‘It became a game’: Reflecting 1 year after the Milo Yiannopoulos protests

Violent protests outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building forced controversial conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos' event to be canceled.
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Violent protests outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building forced controversial conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos' event to be canceled.

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A year after the Milo Yiannopoulos protests, many who were there that night still remember the violence.

On Feb. 1, 2017, conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak by Berkeley College Republicans, or BCR, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, but the event was canceled because of mass protest as a generator went up in flames and UCPD declared the protest an “unlawful assembly.” The aftermath of the event led to numerous other conservative speakers being invited to campus, several “alt-right” rallies held in Downtown Berkeley and the ongoing debate on free speech.

On the night of Yiannopoulos’ scheduled speech, campus sophomore Alexa Trujillo said she was in the crowd close to the Amazon center, but moved as soon as protesters began to throw fireworks at the glass walls. She and her friends began to move away from the building and toward Sproul Hall once it became clear that “it was no longer a peaceful protest.”

ASUC Senator Juniperangelica Cordova-Goff recalled the confusion in the air that night, which quickly turned into shock as the police began to shoot rubber bullets at the crowd.

“This was one of the first big events of its nature, at least in my experience, where no one knew what was happening,” Cordova-Goff said. “The big presence of cops was a shock.”

Cordova and Trujillo were a few of the 1,500 peaceful organizers who congregated on Sproul Plaza. An hour into the protest, Yiannopoulos was evacuated off campus.

Speaker after speaker

President Donald Trump released a tweet the day after the protests that denounced UC Berkeley and threatened to pull federal funds from the campus.

When Milo Yiannopoulos previously came to the UC Berkeley campus Feb. 1, his event was canceled due to fiery protests that erupted on Sproul Plaza.

Jihoon Park/Staff

Campus has made headlines across the country since Yiannopoulos’ event, appearing at the forefront of national news and discussion.

BCR and BridgeUSA attempted to host conservative author Ann Coulter in April, but the campus clubs ultimately pulled their support of the event.

After rumors that “alt-right” rallies were coming to the Bay Area, thousands of counterprotesters, including community members and organizations such as Antifa, organized in Downtown Berkeley to face off against a small group of right-wing and white nationalist advocates.

BCR and Young America’s Foundation, or YAF, also invited conservative writer Ben Shapiro to speak on campus in September. The event was met with opposition from protesters, but happened nonetheless.

BCR could not be reached for comment as of press time.

“It became a game of who can bring the most controversial speaker and the get worst reactions and therefore the best headlines,” Cordova-Goff said.

Sparking the debate

Yiannopoulos and the Berkeley Patriot banded together to assemble “Free Speech Week,” which was set to take place Sept. 24-27. “Free Speech Week” was intended to bring a host of conservative speakers to campus, including David Horowitz and Yiannopoulos himself.

Chancellor Carol Christ publicly announced her support of “Free Speech Week” to encourage bipartisanship and to uphold the campus’s reputation as the home of the Free Speech Movement.

Trujillo said these events made her feel unwelcome.

“I would say that as a student of color, it is still a challenge to attend a university. However, it has become more difficult now that the political climate has made it OK to be openly rude to students of color,” Trujillo said.

According to Cordova-Goff, the events that have occured in the past year have led to increased militarization of campus by local police forces, which “adds to the violence” that many communities on campus face.

Recently, BCR and YAF filed a lawsuit against UC Berkeley arguing that the administration violated their 1st Amendment rights to free speech.

Cal Berkeley Democrats President Caiden Nason said he believes the campus climate has improved, but the student body still has more work to do. Nason said he is working actively with the Republicans on campus.

“We’re building a climate of tolerance — slowly but surely. The events of Free Speech Week have promoted students to challenge how they understand speech and to recognize that there is little representation of conservative viewpoints on campus,” ASUC President Zaynab AbdulQadir-Morris said in email.

On Jan. 7, BCR announced its intent to host conservative talk-radio host Dennis Prager as part of its #YearOfFreedom, an effort to promote a diverse range of viewpoints on campus.

Varsha Sarveshwar, development director of Cal Berkeley Democrats, previously told The Daily Californian that she hopes the future events planned by BCR will not be about invoking controversy.

“I would hope that (the events are) not done in order to cause maximum disruption. I don’t have high hopes that that would be the case,” Sarveshwar said.

Contact Francesca Munsayac at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fcfm_dc.