Southern Poverty Law Center writer discusses ‘alt-right’ movement at UC Berkeley

Protesters yell at each other in alt-right rally April 15 at Civic Center Park, while police stand between the groups.
Julian Kilchling /File
Protesters yell at each other in alt-right rally April 15 at Civic Center Park, while police stand between the groups.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, sent writer Ryan Lenz to the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union on Tuesday to speak about the “alt-right” movement.

Lenz, a senior investigative writer for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, discussed how he had spent the last seven years covering the rise of hate and extremism in the United States. The “alt-right” movement has been culminating for decades, Lenz said, and it is an effort to bring ideas that have been “in the shadow” since the civil rights movement to the forefront of mainstream conversation in the United States.

“The ‘alt-right’ is a very catchy phrase,” said Lenz, who called the term synonymous with white supremacy and a rebranding of this movement for the digital age.

The SPLC is an organization focused on fighting hate and bigotry and seeking justice for vulnerable communities, according to its website. Last year, the SPLC counted 917 hate groups across America, including groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalist group American Vanguard and Black Separatist group Nation of Islam, according to the SPLC’s website.

Lenz said the SPLC classifies hate groups as organizations that attack, demonize or demean a group of people “based on an amenable characteristic.”

UC Berkeley is being targeted deliberately by “alt-right” groups, according to Lenz. He added that the “alt-right” falsely claim that their voices are being censored on college campuses.

Lenz encouraged people to organize and protest to oppose hate speech and the “alt-right,” going on to condemn Antifa’s violent tactics and criticize campus faculty’s plans to boycott classes during “Free Speech Week.”

“(Don’t) rob yourself of an education just because there are assholes here,” Lenz said.

Neba Zaidi, a fourth year sociology student who attended the event, said Lenz’s calls to protest in opposition could be oversimplifying the issue, as people have already been protesting groups such as the “alt-right.”

As Lenz began to answer questions, some people in the crowd started to leave.

When questioned by a member of the audience if he believed hate speech should be restricted in the United States, he immediately said no. Lenz said hate speech is “protected speech,” adding, however, that it does have consequences.

Graduate public health student Francesca Rubino, who attended the event, said she felt Lenz’s comments were significantly weakened when he verbally belittled some “alt-right” members, specifically when he mocked KKK leader David Duke for getting plastic surgery and white nationalist Richard Spencer for owning “fancy watches that Mama bought.”

“When people say Richard Spencer’s face is busted … no, his whole ideology is busted,” Zaidi said. “Focus on the issue.”

Some attendees, however, were more supportive of Lenz’s views. Campus applications programmer and attendee Jason Miller said he agreed with what Lenz stood for.

Miller added, however, that he feared he could be labeled “alt-right” for expressing ideas outside of what campus liberals believe — which he felt wasn’t addressed at the event.

“People are seeing things in black and white,” Miller said. “There is no spectrum.”

Contact Ahna Straube at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @akstraube.