After all the hype, all the preparations, all the stress, and the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars, “Free Speech Week” may come down to this: An appearance at noon on Sproul Plaza by entertainer and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
That doesn’t mean it will be an inconsequential event. Officials are concerned there is the potential for open-air violent clashes between Yiannopoulos supporters and antifa and other leftists groups. UC Berkeley officials have not detailed their security plans other than to say there will be an extremely large police presence made up of officers from agencies around the state. Expect restricted access into Sproul Plaza, bag checks and the confiscation of banned items, which include selfie sticks, hard plastic water bottles and bags, as well as items that can be used as weapons.
There may be flashpoints, too, at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in downtown Berkeley. While Yiannopolous has pledged to march through Sproul, Amber Cummings, a Trump supporter who called for protests in the park Aug. 27, has called for another rally against Marxism in the park at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
While university officials are concerned about the potential for violence, Yiannopoulos brushed off the possibility, telling Berkeleyside in an interview Saturday that he does not really “get nervous.” He has his own security team made up of eight to 10 former military men, and they have been accompanying him wherever he has traveled in Northern California. One requirement for Berkeleyside’s interview was that we not reveal its location. As two reporters and a photographer waited to see Yiannopoulos, some of the security detail went to check out someone they were concerned might have been an antifa “spy.”
Yiannopoulos said members of his team had infiltrated antifa at locations around the country to learn their plans.
But antifa’s objections to Yiannopoulos’s message have worked, in a perverse way, in his favor, he acknowledged Saturday. When the masked, black-clad demonstrators stormed Cal on Feb. 1 and forced the cancellation of his talk, it raised his profile and amplified his message.
“The violent activists who are pepper spraying people in the face and beating them up on the streets … it’s not something I go out of my way to produce but, I suppose the broad brush end result of having more people talking about some of the challenges related to free speech on college campuses, the net effect is good,” said Yiannopoulos. “We got something out of it, we managed to spin some level of success, to wring some goodness out of what was a very horrible event.”
Many critics have been wondering if Yiannopoulos had the same game plan for “Free Speech Week” — to cancel it or have it canceled before it began — since it has been so poorly organized. Although he announced his intention in May to return to Berkeley, a number of the advertised speakers, including Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon, were never firmly booked. Coulter said Friday that her agent never received a contract, according to a story by the Associated Press. A number of others said they had never been asked to talk.
One of Yiannopoulos’s associates in the right-wing media recently wrote an email to Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman, that suggested Yiannopoulos had planned as early as last week to cancel the events.
“It was known that they didn’t intend to actually go through with it last week, and completely decided on Wednesday,” Lucian Wintrich, a journalist with the Gateway Pundit, said in the email to Mogulof.
“Wait, whoah, hold on a second,” Mogulof wrote back. “What, exactly, are you saying? What were you told by MILO Inc? Was it a set-up from the get-go?”
And at a press conference Saturday, Mogulof said the Berkeley Patriot, the student group that invited Yiannopoulos, canceled a reservation it had secured for Anna Head Alumnae Hall on Wednesday, several days before the group formally withdrew its sponsorship of “Free Speech Week.” Mogulof hinted that might show there was no serious intent to carry the week off.
Mogulof called Yiannopoulos’s criticisms “a cynical effort to create a false narrative and score political points.”
Yiannopoulos said he did not know why the Berkeley Patriot group canceled the hall, which he had planned to use to unveil a new film about antifa. He also said he was “blindsided” Saturday by the group’s cancellation of the event. But he still pledged, in a live-stream video statement earlier in the day, to funnel significant money to the group and advise it about how to spend it.
He denied that the students were “incompetent,” and said that was a narrative pushed out by Mogulof, whom he referred to as an “obstreperous cunt.” But he said he would have preferred to work directly with the university rather than go through a student group. But that was not possible since it was against UC rules.
“They (the Berkeley Patriot group members) are much more easily bullied and intimidated than I am,” said Yiannopoulos. “I am not easily intimidated… Would I spend $100,000 on something that is relying on a 20-year-old who is petrified and intimidated and has a different opinion every day because he’s been bullied left, right and center by the college (if I didn’t have to)? Of course I wouldn’t. I am not deranged.”
“I would have much rather spent it (the money) on Dior,” he said.
Yiannopoulos said he was paying for “Free Speech Week,” himself. When asked if the Mercer family, who have funded President Trump and Breitbart News, is backing him, he declined to answer. He did say he had earned $1.2 million for the first month’s sales of his book, “Dangerous.”
Yiannopoulos also said that the Berkeley Patriot and the Berkeley College Republicans are essentially the same people. The students were forced to start the Berkeley Patriot because Young America’s Foundation, which has paid to bring conservative speakers to campus, does not have Yiannopoulos on its list of “approved” speakers it will pay for. Also, YAF threatened to pull funding for the lawsuit it has filed against UC Berkeley if the Berkeley College Republicans brought him, said Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos posted Sunday on Facebook that he is determined to appear at UC Berkeley: “I just won’t accept failure or defeat. I refuse to be beaten. So I’m showing up today and who knows what will happen. But I’ll be on campus like I promised and like I paid for. And they better not try to stop me.”
The Berkeley Patriot told UC Berkeley in a letter, the same letter that canceled its sponsorship of Free Speech Week, that the university had applied “extraordinary pressure and resistance, if not outright hostility” to the group. The students’ lawyers already sent a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the letter, alleging that UC Berkeley “has engaged in a pattern and practice of systematic suppression of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Berkeley Patriot group blamed the cancellation of the week on the university’s actions.”
Saturday, Mogulof pushed back against that claim, saying UC Berkeley would not have intended to spend approximately $1 million on security and preparations if it had not taken Free Speech Week seriously. Mogulof also said the Ben Shapiro event, and the hosting of many other conservative speakers throughout the year, was a sign the University of California is serious about making room for a wide range of views.
Wintrich, the writer for the Gateway Pundit, said he thinks Yiannopoulos has sullied the waters for right-wingers to speak on college campuses. Appealing to those in their 20s is an important mechanism to grow the conservative movement, but all the violence surrounding Yiannopoulos’s appearances is making colleges hesitate, he said.
“Because of this, they are going to make it significantly harder for any of us to attend and speak at universities,” said Wintrich.
Yiannopoulos would probably disagree. He announced during a live-streamed video statement Saturday that he is kicking off a “Troll Academy Tour.” In October, he will appear at Cal State Bakersfield, San Diego State and Cal State Fullerton, among other schools, he said.
He also pledged to return to Berkeley — every year if necessary. He hopes to reschedule speeches by Coulter and “Uncle Steve” Bannon, he said.
But first, Yiannopoulos is off to Hawaii to marry his partner, John, he said. For his interview with Berkeleyside and other media outlets, Yiannopoulos was wearing distressed leather pants with zippers, a black satin jacket with gold buttons, gold chains and a cross around his neck, pearls around his wrists, diamond studs and makeup. He said his wedding attire would include clothes by Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren.
Natalie Orenstein contributed reporting to this story.