Religious leader Louis Farrakhan spoke to a full Wheeler Auditorium at the Afrikan Black Coalition Conference Saturday, despite concerns voiced by campus groups regarding anti-Semitic, homophobic and other controversial statements they say he has made in the past.
Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, talked about black empowerment and also discussed the education system in the United States, as well as the nation’s international politics and the histories of different racial groups in his approximately two-hour speech.
“You like to sugarcoat things so you can get along with your former slave masters,” Farrakhan said, commenting on the history of African Americans in the United States and their attitudes regarding their current place in society.
Additionally, Farrakhan likened the United States to a “troublemaker, meddling in the internal affairs of other nations.”
In another part of his speech, Farrakhan addressed those concerned by his appearance, telling his predominantly black audience that some on campus opposed his speech because “they’re so fearful that you’re going to hear a word that will break the chain off your mind.”
Farrakhan also critiqued the educational system, commenting on the disjuncture between applicable knowledge and material taught in schools and universities. After citing accomplishments and notable moments from black history, Farrakhan said such facts are not well known because of bias in United States’ education regarding black history.
“This is what you call an education in white supremacy,” Farrakhan said. “So when you come out, you come out bowing to them.”
UC Berkeley junior Mariah Cochran, a participant in the conference, said she thought the controversy surrounding Farrakhan’s speech was blown out of proportion considering the topics his presentation covered.
“In my opinion, (Farrakhan’s speech) was mainly about black empowerment – focused on black students,” Cochran said.
Still, ASUC Senator Noah Ickowitz, who watched Farrakhan’s speech via webcast, said he felt the talk promoted anti-Semitism and hatred.
“Farrakhan made countless references and spent a significant amount of time, talking about the Jewish people in the most anti-Semitic of terms,” Ickowitz said. “There was also a reference in the speech mocking Asian languages that I know one student I was passing out fliers with was offended by.”
Farrakhan told audience members that before they interact with Jews, they should read “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” a book that connects Jews to African American enslavement in the Western Hemisphere.
“Why don’t you teach them that the first wonder of this world was not something that Jewish people built when they were enslaved in Egypt. Otherwise they would know how it was done,” he said. “That’s why it’s called the first wonder, because they wonder how it was done.”
While trying to distinguish between the history of blacks in America and other ethnic groups, Farrakhan also crudely mimicked an Asian accent, and proceeded to ask the audience, “Can you imagine Ching Lee Joong with a picket sign?”
In a statement released Saturday, UC President Mark Yudof called Farrakhan a “provocative, divisive figure with a long history of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic speech.”
“It was distressing in the extreme that a student organization invited him to speak on the UC Berkeley campus,” Yudof said in the statement. “But, as I have said before, we cannot, as a society or as a university community, be provoked by hurtful speech to retreat from the cherished value of free speech.”
Several UCPD officers were present, which UCPD Lt. Alex Yao said was “no different than at any other special event of this scale.”
The conference – which started Friday and will run through Sunday – features workshops, keynote speakers and social activities with the aim of unifying black students across the UC system, according to the event’s website. Farrakhan’s inclusion as one of six featured speakers led to outcry from numerous campus community members, with a petition opposing Farrakhan’s speech circulating in the week leading up to his appearance.
Ickowitz said representatives of both the black and Jewish student communities – including himself, Black Student Union Chair Salih Muhammad and ASUC External Affairs Vice President Joey Freeman – met with Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard on Tuesday and addressed “the impact that this has had on each of our communities.”
Following Farrakhan’s speech, about seven students passed out copies of the petition — which gathered over 350 signatures — outside of Wheeler Hall to demonstrate their opposition to Farrakhan’s speech, Ickowitz said.
The petition – begun by Ickowitz, Student Action Senator Aviv Gilboa and other Jewish student leaders – opposes Farrakhan’s speech and character, not the Black Student Union’s right to bring him to campus.
“He has every right to come, all I’m doing is shedding light on the negative impact he has had on the community,” Ickowitz said. “We wanted to do so respectfully, so we had no signs and a large number of people who were exiting the conference were very receptive and very understanding.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Farrakhan said “they’re so fearful that you’re going to hear a word that will break the chain off your mouth.” In fact, he said, “they’re so fearful that you’re going to hear a word that will break the chain off your mind.”