand theft and criminal threats, according to police.
Then around 2 p.m., a spontaneous debate ensued between a self-identified Trump supporter and an outsider, who was among those who showed up Wednesday night, hoping to shut down Yiannopoulos. “This is a [expletive] odious administration!”
The animosity reverberated across campus such that even a hoard of students rushing out from lecture halls would not drown them out.
In a lot of ways, the exchange was telling of a campus divided over whether Wednesday night’s events were justified or not.
Matthew Verish, a third-year mathematics undergraduate, disagreed with the level of destruction caused by a small portion of the protesters.
“How can an anti-fascist organization resort to violent means, just because it does not agree with [Yiannopoulos]?” he said, a note of exasperation in his voice. “You just cannot have a debate on free speech when you are intent on censoring others.”
Among Berkeley College Republicans, the idea of censorship pales compared to the alleged harassment, both physical and verbal, they have had to deal with as an outlier in a progressive bastion.
“We were followed by thugs [Wednesday night] on our way home, as soon as UCPD announced the event had been canceled,” said BCR representative Troy Worden. “I am not just sure how we move forward from this, given the kind of treatment our members have been receiving from both outsiders and students.”
However, attendance at the group’s weekly meeting surged after the protests, with a “line out the door,” to get into the meeting room, according to KTVU.
It appears as though the campus is polarized over the subject of responsibility for Wednesday night’s turn of events. Some lamented vicious acts and paramilitary tactics, employed by masked agitators, as university spokesman Dan Mogulof described them. Others point to the administration’s decision to allow the event to go on despite wide opposition, including from some members of the faculty. (See the letter here).
If there is any room for common ground, it would be that the issues at the heart of the protests — immigration, women’s rights, rape culture, LGBTQ — have been drowned out by dominant portrayals of Wednesday’s events as a war zone between police officers and violent protesters. This was disheartening to those who had hoped to engage peacefully.
The somber mood inside one of the university’s study spaces is a proof of that.
On what was otherwise a busy day, the room was uncharacteristically empty. A campus staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed dismay toward the administration while pointing out the impact Yiannopolous’ presence had created, particularly among LGBTQ students.
“This goes beyond what happened last night,” he said. “Since the election, we have seen an upsurge in the number of students seeking services. Last night exacerbated fears among those who are being singled out [by Yiannopoulos].”