The president of the Berkeley College Republicans opened the club’s first meeting of the school year by telling prospective members not to join it — unless they were prepared to put themselves in danger.
“In Berkeley, you’re not going to just have your ideas challenged,” Troy Worden, 21, said to a crowded lecture hall on a recent Thursday night.
“You’re going to have your physical wellbeing challenged, your health and your safety challenged,” he said. “If you get involved in this club in a public capacity, if you put your name out there for what you believe in, if you go on the news, you will be targeted. This is a warning.”
There were about 75 people at that inaugural, late August meeting. A few red “Make America Great Again” hats were sprinkled around the room, though Cal t-shirts were more common. Most in attendance were UC Berkeley students, but some right-wing organizers who are mainstays at local political events were there too, a few holding out their phones to live stream the gathering. Altogether, the crowd was about fivefold the size of the audience at the equivalent College Republicans meeting the year before.
Until 2016, the members of the Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) were unknown to many on the UC Berkeley campus, let alone to the rest of the country. In the past, the club consisted of about 10 to 20 conservative students who held small events and participated in local campaigns.
“When I started out, there wasn’t as much energy and activism,” Worden, a senior, told Berkeleyside. But when then-candidate Donald Trump came on the scene, there was a spike in participation.
“He brought over a lot of people who weren’t otherwise interested in politics,” Worden said. “Really what’s been happening with College Republicans across the state is a microcosm of what’s been happening at a national level.” BCR began recruiting regularly alongside other student groups on Sproul Plaza, often proudly flying a Trump flag next to their table.
Then, on Feb. 1, the group brought former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus. The self-described troll has a large following in some far-right circles and is known for making inflammatory comments about feminism and Islam, among almost every other cultural topic one could think of. At UC Berkeley, he planned to discuss illegal immigration, and there were rumors that he would teach attendees how to “doxx,” or expose the identities of undocumented students, and he would name a number of them himself. Yiannopoulos has denied the allegations.
But he did not get a chance to talk about anything that night. Protests by antifa organizers, who descended on campus “blocked up” in masks and black clothing, setting property on fire and reportedly physically attacking people, prompted UC Berkeley to call off the event.
Few predicted the extent of the protests that night, which cost Cal $100,000 in damages, and fewer expected the subsequent string of rallies that have rocked Berkeley since. On four separate occasions, groups on the right and far right, from local conservatives to prominent white supremacists, have flocked to Berkeley, embracing the symbolism of rallying for conservatives’ free speech in the liberal “birthplace of free speech.”
On most occasions, antifa and other counter-demonstrators, intent on shutting down what they view as hate speech and burgeoning fascism, have shown up to confront them. Some of the events quickly morphed into bloody battles. And depending on whom you ask, either BCR or their antifa protesters were the catalysts of the drama. Club members talked to Berkeleyside about how they view their role in the chain of events that have shaken their campus and the city.
Hoping to make the history books
A video shown at the August meeting demonstrates how BCR members view their position on campus: as victims — of an oppressive university, militant radicals and harassment from their overwhelmingly liberal peers. Set to somber piano music, the video opens with photos from the Yiannopoulos protest and sound bites of pundits discussing the “complete disgusting chaos” and “just how fascist many on the campus left have become.” The short video segues into images of headlines from clashes between BCR and UC Berkeley, footage of a student apparently destroying BCR signs, and photos of campus graffiti that says “Kill BCR” and “Behead the B.C.R.s.”
BCR members say they felt betrayed by the university the night of the Yiannopoulos speech because they were let loose into the protests without a police escort. The members say they were beaten and chased by the activists. Worden says he hid out in a dorm room after the event until his parents came and picked him up since BART was not stopping at the downtown station due to the violence.
What did not suffer in the aftermath of the protests was the club’s membership. Immediately after, dozens more students began attending meetings, and some got involved with what has become BCR’s ongoing campaign against the UC Berkeley administration.
