In re­ver­sal, Berke­ley says Coul­ter can de­liver speech

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PERRY STEIN AND WIL­LIAM WAN

berke­ley, calif. — The Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley on Thurs­day said it would al­low con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor Ann Coul­ter to speak on cam­pus next month, a re­ver­sal of its de­ci­sion a day ear­lier to can­cel her speech out of fears that it could lead to the same kinds of vi­o­lence that have marred re­cent protests here.

The back-and-forth about Coul­ter’s planned ap­pear­ance in this lib­eral haven comes af­ter re­peated vi­o­lent out­bursts at protests and speeches on this cam­pus and else­where since Pres­i­dent Trump’s elec­tion. Ral­lies in and around Berke­ley have de­volved into near-ri­ots that have in­cluded bloody fist­fights and molo­tov cock­tails. Left-wing ac­tivists have clashed with Trump sup­port­ers, and an­ar­chists in black masks have squared off against self-pro­claimed mili­tia groups.

Known for decades as a bas­tion of free speech, Berke­ley has be­come an ide­o­log­i­cal — and ac­tual — bat­tle­ground, where even pro­pos­als to bring a po­lar­iz­ing speaker to cam­pus are cre­at­ing a wrench­ing dilemma. Now, the univer­sity — known as the birth­place of the 1960s Free Speech Move­ment — has been forced to weigh the val­ues of free ex­pres­sion that it has long cham­pi­oned against the safety of its stu­dents and com­mu­nity.

For weeks now, the most ex­treme and of­ten vi­o­lent ac­tivists on the far right and far left have been flock­ing to this city to duke out their dif­fer­ences.

“It feels like we’ve be­come the O.K. Cor­ral for the Hat­field and Mc­Coys of the right and left,” said Dan Mogulof, the univer­sity’s as­sis­tant vice chan­cel­lor for pub­lic af­fairs. “We’re the venue for th­ese show­downs tak­ing place.”

The show­downs are, for many on the far right, part of a suc­cess­ful strat­egy: sched­ule a con­tro­ver­sial event on cam­pus or in

wait for the lib­eral out­rage and threats of vi­o­lence to grow, and when the event is can­celed, point out the hypocrisy and op­pres­sion against free speech. Ever since a Fe­bru­ary event in­volv­ing right-wing provo­ca­teur Milo Yiannopou­los — a Bre­it­bart News se­nior ed­i­tor at the time — drew ma­jor un­rest, Berke­ley has be­come the big­gest tar­get.

“If I said I’d be at the cen­ter of Berke­ley’s cam­pus in 48 hours, how long do you think it would take to see 100 com­mu­nists show up try­ing to kill me?” said Richard Spencer, a self-pro­claimed white na­tion­al­ist leader and a founder of the alt-right, a move­ment that seeks a whites-only state and whose ad­her­ents are known for es­pous­ing racist, anti-Semitic and sex­ist points of view. “Berke­ley is home base to the left. It’s the head­quar­ters not just to the aca­demic left, but the ac­tivist left. That’s what makes it a plat­form.”

Spencer spent this week en­gaged in a skir­mish of his own af­ter Auburn Univer­sity in Alabama tried to can­cel a speech he was sup­posed to give there. Af­ter a fed­eral judge or­dered the event to pro­ceed, a fist­fight erupted out­side the event and three peo­ple were ar­rested. Spencer de­clared it an “ab­so­lute vic­tory.”

Trump’s elec­tion has changed some­thing fun­da­men­tal in the war be­tween the far right and far left, Spencer said. For years, their bat­tle was mostly con­fined to the In­ter­net and so­cial-me­dia plat­forms such as Twit­ter.

“Now it’s re­ally a bat­tle over phys­i­cal space,” Spencer said. “Do I have a right to speak? Can I speak in this place?

Openly hos­tile

Be­ing a con­ser­va­tive stu­dent on the lib­eral pub­lic school cam­pus in the Bay Area has long been a chal­lenge. But Berke­ley in 2017 seems openly hos­tile to Repub­li­can groups, some con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists say. Class­mates spit on you and make ob­scene ges­tures. Your signs get ripped up. The la­bel “fas­cist” fol­lows wher­ever you go.

And now, when Repub­li­can stu­dents want to in­vite prom­i­nent speak­ers to cam­pus as part of a free ex­change of ideas, they fear the univer­sity will can­cel the event be­cause of pos­si­ble vi­o­lence.

Berke­ley’s first high-pro­file burst of vi­o­lence oc­curred Feb. 1, when an­tifas­cist pro­test­ers smashed win­dows, burned prop­erty and threw ob­jects at po­lice to protest Yiannopou­los. The ri­ots caused of­fi­cials to shut down the cam­pus and can­cel the event, prompt­ing a tweet from Trump, who threat­ened to cut fund­ing to the univer­sity if it would not al­low free speech.

The can­cel­la­tion of the Yiannopou­los event fur­ther gal­va­nized ac­tivists on the far right, who viewed it as a call to arms and proof that con­ser­va­tives around the coun­try are be­ing op­pressed.

“I wanted to know that I wasn’t the only one out­raged over what hap­pened. I knew we had to go back to Berke­ley,” said Rich Black, 26, a Los Angeles lib­er­tar­ian. He formed the Lib­erty Re­vival Al­liance, with the spe­cific goal of stag­ing more right-wing, pro- Trump events in Berke­ley and dar­ing lib­eral groups to try to shut them down.

Black is get­ting what he wants at Berke­ley. While pro- and an­tiTrump ral­lies oc­curred na­tion­wide on March 4 and last Sat­ur­day, Black’s ral­lies here had some­thing none of the others did: vi­o­lent clashes and breath­less ca­ble news cov­er­age.

