On the nights of Sept. 18-20, anti-immigrant comments were chalked on Sproul Plaza, posters were put up in Barrows Hall calling certain students and faculty “terrorist supporters,” and parts of the UC Berkeley campus were papered with posters reading “Fuck your commie trash” and “Your city is run by thugs in black masks.”
Chancellor Carol Christ called the posters and the chalking “cowardly acts,” and condemned them in a Sept. 21 campus-wide email for “hateful messaging.” She called for an investigation into whether the acts can be considered a hate crime.
Now the Berkeley Patriot, the student group that sponsored right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’s failed “Free Speech Week,” has filed a Department of Justice (DOJ) complaint alleging that the university’s investigation is retaliation for a previous DOJ complaint filed by the students. In that initial Sept. 19 complaint, the Berkeley Patriot alleged that UC Berkeley had “systematically and intentionally” violated the group’s First Amendment rights to hold conservative speaking events on campus.
Christ said “her office was directing an investigation into whether the students who had distributed posters and chalked on topics of interest of a conservative political nature had committed a hate crime,” according to the second letter sent to the DOJ by Marguerite Melo, the attorney for the Berkeley Patriot. The fact that Christ made those statements on Sept. 21, two days after the Berkeley Patriot had filed its initial complaint with the DOJ, proves her comments were retaliatory, according to Melo.
“The message implied in her statement was clear – conservative students will be subject to a criminal police investigation (and implicitly a possible prosecution) for exercising their First Amendment Rights,” wrote Melo. This threat is one reason the group canceled “Free Speech Week,” she said.
The university, however, is not investigating the chalking on Sproul Plaza as a hate crime, according to UCPD Sgt. Sabrina Reich. UC police received a report on Sept. 18 at 11:16 p.m. that anti-Semitic slogans were being chalked on Sproul Plaza.
But UCPD “saw no anti-Semitic slogans at the time,” said Reich. “It was only political slogans.”
The act of chalking itself is not a crime, and is at most a violation of the student code of conduct, she said.
UC police have also concluded that the posters put up on Sept. 20 calling 13 Cal students and faculty “terrorist supporters” do not constitute a hate crime either.
“We were able to determine that, although it did contain offensive speech, it was not a hate crime under California law,” said Reich. UC police removed the posters on Sept. 21.
David Horowitz, connected to campus posters, planned to talk about Palestine at ‘Free Speech Week’
The full-color posters, which were created by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, pictured UC Berkeley graduate student instructor Kumars Salehi, along with professors Hatem Bazian and Judith Butler, identifying them as “terrorist supporters,” and listed the names of 10 other students and faculty members as well.
David Horowitz, the founder and namesake of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, said in a phone interview that the posters were put up in conjunction with his scheduled talk at Yiannopoulos’s “Free Speech Week.” He declined to say who assisted in putting the posters up on campus.
The Berkeley Patriot has denied involvement in putting up posters from the Horowitz Center. “We were not at all involved in that,” Pranav Jandhyala, the news editor for the Berkeley Patriot, wrote in an email. “And the [posters referring to commie trash and thugs] were not entirely us as well. We weren’t involved in the posters that included any sort of hate speech.”
The David Horowitz Freedom Center describes its mission as “the defense of free societies whose moral, cultural and economic foundations are under attack.” The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Horowitz as “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements.”
“I was supposed to speak on Tuesday,” said Horowitz. “I was going to speak about Hamas and SJP and Hatem Bazian.”
Horowitz called it a “disgrace” that UC Berkeley would fund Students for Justice in Palestine (SPJ) and tear down his posters. He called Christ’s call for an investigation into the posters “worthy of the Soviet thought police.” Horowitz also called the school “an anti-Semitic institution” for allowing Students for Justice in Palestine on campus. “I don’t see any difference between the KKK and SJP except their targets,” said Horowitz.
Horowitz is a formerly left-leaning radical and UC Berkeley alum who emerged publicly as a conservative in the mid-eighties. Throughout the last several years, he has staged numerous attacks on pro-Palestinian groups on campuses around the U.S. “Berkeley has really gone downhill since I was a radical there,” said Horowitz, in reference to the university’s criticism of his posters.
“These people [Students for Justice in Palestine] are part of a network that’s funded by Hamas, to teach Hamas propaganda,” said Horowitz. “It’s part of a network that wants to destroy the Jewish state.”
Horowitz’s claims are “ridiculous,” said Salehi, who has been involved with Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at UC Berkeley and New York University. “We have no financial ties to [Hamas]. The implication is also that we are sympathetic to Hamas’s ideology. People in Students for Justice in Palestine groups are often the most left-wing, open, tolerant, all across the board progressive people you’ll ever meet.”
Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist organization that controls the Gaza Strip, is considered a terrorist group by the United States government.
All the people named on the poster have spoken out in support of Palestinian rights. “These people [the Horowitz Center] consider boycotting the state of Israel for political reasons to be de facto support for terrorism,” said Salehi.
When Smadar Lavie, a scholar-in-residence in the department of gender and women’s studies, saw her name on the poster, it brought back a cascade of memories.
“For me, it was a trigger to all of my traumas from graduate school,” said Lavie., who was a graduate student and outspoken pro-Palestinian activist on the Cal campus in the 1980s. She has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “To have this happening in 2017 is a mark of what I call ‘our Trump times,’” said Lavie.
Lavie was headed to Yosemite for a relaxing weekend at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when she received an email from the chair of the women’s studies department informing her that her name had been featured on the posters. “One of my colleagues took a picture of [the poster] and circulated it,” said Lavie. “To see this in 2017, for me it’s like going back in time to much harsher times when Palestine used to create controversy, you couldn’t even say Palestine on campus.”
In 1982, Lavie was involved in creating a student-led course about Palestine at UC Berkeley. In 1984, Lavie was among a number of students and faculty who organized the first divestment campaign in the U.S. urging UC Berkeley to end its financial ties with Israel.
Past actions held by Students for Justice in Palestine have received mixed reactions from campus groups. In an annual demonstration, SJP creates a wall at Sather Gate that resembles the barrier in Israel’s West Bank. In 2016, the group staged a mock checkpoint to simulate what Palestinians go through when attempting to cross into Israel. They faced counter-protests from Tikvah, a pro-Israel campus group.
Despite past conflicts, Horowitz’s most recent posters do not seem to have had much of an impact in Berkeley.
“I don’t think the posters reflect the campus climate. It just creates more barriers when we don’t want that,” said Sophia Gluck, president of Bears for Israel, a pro-Israel UC Berkeley student group that advocates for the existence of the Jewish and democratic state.
Caron Creighton is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera.