Martin Luther King Jr. Park

Glynn Custred

NAS member Glynn Custred, professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University East Bay, has written a six-part reflection on the anti-free-speech movement at the University of California Berkeley. His essay combines his conversations with Berkeley students with his wide-ranging knowledge of the historical and political contexts of Berkeley’s February 2017 riot. 

A Different Crowd, a Different Language, and a Very Different Mood

People around the country responded to UC Berkeley’s pusillanimous unwillingness to defend free speech. The unchecked antifa violence at Sproul Plaza on February 1, the administration’s fainthearted forfeiture of its students’ right to hear Ann Coulter speak—these could not be allowed to stand. The word went out over the internet and through social media, and several hundred Americans rallied to Berkeley from as far away as Detroit and Alaska. They came (to borrow some of California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s words) to “stand up” against the suppression of free speech, “loudly and repeatedly … in a peaceful and forceful manner.”

But would they be received in peace? That was not certain, given the prior capitulation to left-wing violence by both the campus and city authorities of Berkeley. Many free-speech demonstrators, therefore, came prepared. Some wore helmets, even bullet proof vests, and two young men had gas masks ready in case of need. There was also a stack of hard hats offered at no charge to anyone who wanted one. One demonstrator told me that they hadn’t come looking for trouble, but that they were ready to meet violence if it should come.

The demonstrators assembled a few blocks from the campus in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, across from the Berkeley City Hall and in front of Berkeley High School. There were men and women, the young and the old—but mostly they were young. American flags were everywhere. Some demonstrators wore shirts with flag motifs and some were draped in the flag. The mood was upbeat and collegial.

Four middle aged men wore jackets from the California chapter of a motorcycle club called “Sovereign Nation.” A woman asked if she could photograph them, and I asked about the name. One member said they had given the club that name because they were advocates of national sovereignty, too much of which, he said, had already been given away. He went on to tell me that he was there for the future of his son. We exchanged first names and handshakes, and I went on to talk with other demonstrators.

One was an older man from Sonoma County, in the wine country north of San Francisco. Two others were young men, one from Monterey and the other from Los Angeles. The Angeleno had traveled several hours on a Greyhound bus to stand up for free speech in Berkeley.

A middle aged man watched me as I walked by. He wore only shorts and was tattooed from his ankles to his neck. He asked why I was there. “As an observer,” I told him. “Me, too,” he said. I sat down next to him on a low wall and we talked. He told me he was from Berkeley. He pointed to the high school and said, “That’s where I graduated.” He told me that he had voted for Bernie Sanders and he wanted to hear what the opposition had to say.

Just then two young men came by and started a conversation. One of them said that he had voted for Trump, but that’s not why he had come to the rally. The cause he represented, he told us, was freedom of speech. The Berkeley man said he agreed. Then we had an interesting chat about fairness, and why the electoral college is indeed an equitable way of dealing with elections. It wasn’t so difficult to have an open and friendly exchange of ideas between two Americans with different politics.

Someone said, “They’re coming” and several young men wearing helmets moved forward. Some of the crowd also began to move in that direction. Then we heard that it was a false alarm. High school was out and some students were coming to see what was going on.

Several free-speech protestors made some speeches. They didn’t vilify any one. Instead they affirmed their ideals.

Otis Taylor’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle the next day confirmed my impressions from my own conversations. He also had interviewed several demonstrators who had come from other towns. He framed his questions to them in the same rhetoric as one heard a few blocks away on Sproul Plaza. Yet the responses that Taylor reported were not hostile or defensive, but positively affirmed the principle of free speech.

Twenty-seven year old Tyler Fisher said that he was not a supporter of Trump, but that he was was there because free speech was under fire. “You got to take a stand somewhere” he said. Another young man joined them, saying that they were all working people. He then hugged both Fisher and Taylor, a white American and a black one. The gesture and the sentiment stood in sharp contrast to the left’s propaganda that only racists oppose their agenda. Indeed, other speakers also emphasized that we are a single nation, whose solidarity transcends race.

About a hundred counter demonstrators assembled with signs and slogans. One said that their intention was peaceful, in the spirit of free expression. A small number of Berkeley city police made sure that the two sets of demonstrators remained separated. A woman asked one policeman to pose with her. He complied, and they stood together smiling as their picture was taken. The day ended as peacefully as it had begun. The Black Bloc thugs chose not to appear.

An Adequate Response At Last

The authorities had finally provided an adequate show of force. A large number of UC Berkeley police, augmented by officers from other UC campuses, guarded Sproul Plaza. Some lined the steps of Sproul Hall, while others watched the Plaza—some in riot gear. A large contingent of California Highway Patrolmen had also assembled along Bancroft Way, while policemen from next-door Oakland were stationed on Center Street, along the stretch that connects the campus with Martin Luther King Jr. Park. A large contingent from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, some eighty officers, waited not far away, ready to come to the scene if needed. I later read that police from nearby San Leandro were also present.

This was a far cry from Berkeley’s dereliction of duty during the February 1. Campus authorities have been accused of ordering the UC Berkeley police to “stand down” while the Black Bloc set fires, threw smoke bombs, and attacked people on Sproul Plaza. Moreover, the city authorities have been faulted for permitting the rioters to advance unopposed down city streets. If there was no actual complicity, the Berkeley authorities were grossly incompetent.

Complicity or incompetence: those two alternatives describe a good deal of policing in the Bay Area these last few years. Peter Shrag writes that “California, or even the whole West Coast is in a liberal bubble in the age of Trump” and that “the Bay Area is a bubble within a bubble”—as manifested by its leaders’ politically correct deference to violent mobs from the left. Schrag notes how Oakland’s authorities have “fuss[ed] with their agenda of political correctness” while downtown businesses in the city have been repeatedly vandalized since the Occupy protests of 2011. Rioters shut the Port of Oakland, the nation’s fifth busiest. The Oakland Police department is notoriously undermanned, mostly to the detriment minority neighborhoods, while the city authorities spend $300,000 a year for a department of Race and Equity.

Schrag puts it nicely: “On April 27, when Coulter was supposed to have spoken, and when militants threatened more violence, UC and Berkeley in effect confessed their role in allowing the disturbances of the prior months.”

Their delay in doing their duty, however, is going to cost California taxpayers half a million dollars to reimburse neighboring police agencies. Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern estimated the cost to his department at about $80,000, a sum he expects the University of California to pay. UC, at the time of this writing, does not have an official estimate of the total cost. It says it is working with other agencies for eventual reimbursement. 

This, however, is only one manifestation of the way the University of California mismanages its affairs. Another was uncovered two days before the April 27 demonstration, with the release of a state audit of the finances of the UC president’s office.

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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