In what they have referred to as tests of the campus’ commitment to freedom of speech, club leaders have invited a series of conservative speakers to campus, some more controversial than others. Like the Yiannopoulos speech, events featuring author David Horowitz and commentator Ann Coulter never ended up happening. The university, citing safety concerns in light of the Yiannopoulos event, as well as the students’ failure to comply with campus events policies, placed restrictions on when and where the engagements could take place, and BCR in turned cried censorship. In April, BCR, along with the Young America’s Foundation, which bankrolls some BCR events, sued UC Berkeley for suppressing their freedom of speech. The case is still in the courts, but has garnered support from some unlikely characters, including Bernie Sanders.
Even the president has weighed in on the events at Cal, apparently threatening to cut funding for the university.
“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Trump wrote in a tweet sent immediately after the Yiannopoulos protest.
Facing pressure from many angles, the university has begun to take a different tack, stacking the campus with UC police and mutual aid during BCR events, shelling out, for example, an estimated $600,000 for security surrounding a speech by conservative author Ben Shapiro on Sept. 14 and filtering all attendees through metal detectors into a cordoned-off area. That event, where Shapiro discussed liberal “campus thuggery,” occurred with little to no violence. Mostly peaceful protests took place in the streets. Black bloc protesters never indicated that they intended to show up, however.
In the lead-up to each of the BCR events, a pattern has developed. Each time, there is a tug-of-war between the university and the student group, with the media serving as the stage on which the tussles take place.
Often the campus has told the press that BCR invited a speaker or announced the event date before consulting with the university or hashing out the details. In Shapiro’s case, Cal first said no venue was available, then turned around and said it would cover cost of the premier Zellerbach Hall, which is not normally offered to students without a reservation fee. It is customary, however, for student groups to cover security costs, and the amount required in that case was around $9,000, which was, according to BCR, “unconstitutionally,” high.
Cal spokesman Dan Mogulof has not shied away from expressing his exasperation with BCR.
“It’s hard to understand this ongoing lack of respect for law enforcement professionals who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the campus,” he told Berkeleyside in early September. UCPD had just determined that the number of available seats for Shapiro’s talk would need to be slashed for safety reasons, prompting complaints from BCR, which, Mogulof pointed out, had asked for tight security. “It’s been frustrating to hear a group consistently complain when all the campus is doing is exactly what they requested. It needs to stop,” he said.
Throughout the series of events this past year, BCR has gained rising national recognition, with members appearing on Tucker Carlson to discuss their grievances with Cal and earning profiles in the likes of the New York Times. Some view the young people as tireless soldiers for basic student rights, and brave speckles of red in a sea of varying shades of blue. Their harshest critics instead view them as entitled attention-seekers who drain campus resources. Intercept reporter Lee Fang accused BCR and the national groups behind it of purposely provoking left-wing violence with offensive events, thereby earning sympathy for the right.
As for the BCR members themselves, they believe they are central forces ushering in an exciting new era of politics on campus and beyond. Worden often says there has not been this kind of opportunity for student activism since the 1960s, frequently comparing their cause to that of the leftist students who made campus activism possible during Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement.
At the August BCR meeting, Worden told club members they have an opportunity to be part of something big.
“Make no mistake, we are at a historical moment,” he said. “In the past, being part of a political organization on campus hasn’t been newsworthy. What you do today and the day after will resonate throughout history. If you want to be part of a new Free Speech Movement, you’ve come to the right place. History will make sure that the names of the people involved in this movement today will be remembered.” Referring to the student leader of the Free Speech Movement, he told them: “The next Mario Savio could be in this room.”
After the meeting, many of the students in attendance said they had watched the events unfold over the spring and had become intrigued by, and supportive of, BCR.
A freshman in a Trump shirt said he had followed the Yiannopoulos protests and ensuing events with interest while applying to colleges.
