Although he billed it as a “Free Speech Week,” not a whole lot of speaking occurred during Milo Yiannopoulos’s 25-minute appearance on Sproul Plaza on Sunday.
Instead, the far-right icon led a prayer and a song, and provided autographs and selfies, in a crowd of about 100 supporters and a few protesters. They were the only ones who had made it into the barricaded plaza by the time Yiannopoulos and his entourage appeared at noon. Many more people were lined up to come in, but they were stuck behind a single, slow security checkpoint.
When Yiannopoulos — flanked by anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, far-right writer Mike Cernovich and bodyguards — swooped into the plaza, everyone else squeezed in around him, cheering. Yiannopoulos, who was wearing an American flag sweatshirt under a denim jacket, began by criticizing the National Football League players who have kneeled in protest during the national anthem.
“When I get on my knees, it’s not to disrespect the flag,” said the self-identified “dangerous faggot.” He then had everyone take a knee in “prayer for the protesters who don’t know what they’re doing.”
There were a few people on the left in the group, the most vocal being a Refuse Fascism activist who continuously chanted, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” Two other activists from the Revolutionary Communist Party group had been detained and led out of the plaza several minutes earlier. Police said they had climbed up on the barricades in the middle of the plaza, though they were not on them when they were cuffed. They were later released.
Yiannopoulos insulted the protester’s androgynous gender presentation, to laughs from the crowd, and took a selfie with the protester giving him the middle finger in the background. He then sang the national anthem with his supporters, drowning out the protest chants. Geller got in a shouting match with the protesters at one point.
Members of the crowd eagerly shoved posters and other items at Yiannopoulos so he could sign them. One UC Berkeley freshman, who said he was “just here for the memes,” had him autograph a condom.
After conferring with his security detail, Yiannopoulos and his crew abruptly left the plaza and were driven away, as fans and protesters chased after them around 12:30 p.m.
At a press conference on campus later in the afternoon, UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof called the whole event “the most expensive photo-op in the university’s history.”
The university would not reveal how many police officers were stationed around campus Sunday, but what looked like hundreds from a number of agencies, including UCPD, Berkeley and Oakland police departments, California State University police, California Highway Patrol and the Alameda County sheriff’s office, were visible. UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett said the university spent about $800,000 on security for the day.
At its peak, the crowd outside the plaza was about 800-1,000 in size, according to an unofficial estimate. There were many fans of Yiannopoulos and President Donald Trump, some holding signs with statements like “feminism is cancer” (a phrase popularized by Yiannopoulos), “antifa are cucks” and “end PC culture.”
Though no black bloc protesters showed up to campus, many activists from By Any Means Necessary and Refuse Fascism, along with others, attempted to shout down many on the right, or chase them away. There were several tense confrontations.
Around 1 p.m. a number of protesters on both sides marched — oddly side by side, but yelling at one another — on Telegraph and Durant avenues. Police closed off some of the surrounding streets.
The campus protests wound down by about 2:15 p.m. According to UCPD’s Bennett, several people were detained throughout the day, but only one was arrested on campus, in connection with an amplified sound system.
Later in the afternoon Sunday, local right-wing figure Amber Cummings held a small rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park to protest what she has described as Berkeley’s rampant Marxism. She and others threw flags, including a communist flag, down on the ground, and stomped and spit on them. At one point, a couple masked individuals attempted to disrupt the event, but police quickly detained them. Cummings and others engaged in some political debate and demonstrations before leaving the area.
Berkeley Police Officer Byron White, a department spokesman, said 11 people had been arrested in the city as of about 5:20 p.m. The arrests primarily took place south of campus and in Civic Center Park, and for the most part involved people alleged to have carried banned weapons or worn masks. White said the banned weapons included a “range of items,” from sticks to lighter fluid in plastic bottles to knives. One person had mace and a stun gun, along with other prohibited items, BPD said.
“There were a number of heated arguments and there were a few people who had some banned items,” White said. “But as far as we know there haven’t been any reported injuries and people have been able to say what they liked to say.”
BPD plans to release more details about the arrests later on Sunday. Additional counter-events are still planned for the upcoming days, including a “Berkeley Rally Against White Supremacy” Monday at noon on UC Berkeley’s crescent lawn, and several events planned by the campus ACLU chapter.
Yiannopoulos does not appear to have plans to return to campus immediately, and UC Berkeley will reopen Sproul Plaza Monday morning.
Yiannopoulos’ “Free Speech Week” was originally described as a week-long festival with a number of conservative lectures, but the student group sponsoring the events, the Berkeley Patriot, withdrew its support Saturday and a number of the promised speakers said they had never agreed to participate. On Saturday, Yiannopoulos said he would be joined Sunday by other people, including Lauren Southern and SABO, but they never spoke.
The Berkeley Patriot has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that UC Berkeley stifled its freedom of speech by placing bureaucratic hurdles in its way. The campus denies it tried to stop the events, claiming instead that the organizers missed deadlines.
Berkeleyside reporter Emilie Raguso contributed to this story.