Expert’s advice: Don’t engage with the alt-right on Berkeley campus

Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center speaks about the alt-right on campus. Photo: Hulda Nelson/UC Berkeley

The alt-right is laying a trap for Berkeley students during next week’s planned “Free Speech Week,” a writer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama-based anti-hate group, told students and administrators Tuesday night.

The event, organized by the campus’s Division of Equity and Inclusion, comes ahead of a series of student-sponsored events next Sunday through Wednesday that are expected to bring right-wing speakers to campus for noon and evening rallies, although the exact plans still remain unclear. The list of speakers being circulated, though not all confirmed, includes former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos and conservative writer David Horowitz.

While many students are eager to protest the speakers, Ryan Lenz, the law center reporter, encouraged them to be thoughtful in their responses.

“This is a group of people that wants to piss you off; this is a group of people that wants to trigger you, as they say,” Lenz told the crowd of roughly 100 people in the Multicultural Community Center. “This is a group that calls you all little snowflakes; this is a group that comes from trollish environments online that does things for the lolz, for the giggles and the laughs. They are coming at you with the intent of making something uncomfortable for you, and they do it really well.”


An argumentative, even violent, response to the speakers would give Yiannopoulos exactly the kind of coverage on Fox News he is hoping for, Lenz contended.

“You should make your presence known, just as they do,” he added. “But don’t engage them.”

Lenz also said that he disagreed with the black bloc tactics of activists on the far left known as antifa. He condemned their violence as well as that done by those on the far-right.

Lenz, who has been traveling around the country investigating the far right for seven years, said while white nationalist groups have existed for about 100 years, the election of Barack Obama, the U.S.’s first African-American president, “scared and terrified a lot of people.” They saw that the percentage of whites in the overall population was on the decline, which intensified their concerns that whites would lose power. In 1970, 83% of the U.S. population was white and 17% was non-white, said Lenz. Today, 61% of the U.S. population is white and 39% is non-white.

The far-right groups mostly operated on the fringes of society, but the election of President Donald Trump, who lambasted both Mexicans and Muslims during his campaign, emboldened these racist groups, he said.  The SPLC has counted 917 hate groups that are currently operating.


“It’s a sad day,” said Lenz. “These ideas of bigotry, hate, extremism, and intolerance have moved into the mainstream in a way we didn’t expect.”

Lenz encouraged students to read the law center’s guide to responding to the alt-right on campus.

Students listen to Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center speak about the alt-right on campus. Photo: Hulda Nelson/UC Berkeley

Drew Do, a fourth-year political science major at UC Berkeley who attended the talk, said he appreciated what Lenz had to say, although he still thought he might want to hear Yiannopoulos and other speakers, like former presidential adviser Steve Bannon. Student organizers have not confirmed that Bannon will speak on campus.

“I want to listen to Bannon and Milo to see what they say,” said Do, who describes himself as a political independent. “I’m intellectually curious to see how people think that way, and how they use their oratory skills to convince others.”

But Do said he realized that the tactics of speakers like Yiannopoulos may make it hard to stay neutral and collected.


“What (Lenz) said is logical, and that’s what we should (do), but man, is it complicated — because they try to bait people,” he said.

Amber Cummings, a transgender woman who organized a rally for Martin Luther King Jr Park on Aug. 27 and then tried to cancel it, unsuccessfully, – was in the audience. She expressed concern about the influence of Marxism in the U.S. Lenz said that was an idea often spread by the alt-right, that the left wants to “equalize all,” and that the federal policies are designed to make sure whites are outnumbered by everyone else. He called this notion “cultural Marxism,” and said it was “crazy.”

“It plays into the conspiracy theory of white genocide,” said Lenz.

Oscar Dubón, vice chancellor of equity and inclusion, said at the opening of the event that Lenz’s talk was part of Berkeley’s commitment to open dialogue on campus, and called on students and faculty to respond to hate speech with their own peaceful, respectful protests.

“We have to practice our First Amendment rights,” he said. “We need to use our free speech to call out hate speech, to call out racist speech.”

This article was first published on the UC Berkeley News website. Frances Dinkelspiel of Berkeleyside added some more information.