“I saw the controversy,” said Michael, 18, from San Diego. He declined to give his last name. “It may be interesting to be part of history.” He and a friend noted that UC Berkeley seemed less liberal than it is made up to be.
Another freshman, Max Keating from Boston, said he never expected to end up in California but was impressed with Cal when he visited it last year. Formerly active in his high school Young Republicans chapter, Keating said he was interested in BCR but a little deterred by the ideological bent.
“Unlike some of these other people, I’m not too hot on President Trump,” he said. “I think it’s important that [the club leaders] try to legitimize themselves, and distance themselves from the alt-right.”
BCR: “Attention-getting and provocative” helps spread the message
Until recently, BCR was dominated by what Naweed Tahmas, the current vice president, unfavorably calls “Romney Republicans.” He means the sort who are passionate about tax cuts and free trade.
“It’s easy to convince people to lower their taxes,” Tahmas, 21, told Berkeleyside. “But right now we’re in an era where culture matters. What have conservatives really conserved in the last decade? Our civil liberties, our national identity? No.” To the UC Berkeley senior, who is also a member of a campus Christian organization, Judeo-Christian values are in jeopardy.
“We’re becoming more secularized and forgetting that,” Tahmas said. “I agree with [Steve] Bannon that capitalism is in crisis.” In addition to the ousted White House chief strategist, Tahmas counts senior advisor Stephen Miller, British statesman and theorist Edmund Burke and Trump among his political idols.
While not the only brand of Republicanism represented in BCR, Tahmas’ has become the most common. And the students have learned that, as political minorities on campus, they “must present a united front,” he said.
Tahmas, the son of Persian immigrants, grew up in Oceanside, in San Diego County, where he claims to have “seen the problems of illegal immigration and seen how the drugs and guns get smuggled over the border.”
It is no surprise that Tahmas, a careful and confident speaker, wants to go to law school, but it is perhaps surprising that his top choice is Cal’s law school. “I like UC Berkeley, and I like debating my professors,” he said. “The easy way out is to go to a school that’s conservative. Here, you have to know your ideology inside and out — and your opponent’s ideology too.”
As the press has inundated the club with interview requests, Tahmas and Worden have become its public faces. There are a few other elected club leaders, but they have to get clearance from Tahmas and Worden to speak to the media on behalf of BCR, in part because the club is in the midst of a lawsuit. (Tahmas: “The university only has one spokesperson despite being a large institution. We try to stick to the same model.”)
Together, Tahmas and Worden, who were friends before they began leading the club, refer to themselves as “fire and ice.”
Tahmas is the fire because “I’m the bulldog — I go to the media and I rip the university a new one every time they make a mistake or attempt to silence our speakers.” Worden, he said, “is usually the calm one. It’s like Mike Pence and Trump — Trump’s the firebrand and Pence is more cool.”
Worden similarly grew up in a conservative, though not very politically active, family. A descendant of farmers, Worden was born in Berkeley, but has lived most of life in Pittsburg, Calif., and is the first in his family to go to college. Worden dresses like the collegiate English and philosophy major he is, often sporting blazers and bowties. It is English literature that he credits with his political beliefs, and specifically his reading of “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley and “1984” by George Orwell in high school.
In those novels, Worden wrote in an email to Berkeleyside, “all the beauty and suffering of life had been stamped out in favor of a safe and sterile existence. It appeared obvious to me then — as it does now — that the forces of modernity and post-modernity, assisted by the academic and cultural left, had been moving the Western world further and further away from its heritage, toward pop music, consumerism, and ‘safe spaces’ — in short, mediocrity.”
At the BCR meeting in late August, board members went around naming their favorite politicians and pundits, and Worden’s pick was philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, because “he’s a contrarian.”
Worden was the one who invited Yiannopoulos, whom he likes for somewhat similar reasons. “He is attention-getting and provocative,” Worden said. “The best thing, and maybe a point of criticism as well, is through being an agent provocateur, he can reach a larger audience, who someone more pedantic wouldn’t.” The problem, according to Worden, is “academics and students at the number-one public university can’t tell the difference between his rhetoric and his arguments.”
