Berkeley: Protests planned against ‘Free Speech Week’

Rallies planned as far-right events slated to host ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon and anti-Muslim figure Pamela Geller.

White supremacist recruitment - protests - college campuses
UC Berkeley has become a theatre for clashes between far-right and anti-fascist activists [File: Stephen Lam/Reuters]

As a student group prepares to host several far-right speakers at the University of California, Berkeley, faculty, students and community members are gearing up for protests and boycotts to voice their outrage. 

Berkeley Patriot, a right-wing student organisation, is hosting “Free Speech Week” from Sunday until Wednesday. The group organised the events in coordination with far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

Free Speech Week is the latest in a series of far-right events.

Several have prompted large counter-protests, many of which led to clashes between far-right activists and anti-racists. 

In addition to Yiannopoulos, organisers say the speakers include: Mike Cernovich, radio host for the conspiracy site InfoWars; Katie Hopkins, a British media personality; Erik Prince, founder of the private militia Blackwater (now known as ACADEMI); and anti-Muslim public figure Pamela Geller.

Yiannopoulos has also said that Steve Bannon, head of the right-wing Breitbart News blog and former strategist for US President Donald Trump, will headline one of the events.

The university, however, has said several speakers – among them Bannon and Cernovich – have yet to confirm their attendance.

On Friday, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter – who was earlier reported to be among those planning to attend – said she would not participate. 

Coulter told The Associated Press that Yiannopoulos’ team was in touch but she heard the university administration was “dead set on blocking” the event so she decided not to bother.

More than 170 UC Berkeley faculty members have called on their colleagues, students and fellow community members to boycott upcoming far-right events, following months of increased tensions and clashes between anti-fascists and far-right activists.

A statement by faculty members called on teachers to cancel classes, the university to close buildings and faculty who hold classes to refrain from penalising students who decline to attend.

“As faculty, we cannot ask students and staff to choose between risking their physical and mental safety in order to attend class or come to work in an environment of harassment, intimidation, violence, and militarised policing,” the statement read.

READ MORE: US anti-fascists – ‘We can make racists afraid again’

Several activist groups are also planning demonstrations.

The left-wing Refuse Fascism, which is “organising to drive out” the administration of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, plans to hold protests on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sunsara Taylor, Refuse Fascism spokesperson, described Berkeley as “a symbol and a site of resistance to white supremacy, to unjust imperialist wars and to everything that the Trump-Pence regime concentrates on”.

Far-right groups often use the guise of free speech to incite hatred, but say cracking down on their events limits their freedom of expression.

“They’re not victims [of free speech violations],” she told Al Jazeera. “Their viewpoints have huge media platforms … they all have major book deals. They’re all invited regularly on major media outlets. Their views are not suppressed, and they’re not marginalised.”

Taylor added: “These people don’t give a damn about free speech. It’s a cover for coming and legitimising and normalising fascism.”

At the time of publication, Berkeley Patriot had not replied to Al Jazeera’s request for a comment.

‘Overwhelming opposition’

Free Speech Week comes after months of soaring tensions in Berkeley and elsewhere in the country.

Last weekend, right-wing speaker Ben Shapiro held a lecture on campus, prompting outrage from many community members. Although the event passed without incident, tensions were high.

On April 15, pro-Trump and alt-right protesters assembled in Berkeley for rallies, engaging in street fights with counter-protesters, anti-racists and anti-fascists – known colloquially as Antifa.

In February, Yiannopoulos arrived at Berkeley for a lecture but was met with counter-demonstrations.

Anti-fascists and anti-racists rallied, many of them clashing with police and setting fires. Police cancelled the event and evacuated Yiannopoulos from the campus.

Writing on Twitter on February 2, Trump subsequently threatened to pull federal funding to UC Berkeley. 

Milo Yiannopoulos had a lecture cancelled as protesters threw rocks and lit fires outside in February [File: Lucas Jackson/Reuters]
Milo Yiannopoulos had a lecture cancelled as protesters threw rocks and lit fires outside in February [File: Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, argued that far-right groups have attempted to portray themselves as victims by provoking clashes with counter-demonstrators.

“They want these sorts of things to play out in Berkeley,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone.

“The problem is that people aren’t taking the bait as much any more. Instead, you’re just seeing overwhelming opposition,” Burley added.

READ MORE: Campuses, cities reject far right after Charlottesville

“It’s not just Antifa; it’s labour unions and churches and teachers and young students. People don’t want them there, and they get overwhelmed massively every time they try to do anything.”

The alt-right – a loosely knit coalition of far-right populists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis – has faced widespread public backlash since an August 12 rally resulted in brawls and the death of an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In that rally, which was dubbed “Unite the Right”, hundreds of white supremacists protested the city’s decision to remove a Confederate monument.

James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Unite the Right participant, was charged with second-degree murder after ramming his car into an anti-racist march, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Yiannopoulos, Cernovich and Breitbart News are part of what is often described as the “alt-light”, which Burley says is more concerned with pro-Trump “civic nationalism” than the openly white supremacist politics advocated by the alt-right.

Although the alt-light and the alt-right have become increasingly at odds with one another, the two have participated in several joint rallies this year.

Free speech complaint

Free Speech Week has been dogged by uncertainty amid claims by the university that Berkeley Patriot did not secure reservations for events in two campus auditoriums.

The university has estimated that security precautions for Free Speech Week could cost more than $1m. 

In a statement provided to Al Jazeera, UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof insisted that the university remains “deeply committed to freedom of speech and to devoting extraordinary security and financial resources to protecting the ability of student organisations to host speakers without regard to the viewpoint expressed by the speaker”.

Protests and clashes have become frequent in Berkeley throughout this year [File: Stephen Lam/Reuters]
Protests and clashes have become frequent in Berkeley throughout this year [File: Stephen Lam/Reuters]

Berkeley Patriot, however, has claimed that the university has violated their right to free speech by placing unnecessary obligations on the group.

In a press release, the group’s lawyer, Marguerite Melo, said the university has subjected to the students to “viewpoint discrimination”. 

READ MORE: Threats and attacks as white supremacists target campuses

Melo’s law firm provided Al Jazeera with a copy of a letter she sent to the Department of Justice.

The letter states: “The students of the Berkeley Patriot believe that they have been subjected to a pattern and practice of suppression of their First Amendment rights, specifically Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Association, and their Fourteenth Amendment right to Equal Protection.”

For his part, Burley believes the far right’s efforts to paint itself as the target of free speech violations is bound to fail.

“It’s hard to see the Free Speech Week in Berkeley actually working to their advantage,” he said. 

“They’ve spent the last several years abusing people, making fun of murdered people and harassing women. They think that people are going to care if they look like victims, but most people don’t.” 

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera