Berkeley Riots: How Free Speech Debate Launched Violent Campus Showdown

When a controversial blogger was invited to speak, protests got out of hand – but some say that's nothing compared with danger of normalizing hate

"This could have been a teaching moment for our students," says one professor. Credit: Noah Berger/Redux

Last week's riot at University of California Berkeley has raised some big questions about the future of the free speech movement. A divided campus – which once incubated the ideals of the 1960s – was sent into lockdown as it struggled to balance inclusive values with its legacy of fighting for the right to voice your opinion, however ugly it may be.

When the Berkeley College Republicans invited inflammatory Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus, over 100 faculty members signed letters of protest, urging the administration to cancel his visit, while an op-ed by veterans of the free-speech movement defended his right to speak. The university decided that the Berkeley College Republicans, a separate legal entity from the school itself, had the right to host Yiannopoulos – but many in the community didn't agree with that decision, pointing to other schools that have successfully prevented his appearances.

The night Yiannopoulos arrived on campus, 1,500 people showed up to protest – some carting a giant, homemade dove to symbolize their peaceful intentions. But just after sundown, the protests turned violent, as roughly 150 black-clad, anti-fascist radicals with clubs and shields lit fires, hurled Molotov cocktails, smashed windows and caused enough of a scene to achieve their objective: deny Yiannopoulos the opportunity to spread what they view as dangerous hate speech at the university's new Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union Center.

They were successful. But what does that mean for a campus uniquely tied to the idea that everyone – even those holding ideas widely condemned and deemed to be offensive, ignorant or hateful – has the right to say their piece?

University officials were disappointed by the events, quickly distancing themselves from the rioters. "It's not a proud moment for us," says Dan Mogulof, assistant vice chancellor of the university. "It was a sad day, given UC Berkeley's legacy, history and institutional values… We want to provide a venue for speakers across the political spectrum."

Although it's difficult to determine the affiliations of the more militant protesters – who used the "black bloc" tactic of wearing all black and masking their faces, in order to avoid police recognition and appear as a cohesive group – they have been depicted as being from out of town and unrelated to the UC Berkeley community. Yet Rolling Stone spoke to one participant who said they graduated from the university and cited not only fears that a rising far right could bring about more "xenophobia, misogyny and [white] ethno-nationalism" but also anger and disappointment directly pointed at the university's administration.

"Shutting down the talk was successful," the protester, who asked to remain anonymous, said in an email. "But it was also about sending a message to everyone else: We aren't about to allow white supremacist views to be normalized. It was about striking at the seemingly impervious confidence the far right has been boasting."

But it isn't just about blocking a single speaker. "It is really about making them understand the danger they pose by treating these insane neo-Nazi ideas cavalierly," the protester says. "People talk a lot about 'freedom of speech' and I think this fetish of speech misses the larger point. It is about ideas of freedom itself. Who has it, and who is denied it."

Lately, Trump supporters at UC Berkeley have had reason to be fearful. One, who told news cameras he was attacked by protesters, was seen bleeding from his eye. Another was pepper-sprayed by a masked individual after giving an interview to a local TV station. A day after the protest, two people were arrested for attacking a man walking near campus with a "Make America Great Again" hat. Video of an unconscious Trump supporter lying face down in the street and being struck in the head with what was described as a shovel circulated online.

"It's become evident that the black bloc is not just a matter of concern for local agencies," says Assistant Vice Chancellor Mogulof. "We've taken note of the tactics, weapons, discipline, organization and training. We will not be caught unprepared for them again."

The majority of protesters didn't engage in violence. Max Raynard, a Bay-Area native who attended the protests, witnessed students attempting to give water and medical attention to the Trump supporter with the eye wound. UC Berkeley says the next day students formed an ad-hoc group via social media to clean up campus.

