Southern Poverty Law Center talks responding to controversial right-wing speakers on UC Berkeley campus

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Aren Saunders-Gonzalez/Staff

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Representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, spoke about nonviolent protest, free speech and hate speech to a group of nine students Tuesday night.

The speakers were SPLC outreach director Lecia Brooks, director of research on the Intelligence Project Alex Amend and marketing director Seth Levi. The three took turns sharing information and answering student questions.

Although the group booked West Pauley Ballroom for the event and ordered pizza for 200 people, the turnout was small, so the event turned into a discussion rather than a presentation.

“I was, of course, a little disappointed by the turnout, but actually I thought it was really powerful,” said campus sophomore Laure Barthelemy. “Even maybe the fact that it was so intimate, because it was just like a discussion.”

One of the presenters’ main points was that provocative speakers come to campus in order to solicit a violent response from students. According to Amend, far-right provocateurs are counting on students to react in a certain way so that they can be seen as “free speech martyrs.”

”They want a scene, they want violence, they want ugliness so they can spin it in the media,” Amend said during his presentation.

According to Levi, students should consider two things when a right-wing speaker visits: first, what is the speaker’s objective, and second, how the student will be defined by the action they take. Levi said right-wing speakers try to push a “false narrative” that college campuses are hostile toward conservative views.

Students should therefore consider how their actions and protests will be interpreted by the public off campus, he said.

“We reached out to Berkeley just because of what was happening, what happened with Milo’s first visit and how it resulted in some violence,” Brooks said. “We thought the students were painted in a very unjust and unfair manner. They were portrayed as violent protesters.”

Brooks said students should use the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a reference for nonviolent protest. She added that the SPLC wants to help students by providing strategies and ideas so students do not “fall prey to far-right extremism.”

Barthelemy and campus sophomore Isabella de Bruin are planning to start a chapter of SPLC on campus next semester. They did not organize the event, but they helped advertise the event and get people involved in anticipation of starting the club next semester.

“We should be fighting for it to be substantive and a safe place for people to talk and come and solve problems of the world … so I’d like to help solve that problem,” de Bruin said.

Campus sophomore Lillian Avedian said she was interested in attending the event because of the campus climate this past semester. She said she believes it is important for students to be involved in a dialogue about what effective, nonviolent protests can look like.

“In terms of the presenters, I thought they did a really great job,” Avedian said. “I loved what they had to say about how important it is to educate students on these issues before just jumping into dialogue that is really divisive and how we can counter these really provocative speakers in an effective way.”

Contact Ella Colbert at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @colbert_ella.