Opinion: The chancellor took the ‘poison bait’ by allowing the far-right to dictate terms on campus

Chancellor Christ authorized the expenditure of $1M to allow the “Free Speech” of right-wing haters; she neglected her obligation to allow others to be free of their hate.

Chancellor Christ,

As a UC Berkeley staff member and born-and-raised resident of the city of Berkeley, your Sept. 28th apology for the disruption those associated with the campus have experienced this week is a welcome one. However, your words have a hollow ring when measured against your actions this week. They inspire no confidence in their sincerity or utility moving forward.

You mention your “firm commitment to the free speech protections of the First Amendment,” but the First Amendment does not begin or end with free speech. It also guarantees freedom of religion and the right of the people to peacefully assemble. By doing everything in your power to magnify the messages of a coterie of far-right, white supremacist, and fascist speakers, you have had a catastrophic impact on the ability of those associated with this university, and citizens of Berkeley in general, to exercise their constitutional rights of free worship and assembly.

Consider that the rhetoric of Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, and company is openly hostile to all those who practice Islam and that by welcoming them to campus you are directly responsible for the rash of rhetorical, digital, and physical Islamophobic attacks Berkeley has experienced in the past two weeks. Yiannopoulos and Cernovich may not have personally committed all these attacks, but they are behind them just as certainly as a general is behind his troops. As even a cursory glance at these men’s histories as public figures makes abundantly clear, they are followed at every turn by an army of violent foot soldiers who are more than willing to bring the hateful rhetoric espoused by their thought leaders into the realm of the physical.

This brings me to my second point: the misdirected and oppressive overreaction of Berkeley’s administration to the possibility of protests on campus. As I watched legions of masked and armed riot police descend on campus this week, I had to say it out loud to myself to be sure it was really happening: “A public university campus is being turned into a militarized zone in order to protect and promote acts of hate speech.” The million-plus dollars that you spent facilitating this military occupation of our community is money that comes out of our taxes, our paychecks, and you used it to unleash a campaign of intimidation and psychological warfare on the very people you are supposed to be representing. Our right to protest may not have been technically removed, but by setting up police checkpoints manned by assault rifle-toting sentinels and denying access to public space based on an arbitrarily concocted list of prohibited items (including water bottles, Tupperware, and skateboards), you denied our community its right to a show of strength and unity in the face of hateful and divisive rhetoric.

The million-plus dollars that you spent facilitating this military occupation of our community is money that comes out of our taxes, our paychecks, and you used it to unleash a campaign of intimidation and psychological warfare on the very people you are supposed to be representing. Our right to protest may not have been technically removed, but by setting up police checkpoints manned by assault rifle-toting sentinels and denying access to public space based on an arbitrarily concocted list of prohibited items (including water bottles, Tupperware, and skateboards), you denied our community its right to a show of strength and unity in the face of hateful and divisive rhetoric.

The police’s repeated threats of arrest and assault with chemical weapons, as well as the state of near-martial law imposed on the campus and public parks during Free Speech Week, proved a highly effective deterrent to the Berkeley community’s exercise of our constitutional right to protest. Unfortunately, it had little effect on the far right and white supremacist visitors the event brought to Berkeley, who used the streets immediately surrounding campus as a free-fire zone for verbal and physical assaults on those who looked like they might be the kind of people Yiannopoulos and friends have riled them up against. You say that the massive police presence on campus was “necessary to protect the community,” but in this task it was an unmitigated failure, as two-time felon and white supremacist Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman, among many, many others, was allowed to enter campus, video student events for far-right propaganda purposes, yell hate speech at passersby, and allegedly beat a Berkeley resident bloody in front of UC business partner Pappy’s Grill, according to an article on the anti-fascist site, It’s Going Down, all within sight of Sproul Plaza and without any police intervention. The police succeeded in protecting windows and light bulbs. The community was left, as it has been time and again when faced with white supremacist violence, to fend for itself. Your commitment to free speech may be admirable in a vacuum, but in practice, your inability to see the forest of the First Amendment for one of its trees ended up as a militarized assault on the rights of people it should have been your first order of business to protect.

In a previous mass email to the campus community, you said: “we encourage you to think critically about your actions and not react to the provocations of others.” It is my opinion that the time has long since passed for you to take your own advice. What was the cultural, educational, and financial disaster of Free Speech Week if not a spiteful provocation by one of the far right’s most vile provocateurs? And what was your response to it if not reactionary? Another school in the UC system, UCLA, had little trouble calling off a planned Yiannopoulos event as a security risk. Yet when Yiannopoulos, an embodiment of intolerance if there ever was one, questioned Berkeley’s self-evident bonafides as a tolerant institution, you took the poisoned bait. Had you thought critically about your actions, you might have envisioned Free Speech Week ending up as it did: a violent and unfunny joke played by a group of bigoted thugs on a historically progressive institution that by every expectation should have been above such things. But you got down into the mud with them and played their game, bringing hate and violence to campus, and in doing so you put not just the University community but the entire city in serious danger.

You mention that you will be appointing a commission to “propose solutions” to “the growing tension between the protections guaranteed to free speech under the constitution and (a) sense of social justice.” Here you propose a binary reading of an issue that is far more complex; but if there was a binary choice to be made in the face of Yiannopoulos and his mob of media hate-mongers calling out Berkeley, you made the wrong one. UCLA had no trouble finding a way to deny Milo their prestigious platform to preach his violence from; you could and should have found one yourself. By failing to do so, you failed Berkeley.

A few sentences after you mention the formation of the commission, you admit that it will be empowered to do almost nothing; still, I believe it is a step in the right direction. Many mistakes were made in the creation of, the preparation for, and the execution of Free Speech Week, and it is paramount that such mistakes be avoided in the future. Therefore, I request that you consider this message my application to be considered for appointment as a staff stakeholder in said commission. The issues at hand are too pressing for me to ignore, and I feel that the closer I am to them the more good I can do. UC Berkeley is in an hour of need, and it is incumbent on me, as it is on you and everyone else here, to help.

To all others associated with the university who felt endangered by Chancellor Christ’s mishandling of Free Speech Week, I urge you to request stakeholder status on the commission as well. Together, we can protect our community from the threat of further attacks brought on by incompetent leadership.

Very sincerely yours,

Matt Seneca

UC Berkeley Staff

Matt Seneca is a Berkeley native and UC Berkeley staff member.