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BERKELEY, Calif.—If what happened on Sep. 14 at the University of California, Berkeley—birthplace of the 1960s "free speech movement"—is really what it takes to protect free speech today in the United States, America may be in trouble.
All afternoon and night, the city of Berkeley could hear the chak-chak-chak sounds of three police helicopters hovering over the campus. Hundreds of police officers from all 10 UC campuses teemed school grounds, armed toe-to-teeth with helmets, bulletproof vests, and batons. The great, terrorizing threat? The 33-year-old, 5-foot-4-inches, wiry conservative pundit Ben Shapiro.
Never mind that Shapiro’s snarky tongue is more forceful than his stature, or that he’s hardly a radical alt-righter—Berkeley was “bracing” for his arrival with unparalleled security measures: Armored tanks and the police bomb squad stationed nearby, while K-9 units roamed the area. The police shut down several buildings surrounding the auditorium where Shapiro spoke, cordoning the perimeter with heavy barricades. Two days before the event, the Berkeley City Council approved the Berkeley Police Department’s request to use pepper spray against violent protesters. Although almost 1,000 tickets to Shapiro’s speech sold out within 45 minutes, the school limited the number of attendees to half its capacity, afraid that someone would fling objects from the upper balconies. The school even offered counseling services for students and staff who may “feel threatened or harassed simply because of who they are or for what they believe.”
Never mind that Shapiro’s snarky tongue is more forceful than his stature, or that he’s hardly a radical alt-righter—Berkeley was “bracing” for his arrival with unparalleled security measures.
This sort of militarized and panicked precaution—reportedly costing the school $600,000—was a far cry from Shapiro’s visit last April, when he had two bodyguards and a hall packed with students of differing ideologies for his audience—no brouhaha, no tears. His own site The Daily Wire reported that students then were “civil and polite, perhaps more so than any other university Shapiro has visited in the last few weeks.”
How things have changed in 17 months. This time, a special welcome banner hung across the building where Shapiro gave his speech: “We say NO to your white supremacist bull—.” Such greetings were everywhere. Someone had scribbled giant messages in chalk all over the sidewalks: “Free speech is not hate speech.” “STOP! Pretending your racism is patriotism.” “Your ‘Free Speech’ KILLS.” Several contained profanities.
Shapiro visits Berkeley in the wake of numerous violent clashes between extremists from both sides. Chaos erupted in February over a scheduled appearance by inflammatory right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos’ speech was canceled, but rioters showed up anyway and caused $100,000 worth of damage. In April, Trump supporters and Trump haters clashed at a Berkeley park after a planned speech by Ann Coulter was also canceled, and they brawled again at the same park in August, after another right-wing rally was canceled last minute. School officials were torn: Do they honor UC Berkeley’s free speech legacy? Or prevent further ruckus by barring all controversial speakers from campus— without assurance that the counter-protesters would come to create havoc anyway? UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ called it “a really troubling situation” but insisted that Shapiro has the right to speak on campus. And that sparked the ire of many people.
One protester said, “Every time they have white supremacists on campus, they allow them to re-traumatize brown people over and over and over again!” He called inviting Shapiro to speak “an obvious safety violation.” A group of about 20 students bunkered down for more than five hours at a shut-down building, chanting, “Speech is violent, we will not be silent!” They carried a sign that said, “UC protects fascism, not students.”
Other than some verbal hassling and the arrest of nine people (mostly for carrying banned weapons), I saw a peaceful demonstration on Thursday, thanks to tougher law enforcement. The Berkeley police had faced criticisms for standing down during previous protests that turned violent, and they faced criticisms again this time round for standing ground. Several students told me they felt unsafe with such strong police presence, and criticized the school for protecting “hate speech” rather than protecting students. One Berkeley junior said, “The UC is not protecting students— historically, policing have never been for people of color, but serves the interest of the rich.” One protester encouraged people to “choose one officer” and “stare him down” until he sees “the pain of reality.”
Not all protesters were students—in fact, most looked like outsiders from fringe organizations. I recognized several faces from previous demonstrations in August—such political confrontations seem to attract the same people who somehow also attract the most attention. I saw the same mustached, scowling, elderly man who screamed obscenities at a Latino Trump supporter over the issue of immigration, once again standing on the front lines with his backpack and iphone. I saw Xochitl Johnson of Refuse Fascism roaring into the mic again against the “white supremacist” and “fascist” Trump-Pence regime. Her group passed out flyers all week warning students that Shapiro is “coming to campus to spread ugly fascist views dressed up in slick-talking ‘intellectual’ garb.” I also saw Amber Cummings, the self-described “transgender patriot” who organized the canceled right-wing rally in August. Cummings carried a sign that read, “Stand Against Antifa” and glared as a large group gathered around screaming, “No Trump! No KKK, no fascist USA!”
Many protesters I talked to called Shapiro a “Nazi” and “fascist” and “white supremacist,” even though he’s an Orthodox Jew who has consistently condemned alt-right groups. According to the Anti-Defamation League, that made Shapiro the No. 1 target for anti-Semitic harassment of journalists on Twitter.
Louwana Montelongo, a freshman at Berkeley, said Shapiro doesn’t have the right to speak about issues regarding minorities like her because he’s “never experienced any sort of oppression” and “doesn’t know what people of color go through on a daily basis.” She blamed “colonial views” like Shapiro’s that “almost wiped out my people.” Montelongo, who’s Native American, said she was particularly “hurt” that her “safe space”—the Native American Student Development Office—was shut down for Shapiro’s event, when she needed it more that day. She said she plans to seek counseling, as will some of her friends. They did not attend Shapiro’s speech.
If they had, they wouldn’t have liked what Shapiro had to say: “If you require counseling because of this speech, let me suggest to you: It would have been safer for you to have gone to psychiatric treatment long ago.” He mocked the apparent need for heightened security—“It’s amazing...Berkeley has actually successfully built a wall before Donald Trump did”—and expressed incredulity that he would be labeled a white supremacist: “I have been spending my entire career standing up to fascism. I am not a fascist.”
Despite the concerns of school officials, most students didn’t seem rattled about having a supposed fascist speak on campus. Hundreds of students wanted to attend Shapiro’s speech but couldn’t because of restricted seats. That afternoon, a long line of students snaked outside the ticket booth hoping for standby tickets, including many who said they disagreed with Shapiro’s views. Some students asked ticket-holders if they were willing to sell theirs. I also witnessed civilized discussions between students who differed in political views, and I heard students thank Shapiro for coming even though they disagreed with him.
Even so, the school continues to fret over their students’ safety. Come late September, a “Free Speech Week” will draw much more provocative speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Stephen Bannon. More than 200 UC Berkeley faculty and instructors have called for a “complete boycott” of the event, condemning the administration for “allowing the Alt-Right to occupy the center of our campus...to harass, threaten, and intimidate us.” With such “hate speech” descending on campus, the “faculty cannot teach, staff cannot work, and students cannot learn,” their open letter said. But from what I saw on Thursday, the kids should be fine.