In search of the circus: Exploring UC Berkeley’s protest culture

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I applied to UC Berkeley last fall in part because of the exciting prospect for an active, even contentious political scene. UC Berkeley has the kind of reputation that made an outspoken conservative high school classmate of mine respond, when asked why UC Berkeley wasn’t even on his college list, “Because I’ll get lynched.” Consider first that my hometown, Redondo Beach, Calif., is already a place that abounds with liberal political sentiment. Then, consider that my former classmate is Korean.

UC Berkeley has a reputation as an uber-liberal protest school where not a single “Make America Great Again” hat is to be seen in daylight — where, as a friend joked half-seriously, “They’re all for free speech unless they disagree with you.” It’s a culturally diffusive infamy that extends to the city and its inhabitants as a whole. You’re probably familiar with it. In the same way people think of rodeoing cowboys or bolo tie-wearing oil men with deep Southern drawls when they think of Texas, what often comes to mind when people think of UC Berkeley are the “Make Love, Not War” hippies, who infuriated Rob Riggle of “The Daily Show” enough that he ran through a wall and inspired a caricature in the recently released film “Zombieland: Double Tap” — a pacifist, aptly named “Berkeley,” who draws Woody Harrelson’s character’s ire. To the right, it’s a hard-to-mask odor, one of overbearing political correctness, left-leaning politics and unjustifiable intolerance in the name of tolerance.

As I prepared to begin my first week of college this August, I kept in mind this cultural image I had: anti-fascist protesters turning Upper Sproul Plaza into a scene of inferno, Mace and bonafide chaos when Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak; Ann Coulter canceling her speech; Ben Shapiro being protected by $600,000 worth of security — all of which occurred in 2017.

I remembered to keep my mouth mum around certain people and places. I was ready to enter UC Berkeley’s liberal haven and to experience protest culture when I touched earth on ground zero: Sproul Plaza.

One thing you may discover if you spend enough time around Sproul is that protests are so easy to find because they’re so well advertised. Anti-fascism, climate change, menstrual health — they’re all there, tacky-colored leaflets taped to poles and stapled to bulletin boards right above the “NEED EDITING?” advertisement and a litany of concert promotions.

I was ready to enter UC Berkeley’s liberal haven and to experience protest culture when I touched earth on ground zero: Sproul Plaza.

Another thing you may discover: not all protests are created equal, in size and energy at least. There are the small student groups that you may catch right before or after they picket by Sather Gate, loitering around with signs leaning against their legs, some burying their faces in phone screens, all with an air of geniality and not of outrage. To boot, you’re likely in too much of a rush to get to class, Moffitt Library or your room to take a moment to ask them exactly what it is that they’re protesting. Or you just don’t care. In effect, the combination of ease and speed render these kinds of protests irrelevant, or at least unmemorable, to you. 

You may also notice that not all protests are even in groups. There are the insular ones — the man who projects “Impeach Trump” in red capital lettering onto the face of Sproul Hall every now and again, the solo picketers, the lonely. Those who couldn’t care less if you support them. What matters to them is that they are expressing their objections, shouting into the canyon even if no reply returns.

You will discover that even if you’re not looking for a protest, one will find you. 

On the first Sunday of the school year, I attended an anti-fascist protest of a right-leaning anti-communist rally, both of which were being held on Sproul Plaza. I was intent on experiencing protest culture for myself — the vitriol, perhaps even the violence. The moment I left my residence hall, I was greeted by the sound of someone shouting into a bullhorn at People’s Park and the sight of police officers lined up on standby, ready to move wherever the protesters did.

At Sproul, a smattering of supporters gathered around anti-Marxist Amber Cummings, who livestreamed the event. Her phone wasn’t the only one recording; cameramen surrounded her, making sure to stay up close and personal for the most intimate, tangible shots of protest confrontations that were sure to arise the kind that draws hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube or Facebook. Tourists carried on and snapped selfies at Sather Gate. A procession of anti-fascist protesters marched down Telegraph Avenue, the rattles of their snare drums preceding them until they stopped in front of the barricade of police officers in riot gear.

You will discover that even if you’re not looking for a protest, one will find you. 

Antifa. There they were, the real deal. Wearing masks, just like on TV. Lurking around the edges of protesters who decided to debate Cummings, ready to explode into action. Many of the anti-fascists in the procession were not masked. At the front of the column, they held up a banner that said:

“No Cops, No KKK

Smash All

Fascist States

All Power to the People.”

There was plenty of police. Police quietly patrolling the scene, spending their Sundays preventing a riot instead of with their families. But there were no Klan members around. While Cummings ranted on about communism, she didn’t preach white supremacy or fascism. And I was very confused.

When the anti-fascist protesters decided that they couldn’t break through the police line, they turned down Bancroft Way. People continued to pointlessly argue with Cummings, who seemed to bathe in the attention, the iPhone cameras and the anger — who seemed to know that if she took her band of 10 (or fewer?) followers and circled around campus, a larger crowd of protesters and observers would follow. Which is exactly what happened.

While some people encountered the event by surprise — two freshmen girls thought the gathering of students was for their church meeting — I went with a group that was all too aware. We followed Cummings and her camera entourage, hoping to witness the large procession of anti-fascists confront her. One of the guys quipped, in half-genuine remorse, that he should have brought his cardboard “Welcome to the Circus” sign, which he would’ve tied around his neck, displaying it on center stage for “The Daily Show” or a program of that ilk to see. 

