Why Did They Riot?

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 Case Study in Riot

April 27. The sky was blue, the temperature mild, and the walk under the redwoods along the little stream that runs through the UC Berkeley campus, was pleasant—a day just right for outdoor activities. The outdoor activity I had come to witness, however, was to be far from pleasant. Across the country people expected confrontation, another episode in the eruption of threatening and violent behavior that had appeared on campuses from New England to California.

There had been a demonstration at the University of Missouri in which journalists covering the event were threatened with “muscle.” At Middlebury College in Vermont, Charles Murray had been prevented from speaking and Professor Allison Stanger had been assaulted and injured. At Claremont McKenna College in California a shout-down mob had prevented Heather McDonald from speaking. At Berkeley itself, there had been nationally infamous rioting and destruction.

Berkeley’s riot sparked a train of further events, which are worth exploring in detail. They provide invaluable insight into how one major university system is run today; they form an illustrative case study of the general state of America’s prestigious institutions of higher education.

Free Speech at UC Berkeley

On February 1 some one hundred and fifty masked marauders marched unopposed down the streets of Berkeley to Sproul Plaza, the heart of student activity on the Berkeley campus. The rioters attacked some bystanders with flag poles, pepper sprayed others, broke windows, threw smoke bombs, set a generator on fire, and lit other fires that caused some $10,000 worth of damage to university property. The violent gang was part of a radical faction of the left known as the “Black Bloc,” or “the Antifa” (short for “Anti-Fascist”). Black Bloc is apparently more a tactic than an organization, while Antifa has its roots in Weimar Germany’s Antifaschistische Aktion, a group that was created in 1932 by the German Communist Party (KPD) and used to confront the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party’s rival militants in vicious street battles.

Antifa groups are found today throughout Western Europe and the United States. They are “flat” organizations with no organizational center. Rather, they operate as separate local units that maintain a loose network of communication with one another to exchange information and to co-ordinate activity. Antifa now operates as the coercive wing of a Twitter-facilitated movement, #TheResistance, which coordinates obstruction of President Trump and his policies. Antifa groups hide their faces with black masks which, along with black attire, form a quasi-uniform akin to the brown shirts of the Nazi Storm Troopers and the white sheets and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. 

The black masked thugs of the Antifa came to Sproul Plaza to prevent a provocative conservative, Milo Yiannopoulos, from giving a speech on campus. Yiannopoulos came to Berkeley at the invitation of the Berkeley College Republicans. The violent tactics of the street fighters worked, for the university cancelled his speech. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said publically that he condemned violence and that the university was committed to free speech; but the scheduled speech was cancelled anyway.

Erica West, a graduate student and a member of Berkeley Against Trump, told USA Today that it was “extremely frustrating” that Dirks was condemning the violence “when he had every chance to cancel the event and stop this from happening.” In other words it was the Chancellor’s fault for not following the orders of her hate group, and allied leftist organizations, in their insistence on violating the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution.  

The same threats of violence worked again and again. The Berkeley administration later cancelled successive speeches by conservative authors David Horowitz and Ann Coulter. Coulter persisted, however, saying that the university had violated her constitutional right of free speech. Under pressure, the administration agreed to change the date of her appearance and to move it to some remote location. The new date was May 2, a time known as “dead week,” when students would be distracted by final exams. Coulter interpreted this change of time and venue as a means of limiting the effect of her speech, and she refused to accept the change, saying that she might instead appear on campus informally.

The Berkeley Administration under Fire

After Berkeley cancelled Coulter’s speech, the College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation brought a suit against both the Berkeley administration and Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California system. The two plaintiff organizations sought a judicial declaration that the university had violated their rights under the First and the Fourteenth Amendments by “abruptly cancelling” Coulter’s scheduled speech “after weeks of discussion” and by “selectively enforcing” the university’s “High-Profile Speaker Policy” to “unreasonably restrict the time, place and manner” of political speech.  Their attorneys also stated that the university’s decision was made “recently and secretively” in order to silence their clients’ invited speakers, Ann Coulter and David Horowitz, while allowing two opponents of President Trump to speak on campus: Maria Echaveste, a former Clinton administration official, and Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico. The suit, filed in the United States District Court of San Francisco, also sought an injunction against the application of any policies that would restrict political expression on the Berkeley campus, as well as reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and court costs.

Conservatives criticized the university’s denial of free speech to invited guests—but so too did prominent figures on the other side of the political divide. One was Robert Reich, formerly labor secretary in the Clinton administration, now professor of Public Policy at Berkeley. A student member of the College Republicans said that Reich once mentioned Trump in class and was answered with boos. Reich then told them that booing had no place in that class. Other critics of the university’s actions included Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as left-wing political commentator Bill Maher. Reich, Sanders, Warren, and Maher disagree vehemently with the positions held by Coulter, but they too were disturbed by Berkeley’s suppression of free speech.

Maher himself has been a near victim of this censorship. His often expressed views are similar to those of the Berkley left, but when he was invited to speak in Berkeley in 2014, a student committee vetoed it on the grounds that he had once said something disrespectful about Islam. Dirks overruled the students and allowed Maher to speak as planned.

A prominent journalist in California, Peter Shrag, former editor of the Sacramento Bee, wrote that the university, in cancelling, then rescheduling Ann Coulter’s speech, “in effect…allowed itself to be taken hostage by the anarchist ‘antifa’… mob.” He also wrote that one clearly sees by reading the law suit and from the remarks of the attorney for the College Republicans “how intimidated UCB was.” Shrag concluded that Berkeley’s chancellor Nicholas Dirk’s attempt “to wipe some of the egg off UC’s face with a ‘poor us’ New York Times op-ed piece … only managed to reinforce the conclusion that UC and the city of Berkeley had helped bring the troubles on themselves.”

April 27. The sky was blue, the temperature mild. I walked up the campus under the redwoods to Sproul Plaza on the day scheduled for a free speech demonstration.

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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