Amid a massive police presence and tight security that cost Cal an estimated $600,000, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro spoke to an enthusiastic audience at Zellerbach Hall on Thursday night while hundreds of protesters were cordoned off on Bancroft Avenue.
Hundreds of people who had passed through metal detectors, bag and ID checks came to hear the 33-year-old conservative political commenter talk, and hundreds also showed up to protest his presence on campus — demonstrating for up to six hours in the area of Bancroft and Telegraph. But there was hardly any violence and no reported vandalism. Berkeley Police reported there had been nine arrests, many for attempts to bring prohibited weapons into the secured area.
Antifa was a no-show.
The orderliness of the evening was in sharp contrast to that of Feb. 1 when a group of about 150 black-clad masked demonstrators surged onto Sproul Plaza and stormed the metal barricades, hurled incendiary devices and broke windows, forcing the cancellation of a talk by then-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who was set to speak about illegal immigration. That evening set off a string of rallies that have roiled Berkeley and the campus since then.
Carol Christ, who took over as UC Berkeley chancellor in the summer, vowed to allow a year of “free speech” on campus. The university even took the unusual step of paying the rental costs of Zellerbach to ensure that Shapiro’s talk, hosted by the Berkeley College Republicans, could go on.
At a press conference held on campus after the Shapiro talk ended, around 9 p.m., UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said “there was a sense of relief and satisfaction” among administrators with the way the evening had played out. UC Police Chief Margo Bennett said the police presence on campus was “similar to Coulter” — referring to the heavy deployment for what turned out to be the non-appearance of the conservative pundit — and much larger than for Yiannopoulos. Mogulof said there were “no regrets” about the extraordinary measures taken, though earlier in the day he had said the security tab for the university would likely be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The university may only have a short time to process the lessons it learned Thursday, as Yiannopoulos has announced he is returning to Cal for his own “Free Speech Week,” from Sept. 24 to Sept. 27. Yiannopoulos has said he is bringing a bevy of far-right stars, including former White House advisor Steve Bannon, conservative commentators Ann Coulter and Mike Cernovich, David Horowitz and more. Yiannopoulos has said those speakers will talk in Zellerbach Hall in events sponsored by the newly revived publication, the Berkeley Patriot.
But Mogulof said Thursday night that the university has not received the proper notification or paperwork to set Yiannopoulos’ vision in motion. He added that he had received a call this week from a confused speaker who had no idea why they had been included on Yiannopoulos’ list.
Protesting for six hours straight
Protests against Shapiro on Thursday started close to 5 p.m., when Refuse Fascism, a communist-oriented group, set up an amplification system on the sidewalk on Bancroft Way near Telegraph Avenue. The group had people talk for almost six hours straight about President Trump, how Shapiro was a fascist even though he was Jewish, the repeal of DACA, and how police are protecting the right.
At times they chanted, “How do you spell violence? CHP,” or “No Trump. No KKK. No fascist USA.”
A group of about 30 students who had remained inside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union building after Cal officials shut the building at 4 p.m. came out onto a walkway during the protests to declare they were conducting a “sit-in.” There was a back and forth between them and the protesters. The students finally left the building, after some negotiations with police.
The protests stayed on Bancroft Avenue for the entire evening. As a security precaution, Cal had blocked access to Sproul Plaza, Lower Sproul, Sproul Hall, the student union building and other buildings. White concrete and plastic orange barriers known as K-rails formed a perimeter between the south side of campus and the street. Hundreds of police officers from around the state, including contingents from all nine UC campuses, the Berkeley and Oakland police departments, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and the California Highway Patrol, stood all night facing the crowd. Dressed in bulletproof vests, helmets, and carrying batons, plastic handcuffs, and other items, they were an intimidating presence.
Three young men from Santa Clarita had driven north because they were curious to see antifa and because they wanted to support free speech. They were shirtless and had “USA” painted on their chests in red, silver and blue. Landon, 19, said they had all grown up pampered in Los Angeles and wanted to “come to the epicenter.”