Excitedly keeping pace with the commotion, we realized that we were walking too closely to Cummings; the potential for confusion — that we were her supporters, instead of mere observers — unnerved us enough to move to the back of the crowd. Immersed in our desire for wisecracks and action, we had forgotten that if we placed our hands too close to the ring, whatever was inside might bite back.

Half an hour later, as a friend and I chowed down on food from Top Dog, we finally re-encountered the antifa procession. It was outside of Revolution Books, out on the street, its rhetoric having turned a 180, its crowd of supporters cheering in response to declarations against police brutality, not fascism. The riot police, pillars across the street, were unmoved.

Once again, in our excitement, we had walked too close to the border of an affiliation. We entered the scene on the sidewalk that contained both Revolution Books and the anti-fascists who had their masks down around their necks, standing around so nonchalantly that it took several moments to register that they were the very same protesters we had seen before. With curious onlookers joining from around the corners, exponentiating the amount of video footage being recorded, we quickly crossed the street to the police line and exited, our first protest resembling less of a street brawl than a Barnum & Bailey show. But it was all there: the desultory anger, the mythic anti-fascists, the immense craving for attention. One ticket for re-entry, please.

It would be two weeks and change before there was another notable protest. In late September, the global climate strike came to UC Berkeley, and I found myself listening to the speeches of pragmatic environmental science professors and their less pragmatic students. An air of sarcasm carried over from the antifa protest, as some guys made sure to curse out not only big oil but also Stanford. 

But it was all there: the desultory anger, the mythic anti-fascists, the immense craving for attention. One ticket for re-entry, please.

But on that hot afternoon, the collective atmosphere was thick with an energy of sincerity emanating from the students who leaned over the balconies of Sproul Hall and Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, in addition to those who sat crisscrossed on the steps, forming an entity so large that its end could not be seen from within. And they carried their fervor on a march all the way to San Francisco.

But in the weeks after, that air dissipated, and with it, the search for the veracity of UC Berkeley’s protest culture. Some protests, such as the anti-U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, protest against Amazon, as well as the menstrual health strike, came and went without much commotion. Most notably, the anti-Gandhi demonstration in early October sent volts into the student body after people picketing accused the global icon of being a sex offender and a racist.

But that unmistakable energy, which could be manipulated from pacifism to mayhem, had escaped campus. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that most antifa protests involve outside agitators, not students. Or that within the student body, conservatism is hardly sparse and political correctness is rarely enforced. People keep to themselves. Rationality, or at least low stakes, hold sway over political conversations among friends. The cracks within UC Berkeley’s liberal image began to show.

It was not until November that I encountered that atmosphere again. My search took me on a two-hour transit ride down to Stanford, Calif., where the Stanford College Republicans had invited Ben Shapiro to speak. Anticipating the kind of outrage UC Berkeley students had offered Shapiro in 2017, I was disappointed, although not surprised, to find that Stanford protests are like the diet versions of their UC Berkeley counterparts. A modest gathering of students — much smaller than the line of ticket holders for Shapiro — stood behind short aluminum fencing, chanting about the Ku Klux Klan and holding up signs that amused more than distressed, such as “You’re a clown.”

The remarkable rigidity of protesters and their devotion to really only having themselves heard played out during Shapiro’s lecture, as students chanted against him while he spent an hour criticizing the ”white supremacists,” sentiments they probably agreed with. But the preinstalled anger was not put aside, not even for someone like Shapiro, who came off much less radical than expected. The shouts, which were rather innocuous, were drowned out by “U-S-A” chants and demands for the protesters to go home. 

Noting that some of the SCR members proudly wore “MAGA” hats, my thoughts drifted back to UC Berkeley and the tenuousness of its left-leaning reputation. Perhaps that reputation only fits into academia and the world of tailoring one’s answers to what the professor believes in order to get an A. As Shapiro said, “In class, I was Friedrich Hayek; I was Milton Friedman; I was Thomas Sowell, and then in my bluebooks, I was Bernie Sanders.”

On a Wednesday morning in November, when the lazy fog rolled down from the Berkeley Hills, when a familiar drumbeat thumped in the distance and the protest myth was nothing more, a small group of UC system workers clad in green held up picket signs as students ventured past them into the gray. Apparently, they were protesting the university’s outsourcing of labor. But there was no time to question them about it with classes to attend.

Maybe the trick UC Berkeley pulled was that, under our noses, it normalized the scant objectors and the projector-carrying loners.

The evening before, a similarly pencil-thin row of people picketing had lined up on the steps of Sproul Hall with more signs than people to hold them, declaring their support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy as the U.S. Supreme Court decided whether or not President Trump was allowed to unravel it.

“DACA, DACA students are here to stay!”

The ghosts of the climate strike and its enormous crowd fluttered about and disappeared into the murky clouds. Maybe the trick UC Berkeley pulled was that, under our noses, it normalized the scant objectors and the projector-carrying loners. It presented a reputation that was not a myth, but a mischaracterization. It tried to remind us that protests come in all sizes and salience, from quotidian to monumental — that if we don’t pay attention, the culture will seem all but dead.

On that Wednesday morning in November, an hour after I had first seen the minute band of protesters, I was walking along a narrow sidewalk back to my residence hall. Suddenly, I was engulfed by an amoeba of green, swallowed whole by an entity of union members, whose company seemed to have doubled since our last encounter, beating drums, blaring speakers and demanding nothing more than our absolute attention.

Contact Alex Dang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @alexdaaang.