The past several weeks have been shameful ones for UC Berkeley.
I’ve seen students around me receive death threats from alt-righters. I’ve seen my campus go from being a space for students to a place under what seems like martial law. I’ve been called a “spic” and a “wetback” by a stranger from Canada as I stood on Sproul Plaza trying to reclaim my space during Milo Yiannopoulos’s 20-minute publicity stunt and photo-op. I’ve had pro-Trump, pro-hate speech protesters scream in my face, push me, follow me, and take photos of me for openly expressing my disgust with Milo Yiannopoulos and the campus’s handling of “Free Speech Week.”
And I am exhausted and appalled by it all.
I am tired of seeing my fellow students, especially marginalized students, go through this exhausting trauma and harassment each day. I’m tired of the helicopters, the police, the closed signs, the white supremacy, the Nixle alerts.
Reflecting on it all, I have come to the conclusion that Chancellor Carol Christ and the rest of the university administration are experiencing a gross case of cognitive dissonance. They can not advocate for principles like diversity, inclusiveness, safety, and anti-discrimination at UC Berkeley while continuing to allow speakers who openly show that they are against these values through their words and actions to further build on their exclusionary platforms.
It is clear that there are fundamental flaws in policies and practices at UC Berkeley when students are unable to access our campus, our community centers, and our resources due to either the physical shutdown of these spaces or due to fear of violence and intimidation from police and alt-right groups or spokespeople coming to campus.
Despite this distinction, in an email sent out Sept. 28 by the chancellor in which she appeared to attempt to accept responsibility for the absurd events that occurred on campus, she stated, “we will never restrict speakers based on their viewpoint, and student organizations will continue to be permitted to invite speakers of their choosing to the campus. Policy changes will be made narrowly, only in service of minimizing cost and disruption.”
In short, Chancellor Christ is working to make hate speech cheaper and more efficient.
By refusing to intervene when hateful or discriminatory speakers are invited to campus, campus administrators are validating those speakers’ ideas and providing them with a platform to spread their ideals and create an exclusive, unsafe campus.
If potential speakers are bringing hateful rhetoric and viewpoints — views that compromise the safety and livelihoods of UC Berkeley community members — and actions that compromise the fulfillment of the principles of community for UC Berkeley, it is up to the campus to uphold its commitments to providing students with “a just community in which discrimination and hate are not tolerated.”
The worst part of this is that, despite its supposedly progressive facade, UC Berkeley was already a place in need of immense institutional change before it’s administrators and community fell down the rabbit hole of hate speech guised as “free speech.” Since this has started, we’ve only gotten further distracted from addressing exacerbated issues of basic needs, tuition hikes, white supremacy in academia, and more.
If UC Berkeley wants to reclaim their stance as the progressive pioneer it once was through the activism of students, it is up to students again to push back, disrupt and resist oppressive policies. We should be challenging the idea that hate speech should be protected to the same degree that other forms of free speech are protected under the First Amendment.
The administration’s handling of the events that have plagued our campus these past several weeks have proved their actions negligent, and demonstrated to myself, and many other students, that now more than ever, under such a distressing political climate, it is time to hold our decision makers accountable.
If the campus, and more specifically Chancellor Christ, wants to demonstrate their regret for traumatizing students and wasting money on turning our campus into a police state, then they should do so through their actions, not emails sent from the safety and comfort of their offices. They can start to do so by calling for the demilitarization of our campus as a measure to protect and respect the experiences of our most vulnerable communities. We should be instituting community policing programs that create a humane environment for students that work to rid our campus from police structures that have historically been used to further silence and marginalize communities, specifically those of color. We might even be able to afford this transition if we stop using hundreds of thousands of dollars to subsidize student organizations’ ostentatious speaker events.
When the administration fails to protect us, students are not getting the “inclusive and diverse” education that UC Berkeley’s public relations team has been working so hard to sell. We must to be vocal on this fact. In addition to creating a commission on hate, harassment and free speech to address what has occurred on campus, the Chancellor and the rest of the administration must also actively work to hold themselves accountable to the communities that were most affected by the events that have unraveled, even if they are or are not included in this commission, such as Black, brown, undocumented, Muslim, queer, trans and disabled communities. We, as students, must also answer to these communities and demonstrate push-back when the Chancellor and the wider administration refuse to do so. Protests, sit-ins, boycotts — whatever we must do to convey our discontent.
With the rise of the alt-right in government and media as of late, it’s often been said that we are living in “not-normal” times. I suppose this is what it looks like when “not-normal” hits UC Berkeley and, more importantly, how our campus leaders are choosing to respond when it does.
Victoria Berdin is a Society and Environment fourth-year student at UC Berkeley and the chair of Cal Students for Equal Rights and a Valid Education (CalSERVE).