News analysis: Berkeley’s ‘Free Speech Week’ goes out with a whimper

Conservative protesters sing to drown out shouting far-left protesters behind them, on the steps of Sproul Hall, at the University of California, in Berkeley, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee

The long-heralded and ultimately canceled “Free Speech Week” went out with a whimper on Wednesday.

A crowd of about 250, from both the right and the left, did a dance at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza starting at noon. At first, members of the leftist group by By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) stood on the steps of Sproul Hall and chanted loudly to drown out other voices. At one point, a line of Trump supporters wearing “Make America Great Again” gear stood in front of them.

The two right-wing men who had called for a rally — Joey Gibson, founder of Patriot Prayer, and Kyle Chapman, who is facing a felony weapons possession charge related to alleged assaults with a stick in a Berkeley park in March — never held anything official. Instead, they wandered around Sproul and got into mostly individual conversations. Chapman wore a “Fuck Antifa” T-shirt and held a phone in front of him as he walked and live-streamed. Many people in the crowd treated Chapman as a celebrity, stopping him to say hi.

“Suspicious package” forces evacuations

But then UC Berkeley police rearranged the set pieces when the discovery of a suspicious package inside the Amazon store in the student union prompted its shutdown and the shutdown of the south side of Sproul. A line of police slowly moved protesters, observers, and the dozens of media from old-line outfits and those that only broadcast on YouTube, north. Police called in bomb-sniffing dogs and a bomb truck. The package turned out to be harmless, but the police action broke up the rally’s momentum. There were some yelling matches between the two sides later in the day, but they ended peacefully.


Police at Sept. 27, 2017 rally in Berkeley. Photo: Ted Friedman
Police keep back a crowd of demonstrators on Sproul Plaza as a bomb squad investigates a suspicious package at the student union, at the University of California, in Berkeley, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee
A K-9 and its handler investigate around the student union during a suspicious package investigation at the University of California, in Berkeley, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee

The undramatic nature of the day contrasted sharply to Tuesday when Gibson and Chapman held another rally that included a march from Cal to People’s Park and back. Three people were arrested, including Berkeley middle school teacher and BAMN organizer Yvette Felarca, who was taken into custody on suspicion of assault, rioting and resisting arrest. Chapman told Berkeleyside Felarca was arrested after she hit him with a sign. According to online jail records, Felarca is scheduled for arraignment Thursday morning. BAMN has scheduled a press event for late morning to protest Felarca’s arrest, and that of another BAMN organizer, Eddy Robinson.

When the Berkeley Patriot student group worked with former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, “Free Speech Week” was billed as a major event from Sept. 24-27 along the lines of Woodstock for the conservative set. Rumored speakers included former White House advisor Steve Bannon and author Ann Coulter, along with a dozen lesser right-wing lights. But the students pulled their support Saturday. Yiannopoulos showed up to campus Sunday, anyway, wearing an American flag sweatshirt. He stood on the steps of Sproul Plaza where Mario Savio once delivered words that moved a generation. A protester from the group Refuse Fascism shouted Yiannopoulos down, and all he ended up doing was signing a few condoms and singing the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Berkeley has seen 11 protests since February

There have been 11 high-profile protests in Berkeley since Feb. 1, when a group of about 150 black clad antifa stormed Sproul Plaza and UC Berkeley officials canceled a talk scheduled by Yiannopoulos because of safety concerns. The university has spent at least $1.4 million on security since then, and suffered $100,000 in property damage. The city of Berkeley has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on police overtime and damage to businesses in the downtown came to about $500,000 during the Feb. 1 rampage.

Moreover, Berkeley has become the flashpoint for a national conversation — or battle — about what is acceptable speech and what is hate speech, and what lengths institutions should go to ensure that people like Yiannopoulos, who insults feminists, immigrants and Muslims, not only have the right but the opportunity to speak.

Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson gives an interview in Sproul Plaza, at the University of California, in Berkeley, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Photo: David Yee
A left-wing activist tried to block Kyle Chapman from talking and live streaming at a rally at UC Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions interjected himself into the dialogue by criticizing many universities for not making room for conservative thought.  He singled out UC Berkeley as an example. “Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” said Sessions.