But despite the majority's actions, university policies and widely condemned views of Yiannopoulos, the shut-down of the event brought a larger issue to light. "The whole point of the free-speech movement was to defend unpopular speech. There's no point in defending popular speech," says Jack Citrin, professor of political science and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the university. "This could have been a teaching moment for our students: that it is legitimate for people with views you find abhorrent to speak, and to debate them, and to do so with a superior argument. Instead, it ends up a moment where this provocateur gets exactly what he wanted."

Citrin, who received his PhD from Berkeley in 1970 and was passionate about the free speech movement as a student, says he was heartened by the chancellor's decision to resist pressure and allow the event to go forward. He argued much along the same lines as the op-ed written by the Free Speech Movement Archive Board of Directors. "If even a 10th of the 100 or so faculty who signed those pro-ban open letters showed up to ask this bigot tough questions or held a teach-in about what's wrong and unethical in his vitriol," read the op-ed,"they could puncture his PR bubble instantly, avoid casting him in the role of free speech martyr and prove that the best cure for ignorant and hateful speech is speech that unmasks its illogic, cruelty and stupidity."

Citrin believes the battle for free speech on college campuses is still raging, just in a new way. "I think the defense of free speech is a very real issue now," he says. "And that battle takes place in many forms, and includes demands for so-called 'safe spaces,' – which I view as absurd. There's a whole range of issues that have arisen that has made the firm commitment to free speech in academia less secure."

These violent protesters, he says, claim to be liberal but don't believe in free speech. "This is a gift to Milo, and of course presents Trump with an opportunity to get on his horn." (The president tweeted at 3:13 a.m. "If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?" Experts quickly responded saying the president's ability to fulfill this threat was "unlikely.")

According to a statement put out by the university, there was one arrest (for failure to disperse) and six minor injuries the night of the protests. The school's early estimate is that $100,000 worth of damage was done to the area outside its new MLK Student Union building – a popular study spot. A large diesel-fuel fire, started after protesters tipped over a light post and generator, was hot enough to be felt 20 or 30 feet away, scorch nearby steps, and thin out a couple of trees, students present at the protest told Rolling Stone.

Robert Borsdorf, a 20-year-old third-year art student at Berkeley spent part of the night documenting the protests on behalf of the art department, and another part of it wrestling with protesters who didn't want him to photograph their faces.

"I look over my right and this dude has a fucking mason jar," says Borsdorf. "He lit it and tossed it up at these cops. When I turn around, there's something going toward the cop and it exploded. It was insane."

The black-bloc protester who spoke to RS on condition of anonymity says they "took it pretty easy that night," and that they still believe in the tactics.

"In this case, with the goal being to absolutely shut down a central target, it made sense to employ these means to ensure that the University understands there are consequences for enabling fascism," the protester says. "The demonstration had less to do with stopping one particular right-wing narcissist than it did combatting the movement he is part of."

Peaceful activists, direct-action anarchists, conservative provocateurs, campus faculty and the UC Berkeley Police can't agree on much. But there is one topic where they do: The police presence and response to the protest was small and non-interventional. And that's not by mistake.

The notably muted response was not part of a conspiracy by administrators to allow protesters to stop the event – despite suggestions on social media and from Yiannopoulos himself in interviews. Rather, it was the direct result of officials following the guidelines of the Robinson-Edley report, campus officials said. The report was drafted to suggest changes to protest-management on California universities after two clashes between protesters and police in November 2011. One, when protesters were pepper sprayed at UC Davis, and the other a violent beating of protesters at UC Berkeley. The report's findings prioritize student safety, and support more non-physical methods, like opening lines of communication and building trust.

But after the violent clashes, the lines of communication and bedrock of trust on campus can be hard to find. Mogulof recalled a phone call he received before the protests.

"I had a faculty member of the campus call me and say, 'You must ban him,'" he recalls. "I said, 'We're not allowed to do that, he is protected by the first amendment.' They say 'No, he's not.' So I say, 'Why do you believe that?' and they said, 'Because he's wrong.'"