Continuing contention over the scheduled appearance of religious leader Louis Farrakhan at an upcoming conference organized by the UC Berkeley Black Student Union has led to a petition in protest of his speech.
Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, is scheduled to speak on Saturday at the Afrikan Black Coalition Conference, which will be held on campus Friday through Sunday. The petition calls Farrakhan’s appearance “an insult to the culture of diversity and inclusiveness on our campus” and had about 290 signatures as of early Thursday evening.
ASUC Senator Noah Ickowitz said in an email that he and other Jewish student leaders began the petition because it “seemed the best way to shed light on the negative impact” of Farrakhan’s appearance on campus.
“We believe that the … conference as a whole is fantastic, and that the BSU has every right to bring Louis Farrakhan,” Ickowitz said in the email. “We are not asking that they change their mind, but showing that we protest the words and character of Farrakhan.”
The petition is one of a series of objections that have been raised about Farrakhan coming to campus due to allegedly anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and other controversial comments he has made.
Major objections over Farrakhan’s remarks have been raised by others in the past. In 1986, for example, he was banned from entering the United Kingdom due to some of his contentious statements.
But Salih Muhammad, chair of the campus Black Student Union, said Farrakhan is one of several speakers at the conference and that Farrakhan was chosen for his potential to help inspire black students at the University of California.
“He was extremely successful in reshaping the image of black people in media,” Muhammad said. “In the black community, Minister Farrakhan has spearheaded multiple movements and multiple efforts toward unity.”
Muhammed stressed that Farrakhan will be speaking to a closed conference that required preregistration, adding that the 650 registered attendees are all “very excited about the speakers.”
Additionally, union co-chair Naomi Wilson said it was never the union’s intent to harm any members of the campus community and that in terms of speakers the BSU looked for those who could “motivate our students, inspire our students and make them see the power that everyone has within themselves.”
UC President Mark Yudof sent an open letter to the UC community Thursday regarding “a number of recent incidents of intolerance,” discussing events at other UC campuses. He made no mention of Farrakhan, though he did address the issue of speakers who “present ideas others will view as hateful and abhorrent.”
“As for incendiary speakers, we cannot as a society allow what we regard as vile speech to lead us to abandon the cherished value of free speech,” Yudof said in the letter. “But the same Constitution that permits some public figures to engage in hateful commentary also protects my right and duty – and your right and duty – to condemn these merchants of hatred when they come into our community.”
Farrakhan’s appearance marks another instance this academic year in which a student group has been at the center of controversy.
In September, the Berkeley College Republicans’ “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” garnered national media attention and was fiercely opposed by a number of student groups, including the Black Student Union. The bake sale created a tiered structure for the pricing of baked goods based on race and sex and was held in protest of SB 185 — a bill vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October that would have allowed the university to consider race and gender, among other factors, in admissions.
“While both invited criticism as a result of their controversial nature, the (college Republicans’) bake sale made a very specific political point, whereas Farrakhan can offer nothing more than spewing hateful rhetoric affecting thousands of students at Cal,” said Shawn Lewis, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, in an email.