The attacks on Berkeley by white supremacists are just one part of a larger trend in which fascism is gradually gaining a foothold into many of our institutions.
Berkeley is primed for another wave of white supremacist attacks next week with the inception of a series of talks euphemistically referred to as “Free Speech Week,” which will feature a full line-up of talks and presentations by alt-right media pundits (including Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon, among others).
Partly in retaliation for the dramatic shut-down of Milo Yiannopoulos’s scheduled talk there last January by anti-fascist protestors—in which Yiannopoulos had planned to exercise his “free speech” rights to publicly reveal the names of undocumented students at UC Berkeley—the Berkeley College Republicans, with the financial backing of wealthy conservatives tied to the state of Israel, has invited a plethora of reactionary speakers to openly present their bigoted views on campus.
Although the content of these talks (which will include explicitly anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-trans hate speech targeted at vulnerable student populations) clearly violates the rights of students to work and study in an environment free of harassment (also known as Title IX), the university administration refuses to cancel these talks. This is because, according to them, they are a public university and are thus legally bound to uphold the First Amendment rights of all students (including those students who espouse extreme right-wing views) to invite speakers of their choice to campus.
What their refusal to cancel more broadly reveals, however, is that for the UC Berkeley administration (and, increasingly, most university administrations) financial concerns trump the bodily safety of students—particularly those with marginalized identities.
As has been made clear through many sources, UC Berkeley is terrified of becoming the object of a “first amendment” lawsuit, where they are sued by wealthy donors and alumni (on whom their increasingly privatized institution relies for funding) for violating so-called “free speech rights.” Over the past year or so, this has led to a kind of bizarre arms race in which the university administration, in order to protect the “free speech” rights of extreme right-wing pundits and media personalities such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring militarized police forces to flood the campus, threatening any students who wish to protest these figures with the barrel of a gun.
The irony is that a once world-renowned public university must now rely on a private military and the threat of violence to ensure that its PR reputation as “the home of free speech”—and thus, its image as a free, democratic space—is maintained.
So what exactly is going on at UC Berkeley? Although various threats and attacks from white supremacist groups around the country have been on the rise since the election of Donald Trump, Berkeley, California seems to hold a special place in the hearts of today’s white supremacists. As I and others have written about elsewhere, there are various reasons for this.
One is the mainstream image of Berkeley (and California more generally) as a utopian space of countercultural, so-called “radical” resistance to the status quo. Beginning in the late sixties with the rise of student movements on campus, Berkeley became known as a kind of mecca for leftists, hippies, and queers. White supremacist groups know that staging their events in this place is sure to cause headlines and media attention generally.
Another reason that white supremacists have flocked to UC Berkeley with a particular vengeance, however, is because of its legacy as the “home of free speech.” In the 1960’s, a student movement that came to be known as the “Free Speech Movement” rocked the campus when a group of (largely white, middle-class) students led by leftist icon Mario Savio began petitioning the campus administration to allow them to speak about and promote political events and protests on campus. Previously, as a state school, UC Berkeley did not allow students to stage political protests or even advocate for any particular political cause on campus property, as it was supposed to remain neutral terrain. However, Savio and his peers claimed that the university was censoring their right to free speech as students, and eventually petitioned the school to allow students to voice political opinions on campus.
While this moment, known as the birth of the “Free Speech Movement,” has since become a landmark securing Berkeley’s reputation as a radical community, there was never anything inherently radical about the right to say “whatever one wants.” As we have seen, such a broad, sweeping claim as a “right to free speech” could theoretically encompass any type of speech—from an anti-Vietnam war protest to a neo-Nazi march.
As we have seen in the past year, white supremacists have capitalized on the vagueness (read: emptiness) of the free speech clause to petition the administration for their legal right to openly and publicly express racial slurs, anti-trans, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim sentiments within the space of the university. The fact that they are explicitly calling on UC Berkeley’s legacy as the “home of free speech” in order to legitimize their views, tells us that the “right to free speech” was from its inception too vague and broad of a claim to have any inherently useful value for the left.
As Free Speech Week descends rapidly upon us, student workers, including the graduate student union, as well as various student groups, are mobilizing to ensure that these talks will not be allowed to go on. We know that the successive attacks on Berkeley by white supremacists are just one part of a larger trend in which fascism is gradually gaining a foothold into many of our institutions and ideologies. To support the efforts of students and organizers in the Bay Area to mobilize against Free Speech Week, the following resources are at your disposal:
CONFRONTING WHITE SUPREMACY: A DIGITAL TOOLKIT
Featured Image: Taliesin Gilkes-Bower (@realms.manifest)