Opinion: UC Berkeley’s response to ‘Rally Against Hate’ is appalling

UC Berkeley’s administration and Police Department should prove they value free speech for those who resist hate as much as they value it for those who promote hate.

Officials have set up concrete barriers around the UC Berkeley crescent area. Photo: Heidi Sachs

Dear Chancellor Christ,

Today I am sadly ashamed to be a UC Berkeley alum. Although I’ve never viewed the UC as a perfect institution, the level of hypocrisy and cowardice being displayed by UC Berkeley today challenges anything I would have previously thought possible.

UCPD’s directive for people to stay away from the Bay Area Rally Against Hate, combined with the unsafe and counterproductive barricading of the West Crescent, fly in the face of UC Berkeley’s commitment to free expression and freedom of speech — principles which you yourself extolled in a campus news release not even a week ago.

I understand that the UC administration and UCPD wish to protect public safety during large demonstrations. But the approach being taken to the Bay Area Rally Against Hate on Sunday, Aug. 27, not only directly contravenes the principles you laid out in your letter, but also seems counterproductive with respect to public safety.

In your letter, you wrote: “Berkeley, as you know, is the home of the Free Speech Movement, where students on the right and students on the left united to fight for the right to advocate political views on campus. Particularly now, it is critical that the Berkeley community come together once again to protect this right. It is who we are.”

The approach that your administration and UCPD are taking toward the Rally Against Hate is the antithesis of protecting the “right to advocate political views on campus.” Everything UCPD is doing so far appears designed to make it more difficult and less safe for people to peacefully participate in the Rally Against Hate.

Says Eric Panzer, who shared this photograph, “West Crescent all but enclosed by UCPD. Only 1 opening <15ft. Now hard to believe this is for protection of rally attendees.”

I understand that creating a single access point to the rally area may be seen as the best way to check participants for weapons. But this seems to be overkill at best, and at worst potentially a major hazard. If, heaven forbid, anyone should direct violence toward the Rally Against Hate (which has from the beginning been promoted as a peaceful event), then participants trying to escape that violence may find themselves completely blocked in by barricades. Some participants may be able enough to simply step or jump over them; but others may not be physically able. Even worse, if a confusion or panic arises, people could find themselves crushed up against these large, heavy barriers.

Similarly, UCPD’s absurdly long list of disallowed items seems less designed to protect attendees and more designed to make it inconvenient, if not impossible, for people to attend the rally. The list of prohibited items includes many things of legitimate concern; but it also goes to an absurd extreme. Among the prohibited items are: backpacks or bags; Nalgene or other hard-sided water bottles; tripods; bicycles; and any liquid not in a factory-sealed container. For people with health issues, small children, or who just want to be able to stay hydrated during the rally, this list of contraband sends a clear message: Your free speech is not welcome on the UC Berkeley Campus.

I am frankly appalled that UC Berkeley would expend so much money and effort to ensure the safety and security of extremist right-wing speakers on campus, while actively discouraging people from participating in peaceful events in opposition to their message of hate. The Bay Area Rally Against Hate is following the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide to dealing with the alt-right. Consistent with the SPLC’s recommendations, the Rally Against Hate is a “joyful protest away from [the alt-right’s] event.” The UC administration and UCPD should be encouraging people to come to the Rally Against Hate precisely to discourage direct confrontation at Berkeley’s Civic Center.

Chancellor Christ, last week you wrote: “Respond to hate speech with more speech… Free speech is our legacy, and we have the power once more to shape this narrative.”

Here is your opportunity to shape this narrative. Please act immediately to restore Berkeley’s commitment to free speech for all and not just for right-wing extremists:

  • Direct UCPD to rescind their request that people “stay away” from the Rally Against Hate. Prove to the UC Berkeley community and the world that you will protect freedom of speech for those who fight hate as fiercely as you protect it for those who promote hate.
  • Direct UCPD to keep barricades only where they are most likely to prevent physical confrontation with violent protestors who may come from the Berkeley Civic Center; but direct them to remove barricades wherever possible to promote the safe and swift exit of peaceful participants in the event of violence or another emergency.
  • Direct UCPD to check for and confiscate actual weapons or truly threatening items and to patrol the rally area as necessary; but also direct UCPD not to treat legitimate items like plastic water bottles and bicycles as weapons, as this would distract them from the true threats.

Today my faith in the notion that UC Berkeley is an institution that defends free speech while opposing intolerance was badly shaken. But you, Chancellor Christ, have the ability to restore that faith, not just for me, but for the entire campus and Berkeley community. We are counting on you.

With hope,
Eric Panzer

Eric Panzer and is a Berkeley resident and a 2007 UC Berkeley alum.