The University of California in Berkeley was recently forced to cancel its talk by a prominent right-wing editor from Breitbart News following successful student protests to prevent the talk from going ahead.
Milo Yiannopoulos was the speaker in question. The 32 year old journalist, entrepreneur and author from the UK is also an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and of far right politics in general. Previously, he wrote under the pseudonym Milo Andreas Wagner.
The protest was a violent demonstration by ‘black-clad anarchists’ who clashed with police on the campus. Of course Trump had things to say on the matter and by 6.13am ET had sent a Tweet that condemned the university’s handling of the incident and threatened to cut off the school’s funds.
The University received $307 million in federal research grants between 2014 and 2015.
The protests began peacefully on Wednesday. Things started to get more heated however when demonstrators broke windows at the hall where the talk was due to take place. Later, they began throwing smoke bombs and then started a fire on Sproul Plaza.
The protest was organized by one Yvette Felarca, who defended the actions of the protesters by describing it as ‘self-defense’. Felarca was quoted as saying:
“We have the right to defend ourselves. This shutting down Milo Yiannopoulos and doing whatever’s necessary to do that is our right to self-defense.”
Others were more dismayed at the demonstrations. One student, Pranav Jandhyala, told the BBC:
“It’s horrible. It’s disgusting, what is going on right now. It’s one thing to protest someone’s right to come here and speak. It’s another to create this amount of destruction and violence.” Said student Pranav.
A lot of the protesters were wearing black cloth, adding to the potentially threatening nature of the event.
A spokesman for the University said that the protest had begun peacefully but was later hijacked by a small number of ‘masked agitators’. Moulof described the events as the ‘actions of a very few’, which he said had interfered with the ‘desires of man’ to participate in ‘legal and lawful protest’.
Who is Responsible?
The use of the word ‘Anarchists’ is not just destructive hyperbole in this case however as you might be prone to assume. Not only did many of the protesters dress ‘like ninjas’ (the words of one news site) but also went on to spray paint Anarchist symbols on the walls. Several members also identified themselves as ‘anarchists’ and ‘antifascists’.
This kind of black clothing is referred to as ‘black bloc’. The aim is of course to conceal the identity of those protesting and to hinder criminal prosecution. The use of scarves, glasses and hoods is also intended to block the effects of pepper spray and the like. Of course black bloc groups also create something of a visual statement, as swathes of black-clad individuals move across a city, town, or – in this case – campus. This is a sight that is becoming increasingly common across America. It is thought that the same group has similarly been active at other protests that began peacefully. Shopkeepers in downtown Oakland will now regularly board up their windows prior to protests.
Officers were not called in to break up the protests as campus Police Chief Margo Bennet believed that this would create a ‘lethal, horror situation’.
Officials are now discussing how they might address future events. While protests are nothing new on campus, the University of California states that this is something ‘new’.
Implications and Reflection
Donald Trump’s full Tweet read as follows:
“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
The insinuation here, is that protesting to prevent a talk is an act that stands in violation of free speech. He further implies that by cancelling the speech, the university was inherently supporting the actions of those protesting. And by threatening to punish the University – even in jest – he is effectively taking out his frustrations on the entire student body, rather than just those responsible.
It’s certainly shaky ground when you attempt to go the high route by throwing terms like ‘free speech’ around in cases such as these. Sure, that is what we are talking (freely) about here in a literally sense. But when the content of that ‘free speech’ is actively attempting to suppress the freedoms and rights of others, it becomes a blurred line.
Of course, the University is not one to take sides in such situations, but rather claims that the talk was cancelled in the interests of safety.
Milo Yiannopoulos and LGBT Issues
What might surprise you, is that Milo is himself a member of a minority group – in fact, he is a member of our very own community as an outwardly gay journalist.
But he certainly has a strange approach to his sexuality. In one post published on Breitbart, he managed to both label himself a ‘gay exceptionalism’ (a term usually associated with the jingoistic notion of ‘American exceptionalism’) and also urge ‘fellow fags’ to get ‘back in the closet’.
His opening paragraph reads:
“The endless celebration and mollycoddling of homosexuals in the media has transformed the genteel, camp rightsists of the 1950s into brash, glitter-drenched Pride queens. If for no other reasons than manners and aesthetics, we ought to think about shoving the next generation back into Narnia.”
He believes that gay men are inherently more intelligent, but also that being gay is ‘aberrant’. Certainly a dubious ambassador for the cause and one who is understandably highly divisive. Unfortunately, he is much clearer on where he stands on other issues such as feminism.
Many protesters would no doubt have preferred that Milo see their plaques and hear their case, rather than being driven away entirely. It is a tragedy that we can’t protest against individuals who so clearly deserve the protests, without risking the ‘black bloc’ taking advantage of the volatile situation.
With Trump and his motley group of friends one side and those eager to involve themselves in violence on the other though, this is a story that is likely to repeat itself over and over for at least the duration of his presidency.
It’s just a very, very unfortunate situation that the country finds itself in.