Last week’s events have been followed by a predictably vacuous and sensationalised deluge of comment from the mainstream media. The dominant focus of mainstream reportage has been the “violence” that supposedly characterised the evening, while many who identify as left themselves seem keen to distance themselves from said “violence” by employing the “outside agitators” trope. I hope to problematize these narratives while also arguing that the administration’s failure to deny the Berkeley College Republicans of its racist, xenophobic, sexist extravaganza — and the administration’s communications with the campus community — justify the outrage of many students and community members.
From the outset, those who opposed the platforming of Milo Yiannopoulos have been painted as repressive and anti-free speech by many media outlets, along with members of the campus community. A widely shared Daily Cal op-ed invoked the legacy of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement to condemn those calling for the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’ event, emblematic of a carte-blanche attitude toward the honoring of free speech. The administration, demonstrated in emails from Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, failed to problematize a thoughtless adherence to the First Amendment and thus played straight into the hands of the likes of Yiannopoulos, who deliberately use such a basic interpretation of free speech to smokescreen their toxic, sexist, white nationalist agenda. Yiannopoulos and his supporters have a track record of actively targeting people in their hate speech, and the ideology they peddle perpetuates ideas that urgently endanger members of our community. In short: The principle of freedom of speech should not be extended to envelop freedom of hate speech, for the unchecked normalization of hate speech will have real consequences. Dirks acknowledged the virulent nature of the language and ideas the speaker espoused and the ability for this to incite harm, but ultimately failed to take action.
Now, on to violence: the issue that has once again illuminated an internal divide on the left, allowing the media to portray the events as a spectacle of barbarity. Before taking on the core issue of whether violence is legitimate, the employment of the term “outside agitator” to distance UC Berkeley students from the “violence” of the protest must be grappled with. On a fundamental level, the distinction between the actions of students and “outsiders” is incongruous with the ethos of a public university and disrespectful to the wider community in which Berkeley is (and should be more) situated. It is patronising and privileged for UC Berkeley students to claim ownership over UC Berkeley and its affairs. We have no right to exclude others from this process. Poignantly — given that the locus of the resistance was the Martin Luther King Jr. building — King himself was a critic of this smear, arguing that we cannot “afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea,” adding that “anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” King’s comments attest to the longevity of the term and also highlights the need for our movements to be inclusive of a plurality of experiences and tactics.
The community and media response to Wednesday evening also revealed our collective, dire lack of understanding of the anti-fascist movement, exemplified by Dirks’ description of members of black bloc as “Ninja-like.” Part of this knowledge vacuum is caused by anti-fascists’ principled stance against speaking to the media, which unfortunately does no favors for their public image. However, anti-fascism draws from a rich history of anarchist thought, which centers on an axis of anti-state and anti-racist commitments and has been practiced for about a century since getting its start in Europe in opposition to the likes of Mussolini and Hitler. We must do more to educate ourselves of this legacy, including the gains we have inherited from the courageous resistance of anti-fascists, and be cognizant that homogenizing portrayals that cast anti-fascists as haphazard provocateurs serve to divide our struggles.
The key question now remains: Was the “violence” Wednesday night justified? I am of the opinion that it was the plurality of tactics employed Wednesday evening that contributed to the success of the cancellation of the talk. I merely wish to offer some thoughts in hope of reframing the dominant narrative. I urge you to consider whether damaging the windows of places like banks and the Amazon student store constitutes “violence” — and, if so, what weight this “violence” carries in the context of the symbolic, structural and actual violence that is proposed, condoned and actioned by the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos and his supporters.
Read more opinion coverage on the use of violence in protests here.