On the night of Wednesday Feb. 1, a light fixture was destroyed and set on fire at my campus. The new glass doors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union were shattered. Blood flowed from the faces of those beaten. I inhaled tear gas deployed by the university police. I watched as officers in full riot-gear shot rubber bullets into the crowd of protesters. Wednesday night my campus was transformed into a war zone because Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak.
The Berkeley College Republicans decided to host the inflammatory bigot as a stop on his 18-campus Dangerous Faggot Tour. Despite outcries from concerned students, triggered by Milo’s racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic and transphobic rhetoric, and the recent news of protesters being shot at Yiannopoulos’ events, the College Republicans pledged to raise $10,000 to host him. When over 100 faculty members sent an open-letter to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks imploring him to cancel the event, a university-wide email was sent in reply refusing to ban the speaker and upholding his right to free expression.
The ironic invocation of the Free Speech Movement as protection for Yiannopoulos’ hate speech is troubling in its own right, but most notably because our Chancellor has not otherwise been a strong defender of free speech on our campus. Last semester, Dirks cancelled a deCAL (Democratic Education at CAL), a peer-to-peer education course, largely organized by Muslim students that sought to explore the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The students went through the proper channels to secure a faculty sponsor and had the syllabus approved by the Academic Senate. Nonetheless, Dirks cancelled the course one week before the start of class for fear it might stir up anti-Semitism. Such actions protect neither free speech nor academic freedom, but they do send a clear message to our Muslim student population.
Beyond being a violator of free speech in the classroom, Chancellor Dirks has seldom been a defender of other first-amendment rights, like the right of assembly. In 2015, he revised the UC Berkeley Code of Conduct, creating stricter sanctions for protests and demonstrations. In a time of major budgetary woes, with the campus running a $150 million structural deficit, the Chancellor spent $700,000 constructing a wrought-iron fence around his on-campus mansion, which is often a target of student demonstrations. An additional $9,000 was spent creating an emergency exit from his office in California Hall to evade student protests.
Multiple student organizers involved in the Student Labor Committee at UC Berkeley have been met with harassment by Chancellor Dirks for their activism. In 2016 when Kristian Kim spoke out about labor violations, wage theft, and sexual assaults among outsourced contracted workers at the University of California, they were threatened with suspension from college. Another student was tackled by UCPD and charged with resisting arrest when he jumped on the Zellerbach stage to disrupt a performance and make an announcement about the horrific treatment of UC workers.
At UC Berkeley there is clearly a double standard for what is protected as free speech. Men like Milo Yiannopoulos, who incite violence at speaking engagements and publicly humiliate lesbians, feminists and transgender people, are given a stage, while students engaged in scholarship and social justice are actively silenced.
On Feb. 2 our Chancellor released a statement condemning the violence that ensued at Wednesday night’s protest against Yiannopoulos. The Chancellor blamed outside agitators in “ninja-like uniforms” for the destruction of campus buildings, and said they violated Yiannopoulos’ right to a public platform. But UC Berkeley is not an isolated ivory tower. Our campus is embedded within a city still reeling from Donald Trump’s immigration ban that targets Muslims. Chancellor Dirks and the College Republicans refuse to take responsibility for hosting an Islamophobic provocateur in the MLK Student Union, which houses the Muslim Student Association as well as the Multicultural Community Center.
Rather than learning from the events that transpired at Yiannopoulos’ engagement at UC Davis, or at the University of Washington and preemptively cancelling the event, the university called in police reinforcements from across the state to intimidate and terrorize protesters. Rather than remove one fascist from our campus, our Chancellor chose to invite rubber bullets, tear gas and handcuffs. Within a few hours, outside agitators were able to do what diplomatic students and faculty have failed to do for months – cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’ event. On Wednesday night, riots were the voice of the unheard.