Although the university administration is BCR’s primary target, antifa and the students who harass the club are a close second and third. At BCR’s second meeting this fall, the students, after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, played a game of jeopardy, answering questions written by club leaders. “Antifa ruins everything” was one of the categories.
The members talk often about their disgust with Yvette Felcarca, a Berkeley middle school teacher and controversial organizer with By Any Means Necessary, a far-left group. Tahmas likes to introduce himself as “the person Yvette Felarca called an effing Nazi.”
BCR members say they have been harassed and stalked by the far left, their faces appearing on fliers and their club the subject of threats tagged around campus. In January, the Daily Cal reported that antifascist group Northern California Anti-Racist Action had scoured the club members’ social media accounts and posted their names and information online, aiming to reveal who was planning the February event.
Another photo spread around antifa websites was a screenshot of Tahmas from an inauguration day interview with Nathan Damigo, a white supremacist with the group Identity Evropa. Tahmas insists he did not know who Damigo was at the time, though he and other club members have since participated in Berkeley rallies where Damigo and his allies, along with a wide range of other demonstrators, protested.
BCR members complain that Felarca and other members in her organization harass them and come to their meetings. By Any Means Necessary believes extreme measures are sometimes necessary to prevent the rise of bigotry and fascism, and Felarca was recently charged with felony assault in connection with actions at a neo-Nazi rally counterprotest in Sacramento. However, it was Felarca who was recently granted a temporary restraining order against Worden for harassment, not the other way around. It was the second TRO she has received, both ordering a UC Berkeley student to stay 100 yards away from her.
In court papers, Felarca stated that she first met Worden in February when he approached her on Sproul Plaza and asked to take a selfie with her because he “admired and respected” her. But after the pair posed for a photo, Worden allegedly touched Felarca’s face in a way that scared her, according to court papers. Since then, Worden and his peers have allegedly shown up at BAMN meetings and stalked, stared at and made threatening comments to Felarca. “I feel frightened and unsafe at UC Berkeley knowing that Troy Worden can appear anytime,” Felarca wrote.
Worden told Berkeleyside that he plans to respond publicly to Felarca’s accusations soon.
Antifa has not shown up at all BCR events, and organizers have said they make a distinction between speech they find dangerous and deserving of being “shut down,” like that of Yiannopoulos, and speech they find abhorrent but not a propeller of fascism, like Coulter’s or Shapiro’s. Antifa was mostly absent on April 27, the day Coulter was expected to appear. On It’s Going Down, an antifa publication, an anonymous author posted photos of Tahmas and Worden allegedly crashing a protest-planning meeting in advance of the Yiannopoulos speech.
Since Yiannopoulos, BCR has worked with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) to bring — or attempt to bring — each of its speakers. The foundation supports conservative campus activism, covering the cost of lectures by speakers on a pre-approved list, and offering guidance and resources to young conservatives looking to start college and high school clubs. YAF sued Cal along with BCR, and paid the travel costs and security fee for Shapiro — but not without making it known that Cal was “forcing conservative students to shell out more than $15,000 in security charges.” (They had initially requested only 500 seats, which would have cost closer to $6,000. When UCPD lowered the number of available seats, the amount dropped to $9,000.)
A recent Daily Cal report found that YAF has spent $54.3 million on its campus events program since 2005. Among its donors and supporters are many prominent conservatives, including Vice President Mike Pence, the Koch brothers, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
YAF also sends BCR a shipment of small American flags each year, for a September 11 memorial. This year, the club members painstakingly stuck more than 2,000 of them in the ground on Cal’s Memorial Glade, spelling out the message “9-11 never forget.” Members took shifts standing watch all day, to prevent a repeat of last year, when they say some students trampled on the display. This year the club, unwittingly but to its amusement, built the exhibit in a section of the lawn underneath a building displaying a large “#RESIST” sign in its windows.
