Torch-bearing white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, and in anticipation, University of Virginia’s president advised the campus community to hole up and avoid the neo-Nazis at the risk of escalating violence. That didn’t work out.
Now, the city of Berkeley, too, says “stay away” from the alt-right rally scheduled for Aug. 27. But Berkeley should not tell community members to back down, not when the people flooding the city in hordes threaten the very existence of many people here.
Berkeley — the city and campus — is a magnet for white supremacists who exploit its history and clickbait name for their hateful fight. Community members didn’t want to watch Martin Luther King Jr. Way turn into a war zone on March 4, April 15 or April 27, and they shouldn’t have to this weekend, either.
But recent events show how a bloodbath can be avoided, and it’s not by staying away. In Boston, one week after Charlottesville, tens of thousands of counterprotesters drowned out the planned alt-right rally (dubbed a “free speech” protest, which nobody’s buying). And by 1 p.m., rally attendees had slunk away before they even made the speeches they had planned, and the Washington Post reported that no one was injured.
While this type of showing might be what UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ was talking about when she urged new students to counter hate speech with “more speech” at convocation, she did herself and the campus no favors by dubbing this a “free speech year.” Speakers with alt-right followers like Milo Yiannopoulos often use “free speech” as their call to arms. In fact, Yiannopoulos plans to return to Berkeley in late September and camp out on Sproul Plaza for four days, an event he is calling “Free Speech Week.”
Just three days after the racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, Christ said inner resilience is “the surest form of safe space.” Inner resilience? What about the continuing physical threat behind white supremacist ideology, clearly evidenced by the events at Charlottesville?
This is possibly the worst thing a college president could say in the current context. Safe spaces do not impede the full realization of free discourse. Safe spaces exist to acknowledge a history of systemic oppression.
As Berkeley prepares itself for this weekend’s rally, it is all the more important that the chancellor acknowledge the way hate groups use “free speech” as a euphemism for harmful ideology and action, and that the city of Berkeley provide support for those who don’t have the privilege of turning a blind eye.