How the Right Wing has Co-opted Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement
By Maya Kashima
A Milo Yiannopolous supporter engages with onlookers outside the ASUC Student Union following Yiannopolous’ Sept. 24 appearance at Sproul Plaza. Photo Credit: Maya Kashima
Generations after its seminal student protests, Berkeley has become the epicenter of a renewed debate over the meaning of freedom of speech. The far-right feels their voices are being silenced by the anti-fascist agitators and “social justice warriors” who protest their downtown rallies. To them, this is liberal hypocrisy, an abandonment of the foundation the city was built on.
In February, violent protest led University of California, Berkeley administrators to cancel a speech by former Breitbart editor and controversial alt-right figure Milo Yiannopolous. The so-called “Battle of Berkeley” turned the small city into a combat zone. Storefronts were smashed in. Fires burned in the streets. The walls of banks and other businesses displayed hastily spray-painted hammer and sickles, anarchist symbols, and far-left rallying cries: “F— CAP[ITALISM],” “KILL TRUMP.” The culprits were a group of masked, black-clad anti-fascists better known as “antifa.”
As antifa went from underground movement to household name, they were criticized on all sides for what many saw as counterproductive action. The left believed they set back liberal causes. The right believed they stifled free speech. The First Amendment does not protect the incitement of violence, but antifa sees their actions as self-defense. “To people with platforms who decide when a protest should and should not be violent: You speak from a place of immense privilege…asking people to maintain peaceful dialogue with those who legitimately do not think their lives matter is a violent act,” wrote UC Berkeley alumna Nisa Dang in an op-ed for the Daily Californian.
The rise of antifa marked a turning point in right-wing rhetoric. Pundits and activists began to co-opt the historically liberal ideals of non-violence and freedom of speech advanced by the Civil Rights Movement and Free Speech Movement, positioning themselves as the peaceful side. They just want to express their views, they say, but are prevented from doing so by the hateful and violent left.
“I want to bring something positive to the streets,” said pro-Trump rally organizer Joey Gibson in an interview with The BCC Voice. His rallies, though, have caused a great deal of controversy for inviting alt-right speakers known to espouse violent viewpoints. Gibson has offered the stage to his friend Kyle Chapman, a notorious white supremacist who became known as “Based Stickman” after beating an antifa demonstrator with a wooden sign post at the Yiannopolous protest. Though he claims not to incite violence, Gibson admits that the main purpose of his rallies is to expose the violent nature of antifa. Cities like Berkeley, he says, “claim to be tolerant, so it [is] very important to…go into these areas and show how intolerant they actually are.”
Berkeley has indeed become a symbolic rallying place for the alt-right, with events often invoking the language of the Free Speech Movement. The organizers of a “Patriots Day Free Speech Rally” on April 15 vowed to “take back Berkeley” from the liberals who they feel have corrupted the meaning of the original movement. Yiannopolous hoped to do the same when he planned a return to UC Berkeley in September for a “Free Speech Week.” His guests were set to speak on Sproul Plaza from the Mario Savio Steps, named after the Cal alumnus who led the student protests of the 1960s.
Brian Wilson, a retired anthropology professor living in Massachusetts, recalled watching the original movement unfold during his days as a graduate student at Cal in a phone interview with The BCC Voice. “Cal campus has always been a hotbed of opposition, what I would call free speech” he said, “it’s part of an ongoing movement, I think it’s still going on.”
He compares the Yiannopolous protests to those against George Wallace in the ’60s. Wallace, then-governor of Alabama and prominent segregationist, was a highly controversial figure and his speeches were often met with resistance by progressives. In 1963, Yale rescinded an offer for him to speak for fear the event would cause unrest on campus and in the surrounding community. Wilson believes he should have been allowed to speak, even though he was “the embodiment of opposition to free speech.”
At the same time, he worries about the growth of the alt-right. “Those are not free speech people, those are people who want to limit your speech and mine, our right to speak out. They would like to limit us the same way the fascists did, Hitler and Mussolini, they shut down free speech.” Others agree. Events promoting hate speech not only put people in danger, but deny victims their free speech rights, said one anti-fascist in an interview with The BCC Voice. The man, who asked to remain anonymous, cited the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville and the shooting of a protester outside of a Yiannopolous speech in Seattle. “Antifa can be problematic,” he acknowledged, “but the fascists keep killing people.”