As students showed up to help prepare the memorial that Monday morning, sophomore Rudra Reddy welcomed them and encouraged newcomers to get more involved in the club. He told them they need not be scared, despite the president’s comments at the first meeting.
“Troy wanted to make us look like crusaders against the campus liberal hegemony, but that’s a little bit of an exaggeration,” Reddy said. “If you want to stay anonymous, nobody will come out and doxx you.”
A junior transfer student asked, “What if that’s the goal?”
Not finished yet
BCR does not spend all its time inviting inflammatory speakers to campus. The group also holds debates with its Democratic counterparts, attends conservative conventions and volunteers on campaigns.
At the late August meeting, the club leaders gave potential members a taste of the discussions they might partake in, speaking about the potential end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and what their talking points should be when liberals challenge them.
This was a few days before Trump would announce the end of the Obama-era program shielding from deportation some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children if they are in school or have graduated. Many in the room did not yet know exactly what DACA was. A club leader told the audience that Democrats would focus on the innocence of those who did not choose to come to the United States. Republicans, he said, must focus on the threat to the economy due to immigrants’ use of public assistance.
“Why not just change welfare laws?” a skeptical student asked.
Ivan Varela, 21, a junior, said the DACA discussion was a bit upsetting for him.
“As a Latino, I don’t agree with Trump,” said Varela, who wore a Reagan-Bush ’84 shirt to one meeting. “I think the party has been hijacked by bigots. I think DACA students are contributing to the economy and paying taxes, and they don’t know any other country.” But he nevertheless gushed about BCR and the community he found there, a welcome refuge from the “indoctrination center” that is the rest of the campus in his view.
Tanner Michaelson, a sophomore from Fresno agreed that BCR’s existence helps make an inhospitable campus “an equal safe space” for conservatives, as much as that is a worthy pursuit. (“I don’t really believe in safe spaces,” he clarified.) The 19-year-old said he is more socially liberal than other club members, but still finds it challenging to go to classes each day where professors attack his ideas. He used to have a Trump sticker on his laptop, but removed it after being told to get off a plane by another passenger.
Many of the club members seek out the solidarity and friendship offered by BCR membership, but they are also well aware of the career opportunities their work and renown may produce.
One BCR alum, Alex Marlow, is one of the loudest megaphones for the far right as editor-in-chief of Breitbart News. According to a San Francisco Magazine profile, Marlow first met the late Andrew Breitbart at a 2007 YAF convention, where he went to represent BCR. Breitbart has covered BCR’s recent trials closely, portraying the students as victims, as most conservative, and a number of neutral, publications have. Some club members are correspondents for the conservative Campus Reform themselves.
One conservative publication, however, ran an op-ed calling BCR’s project harmful.
“Every invitation extended to Yiannopoulos validates the idea that his alternately childish and hateful views are in some way ‘conservative,’” the National Review author wrote. “Campus groups helped make Yiannopoulos and his alt-right sympathies more popular, and gave him the attention he craves in spades.”
Yiannopoulos plans to come back to campus next week for a so-called “Free Speech Week.” The provocateur seems to be the main orchestrator of the event, but conservative campus publication the Berkeley Patriot is sponsoring it and serving as the go-between with the university.
There is heavy crossover in membership between BCR and the Berkeley Patriot, but the groups are distinct, and the publication is planning the series of events to coincide with the re-launch of the new newspaper. Though it has not been published recently, the Patriot has existed for many years, and historically the same person has often run both the paper and the club.
As of publication time, most of the Free Speech Week speakers are not confirmed, and other logistics are up in the air, according to university officials.
BCR’s last event was conversely able to occur relatively smoothly, but that does not mean the club is calling it a day.
“This is perhaps one win in the battle, but the war [with Cal] continues,” Tahmas said. “We’re going to hold their feet to the fire.”