The rallies have brought fame for some activists

The rallies in Berkeley have served another point as well: they raised the national profiles of people who came here, did something outlandish, or spoke forcefully at an event. A few dozen people who were complete unknowns in February now have broad name recognition and thousands of followers on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Chapman’s popularity surged after he came to a violent protest in Martin Luther King Jr. Park on March 4, dressed in a helmet, goggles, shinguards and carrying a shield and used a stick to fight Felarca and members of BAMN. Rich Black, who organized both the March 4 and April 15 violent rallies, briefly received broader acceptance among his right-wing peers for his actions (though he has now seemingly vanished from the public eye and has deleted his Twitter account).

Nathan Damigo was a little-known leader of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa before a video from a Berkeley rally in April captured him slugging a woman from antifa, Louise Rosealma of the Oak Roots Collective in Southern California. The video went viral (it has been viewed more than 1 million times) and many on the far-right regard Damigo as a hero as a result.

The name recognition of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro rose sharply when he spoke at Cal on Sept. 14 at an event that required $600,000 in security. Before the event, he had waged a campaign along with the students against UC Berkeley (and tweeted endlessly about it). Yiannopoulos admitted to Berkeleyside that, in a perverse way, the attack by antifa helped his cause and made him more famous. Coulter was already a conservative celebrity but used the fact that UC Berkeley could not seem to arrange a time for her to speak on campus as a way to seize more of the spotlight.

A crowd of students around pro-and anti-Trump activists on the steps of Sproul Plaza. Photo: Pete Rosos
Right-wing protesters meet face to face with members of the Black Wednesday get together and Cal Antifascists. Photo: Pete Rosos
A protest sign bathed in sage smoke surrounding Kyle Broussard of Patriot Prayer. Photo: Pete Rosos
Cal Antifascists confront conservative protesters. Photo: Pete Rosos
View just outside the Golden Bear in front of Sproul Plaza. Photo: Pete Rosos

The list of those on the right who have come to Berkeley since Feb. 1 — and used the argument that the city and university don’t value free speech as a way to enhance their brands — also includes Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Vice and the founder of the Proud Boys; Lauren Southern, the Canadian commentator who is emerging as an anti-refugee activist; and Brittany Pettibone, a South Bay novelist who also writes for Richard Spencer’s publication, Altright.com. Pettibone was in Berkeley this week with her friend Martin Sellner, an Austrian who is a leader of the right-wing Identitarian Movement. Amber Cummings, a transgender woman who organized two rallies in Berkeley, both of which resulted in arrests, has also become better known.


Other prominent right-wingers who have been here for “Free Speech Week,” and who have gotten prominent media mentions, include Mike Cernovich, a right-wing journalist with good access to the White House, and Pamela Geller, a commentator known for her anti-Muslim pronouncements. On Saturday, during a press conference, Yiannopoulos announced that she would publish her next book with his new book imprint, Dangerous Books.

Other right-wingers have been on the scene, but have not necessarily gained more prominence. They include Antonio Foreman, a member of the Proud Boys, who allegedly has been involved with the harassment of Revolutionary Books; “Based Spartan,” whose real name is John Turano; and John Ramondetta, a Berkeley resident who was forced to give up his job after someone on Twitter identified him as a marcher in Charlottesville. Harim Uziel, a vocal pro-Trump activist who regularly goes to government meetings in Southern California and disrupts them, allegedly went into a South Berkeley homeless encampment this week to complain that they had an upside down American flag.

The rallies in Berkeley have raised the profile of some people on the far left, but far fewer than activists on the right. Many on the left eschew media attention. Some even wear masks to make sure they remain anonymous.

Felarca, one of BAMN’s lead organizer, evolved from someone just known in Berkeley to a nationally-known figure. She appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show after the Feb. 1 riot in Berkeley to express her support for antifa. Her name is now synonymous with left-wing interventionist action.

Sunsara Taylor of Refuse Fascism came out from New York for the Sept. 14 talk by Shapiro. She emceed the extremely loud audio system the group set up on Bancroft Avenue and she spoke on and off for six hours. (Berkeley confiscated the equipment on Sunday because the group had no permit for amplified sound). Taylor gained a certain amount of notoriety for barging in on a UC Berkeley press conference Saturday and drowning out Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman.

What comes next? Chapman and Gibson said Wednesday that they did not expect to return to UC Berkeley today. But Yiannopolous has said he intends to bring Coulter and Bannon, whom he calls “Uncle Steve,” to Berkeley soon so he can present Coulter with an award he created in the name of Mario Savio.