At his lat­est rally, roughly a dozen peo­ple were in­jured and 20 or so ar­rested af­ter ac­tivists vi­o­lently clashed in a pop­u­lar Berke­ley plaza.

Black, a tech­ni­cal grant writer by day, said the point is to ex­pose the hypocrisy of the left when it comes to free speech and to fight — phys­i­cally, if nec­es­sary — for the right of con­ser­va­tives to say what they want.

“If a city isn’t blue or rad­i­cally pro­gres­sive, what’s the point of go­ing there as a con­ser­va­tive?” he said. “A place like Berke­ley is an in­doc­tri­na­tion fac­tory for the left. It’s the ca­nary in the coal mine for the rights of peo­ple like me.”

Jesse Ar­reguin, Berke­ley’s 32year-old mayor and a par­tic­i­pant in the Oc­cupy move­ment and Black Live Mat­ter protests, said he wants to en­sure all opin­ions can be ex­pressed in his city. But he won’t con­done vi­o­lence in the name of free speech.

“What’s hap­pen­ing is that out­side groups have de­cided to make an ex­am­ple of Berke­ley and to chal­lenge our com­mit­ment to free­dom of speech,” Ar­reguin said. “Berke­ley has be­come the cen­ter of a con­ver­gence of th­ese two sides, and it’s a very chal­leng­town, ing sit­u­a­tion.”

In­flam­ing the far-left

The mere ap­pear­ance of farright ac­tivists in Berke­ley — from white su­prem­a­cists to mili­tia and anti-im­mi­grant groups — has in­flamed the far left, con­vinc­ing them that they need to fight back harder, us­ing force if nec­es­sary to op­pose all whom they deem fas­cists.

They see the re­cent con­ser­va­tive ral­lies not as ex­am­ples of free speech, but cun­ning at­tempts to hit lib­er­als in one of their strongholds. Yvette Fe­larca, a mid­dle-school teacher in Oakland, leads the re­gional chap­ter of By Any Means Nec­es­sary (BAMN), a far-left mil­i­tant group that has been at the cen­ter of many of the vi­o­lent clashes in the past few months. The group takes its name from a line in a fa­mous Malcolm X speech. BAMN and the re­gion’s an­ar­chists, also known as an­tifas­cists, have or­ga­nized most of the counter-demon­stra­tions against con­ser­va­tive speak­ers and right-wing pro­test­ers who de­scend on the area.

The pe­tite 47-year-old showed off scars from past ral­lies and talked about how she was pum­meled at re­cent clashes at Berke­ley. She said she is proud that left-lean­ing pro­test­ers like her were able to stop Yiannopou­los from speak­ing, even if it took vi­o­lence.

An­ar­chists try­ing to dis­rupt the con­ser­va­tive ral­lies have been em­ploy­ing the “Black Bloc tac­tic” — with par­tic­i­pants dress­ing in all black cloth­ing and black masks to con­ceal their iden­ti­ties. They act as a co­he­sive unit as they en­gage in prop­erty de­struc­tion and vi­o­lence.

Fe­larca said the far-right groups were the ones who have in­sti­gated phys­i­cal vi­o­lence, while the far-right groups say the op­po­site is true. But Fe­larca said she does not see it as a mat­ter of free speech when some­one is spew­ing fas­cism.

“The fas­cists could have been stopped in Ger­many if they were stopped when they were small,” she said.

Free speech

Many Berke­ley res­i­dents and alumni have been ap­palled at the vi­o­lence, but some are even more alarmed that the fights have bled into an ar­gu­ment over free speech — an is­sue that strikes at the city’s soul.

This was where stu­dents in the 1960s risked sus­pen­sion, ex­pul­sion and even en­dured jail time, they point out, to win the right to say what they want on cam­pus.

“Even dur­ing the hey­day of the fight for free speech, you never saw vi­o­lence like you’re see­ing th­ese days,” said his­to­rian Robert Cohen, 61, who par­tic­i­pated in Berke­ley’s anti-apartheid protests as a grad­u­ate stu­dent and even­tu­ally de­voted his aca­demic ca­reer to chron­i­cling the Free Speech Move­ment of the 1960s and 1970s. “It’s sad and I dis­agree with the univer­sity can­cel­ing th­ese events, but what th­ese col­lege Repub­li­cans are do­ing in invit­ing th­ese hate-mon­ger­ing speak­ers, it’s not about free speech. It’s a hus­tle game. They’re just bait­ing the left. But there’s real dam­age be­ing done.”

He pointed to a speech given by stu­dent leader Mario Savio in De­cem­ber 1964, the day af­ter stu­dents fi­nally won the right to say what they want on cam­pus. On that day, Cohen noted, Savio urged his stu­dents to rec­og­nize just how pre­cious their right was and re­al­ize that with it comes re­spon­si­bil­ity. Other­wise, Savio said, it could “bring dis­grace upon our univer­sity.”

“That’s what I find so painful and dis­re­spect­ful about all of this now,” Cohen said. “The right that some of th­ese peo­ple are in­vok­ing in this ugly fight back and forth — there were stu­dents at Berke­ley who risked their ca­reers over it, who were will­ing to go to jail for it.”

ELI­JAH NOUVELAGE/GETTY IMAGES ASSOCIATED PRESS

TOP: A stu­dent stands atop the roof of a cam­pus po­lice car dur­ing Free Speech Move­ment protests at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley in 1964. ABOVE: A sup­porter of Pres­i­dent Trump gets milk poured in his eyes af­ter be­ing pep­per-sprayed by pro­test­ers.

Ann Coul­ter

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