“”We wanted to see what was going down,” he said. He declined to give his last name. The trio acknowledged that they were testing political waters by attending and had only attended one other demonstration before, an anti-Trump rally.
Ken Rothmel, 61, had driven down from Reno for the event. He said he had heard Shapiro debate Piers Morgan on television once and was impressed by his smarts and his “ability to get right to the point,” even if he hurts people’s feelings. Rothmel said he was a libertarian and did not fully agree with Shapiro. While he liked Shapiro’s thoughts on the right to carry guns, he disagrees with his assessment that transgender people are mentally defective.
Inside Zellerbach Hall, an audience of about 600-700 erupted in cheers when Shapiro entered the stage and continued to cheer throughout his talk. The attendees appeared to be mostly students, along with a number of community members. There were some well-known Bay Area right-wing residents there, including Kyle Chapman, also known as Based Stickman. In his speech, Shapiro aimed to discredit a number of foundational liberal ideas, like the continued existence of institutional racism and white privilege after Jim Crow, and the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. He praised the audience for “braving the idiots outside” to come to his talk. During a question-and-answer period at the end of the night, he debated with several attendees.
Several students in attendance said they were simply curious about what Shapiro would say, or interested in his ideas after watching video clips of him speak.
Elliot Kovnick, 20, said he was certainly not a fan of Shapiro, in part because “he’s more of a pundit than an academic.” But the Cal junior said he is “interested in being in the middle of things,” so he grabbed a ticket before they sold out in 45 minutes.
A Berkeley High School student made his way up to Cal because, “I’m a liberal, but I’m very much free speech focused.” The senior, who did not want to give his name, said he changes his political orientation almost monthly, as he learns more. Shapiro, he said, “is mischaracterized. He’s not alt-right.”
At the end of Shapiro’s talk, police directed those who had attended to exit through the southwestern side of Lower Sproul Plaza in the opposite direction of the protests. The process was so smooth that the protesters in charge of the microphone on Bancroft didn’t seem to notice that the talk was over.
Around 10 p.m. the crowd moved east up Bancroft, and activists from By Any Means Necessary, including Berkeley middle school teacher Yvette Felarca, seemed to take over control of the crowd. At that point, Chapman, Lauren Southern, a conservative Canadian media personality, and Amber Cummings, who organized and then canceled a rally in Berkeley on Aug. 27, became the target of the crowd’s wrath. People surrounded the pair and started to march with them down Telegraph and then Durant. Police set up a line on Durant and Ellsworth and then whisked Chapman and Southern out of the crowd. The lack of a target sapped the energy of the crowd (although Felarca continued to try to speak) and the protest was over by 11 p.m.
One woman was taken away in an ambulance around 10 p.m. A bystander told Berkeleyside she had been carrying a sign supporting free speech and when someone tried to take it from her she was pushed to the ground. However, a Berkeley police officer said she had just had a medical emergency. There are many tweets saying the woman was stabbed, but that is incorrect, Berkeley police said via twitter. Police said the woman told them she fell.
Police announced the following arrests: Hannah Benjamin, 20, of Fremont on suspicion of battery of a police officer and carrying a banned weapon; Sarah Roark, 44, of San Francisco, on suspicion of carrying a banned weapon; Kerem Celik, 18, of Saratoga, on suspicion of disturbing the peace, and Eddy Robinson, 47, of Oakland, on suspicion of carrying a banned weapon; Michael Paul Sullivan, 29, of Hayward, on suspicion of carrying a banned weapon; Noe Gonzalez Gudino, 24, of Richmond, on suspicion of disturbing the peace and being intoxicated in public; Miguel Reyes, 21, of Colton; Jorge Cabanillas, 20, of Rialto, on suspicion of assault and battery; and Darin Bauer, 45, of Berkeley, on suspicion of assault and battery, according to a Berkeley Police Nixle alert.
Numerous police agencies provided assistance. In addition to the Berkeley and UC Berkeley police departments, the California Highway Patrol, the Oakland Police Department, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, the Solano County Agencies, the Fremont Police Department, the California State Police, the Stanford University Police Department, the Citrus Heights Police Department, and police departments from eight other UC campuses sent officers.