When a Milo-type comes to Berkeley, the campus knows the drill: It throws up orange barricades, dispatches swarms of police around Sproul Plaza and shuts down critical student services. Professors cancel classes, and anthropology lectures are abandoned. A vast PR and media machine mobilizes under a reductive “free speech” narrative.
The four-day “Free Speech Week” event is another excuse for provocateurs to hide behind a “free speech” label and unleash inane, tired and violent ideas that threaten a vast population of the Berkeley community’s right to exist.
In just the past few days, Yiannopoulos’ army of trolls went after ASUC senators and confirmed speaker David Horowitz’s organization hung targeted, hateful, false posters on campus. This is not diverse dialogue. The Berkeley Patriot, the sponsors of Free Speech Week, and Berkeley College Republicans invited a parade of trolls to make headlines. The system doesn’t just allow them to plan these events. It’s bending backwards, bleeding resources to ensure they happen.
BCR has clung to a victim narrative, pointed out problems where there were none, saying the campus was not willing to support it, that they were restricting access to venues, that capacity was unfairly limited.
The reality is very different: BCR received an unprecedented level of support and free press from UC Berkeley. BCR is a privileged group of people, and those people abuse it. Chancellor Carol Christ said in an interview with The Daily Californian Editorial Board that she decided campus would pay the Zellerbach Hall rent for the Shapiro event specifically to avoid “reputational damage” and prove campus was open to conservative thought.
BCR only had to whine, and its event was funded. For other student groups, room reservations, and their costs, and PR are their responsibility. Right-wing student groups are receiving unprecedented exceptions, such as deadline extensions and subsidies.
Every day, we see a different deserving group of people asking for funding, for administrative support. More than a third of UC students have experienced food insecurity, Berkeley students struggle to pay for housing as rents climb, DACA recipients are in limbo, and Black students continually face a hostile campus climate. But instead of paying due attention to those students, the campus is forced to divert time, attention and valuable funds to allow the most awful people to come here and spout despicable ideology.
Berkeley Patriot, a small online publication complete with five published articles and run by only a handful of members, has no history of hosting large events. Its members are allowing Milo Yiannopoulos to use them as puppets and are revelling in the attention brought by scheduling a four-day event that is more clickbait than real plan. Numerous people were included in the list of speakers for Free Speech Week without their knowledge or permission, and they were surprised to hear it. Many have said they won’t be speaking. The student group even admits that Yiannopoulos is doing a large part of the planning.
Spokespeople for MILO, Inc. — rather than members of the Berkeley Patriot — have fielded questions in recent days about miscommunications regarding the scheduling of speakers. Yiannopoulos has mechanically been shooting off press releases and videos: He’s bankrolling the whole thing, doling out $250,000 for Free Speech Week as part of some perverse comeback tour.
The campus is obligated to uphold the right of a student group to invite controversial speakers, but instead, it is serving the malicious interests of trolls.
These trolls have distorted what was once a less-inflammatory conservative crowd on campus. BCR President Troy Worden told Berkeleyside that when he started out as a member of BCR, there wasn’t as much energy and activism. But after the election, there was a spike in participation, a “microcosm of what’s been happening at a national level.”
These right-wing student groups frame their newfound ability to generate headlines as a revitalization of their clubs. It’s true, BCR has undergone a shift: The “party has been hijacked by bigots,” as BCR member Ivan Varela puts it.
Conservative thinking is not unwelcome on this campus. But BCR and Berkeley Patriot seek to inflame, rather than engage. Their tactics inherently promote transphobic, Islamophobic and sexist rhetoric, and their event — if it even happens — will be a dark page of Berkeley’s history.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.