The Debacle At Berkeley

02/05/2017 03:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2017
Elijah Nouvelage via Getty Images

The violence at the UC Berkeley campus Wednesday night which cancelled the speech of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos is such a debacle for the national opposition to Trump that it almost defies belief.

Consider the context. The Trump regime tells the media to “keep its mouth shut,” declares a “running war” against the press, and promotes “alternative facts.” Orders State Department personnel using a “dissent channel” created for the explicit purpose of allowing employees to voice dissenting views without fear of retribution that they should resign. Forbids the staff of various federal agencies from speaking in public either by press conference, social media, or anything else. Six journalists face felony charges for covering inauguration day protests.

At exactly this moment, because of what happened at Berkeley, the Trump regime gets to present itself as the guardian of free speech in America.

Nice.

This extraordinary feat was accomplished by a hundred or so anonymous people, clad head to toe in black, faces covered, whom no one can call to account.

Amazing.

Yiannopoulos is doing a 23-campus speaking tour. There are protests against him everywhere he appears, but there have only been a few places where there has been violence directed at “shutting down” the event. Here is what happens at the campuses where there is no violence:

Nothing.

Yiannopoulos speaks, somewhere between fifty and a couple of hundred people listen, everyone goes home, there is very little media coverage, it is all forgotten by the next day, and a disappointed Milo goes back to his sad life as an obnoxious gay internet troll trying to ingratiate himself to alt-right homophobes.

Poor Milo.

But lately Milo has been hitting the most left-y campuses of the West Coast, where he has finally hit pay dirt, in the form of the “black bloc” – anonymous anarchists clad in black who measure the success of a protest by how much violence occurs. They are the perfect supporting cast for the traveling Milo show.

Yiannopoulos hit University of California at Davis first, then the University of Washington in Seattle, and finally the University of California at Berkeley. I was present at all three.

Davis is a small college town, but it is situated between Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area, and draws commuter black bloc from those two cities. Seattle was the site of the 1999 anti-globalization protest, where black-clad anarchists using black bloc tactics made their first major appearance in American political life. And the San Francisco Bay Area was where the black bloc piece of the occupy movement was bigger than anywhere else in the country.

The entire Milo protest at Davis numbered a few hundred at most, and those tricked out in full-fledged black bloc wear numbered maybe fifty. The Davis police did not dress up in full riot gear and showed no weapons.Things got testy but not violent. People got shoved and spat on. There were tug of wars over police barricades. The campus authorities leaned on the student Republican club to call off the event before things escalated, and the club obliged. Milo got a nice bump in national publicity for being denied the right to speak on a college campus. I just did a google search on “Milo Yiannopoulos UC Davis” and got back 375,000 results.

Seattle was the next step. A larger black bloc of maybe 100-150 blocked the entrance to the hall where Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak, holding banners proclaiming “No More Presidents” and “We Are Ungovernable.” A few protestors without the full black bloc attire joined this contingent, but most student protestors in normal clothing maintained a considerable distance. The cops came in full riot gear. The cops tried to clear a way for the line of ticket-holders to enter, and managed to get a small group into the building. The black bloc responded by launching bricks, fireworks, and paint bombs at both police and those waiting in line. People got hurt. A person waiting in line to get into the event pulled out a gun and shot one of the blockaders. Once the gun was fired the police put the event on lock-down. No one else was allowed into the lecture, and when Yiannopoulos was finished the police instructed those in attendance to remove their Trump hats and any other visible Trump stuff and escorted them out through an underground parking garage.

I am still surprised at how little media coverage the shooting received. This was the night minority-President Trump was inaugurated, and one of his supporters shot someone on a college campus. The shooter, who has now been identified as a UW student and NRA member, sent a Facebook message to Yiannopoulos not long before pulling the trigger. The victim was in critical condition in an ICU for days. As far I can tell, the shooting got swallowed up in the coverage of every other crazy thing that happened around the inauguration, and perhaps also by the fact that the victim did not want to press charges since involving the police and the courts would violate his anarchist principles.

Anyone following these events could see that UC Berkeley was shaping up to be the mother of all Milo wars. The evening began with several thousand protestors chanting and carrying signs. At both Davis and Seattle, those waiting in line to see Milo outnumbered protestors. But at Berkeley, the protestors were the larger crowd by a wide margin. Then, all at once, maybe 100 or so anarchists, dressed head-to-toe in black, black masks covering their faces and black backpacks on their backs, stepped forward from the crowd with banners saying “Become Ungovernable” and “This Is WAR” and began what can only be described as an assault. They fired commercial-grade fireworks at the police, threw barricades through windows, assaulted people waiting in line (one was pepper-sprayed in the face from close range in the midst of speaking to a TV crew), and more. After the event was cancelled, the anarchists broke off from the rest of the protestors and marched through the streets of downtown Berkeley, smashing the windows of banks and corporate chain stores.

Milo wins.

He gets his holy grail: a Trump Tweet. At 3:13 a.m. Threatening to cut federal funds for UC Berkeley because the campus could not guarantee freedom of speech.

In a day, Milo goes from a sideshow to the main tent of the Trump circus. He is everywhere in the media. Where he is not being interviewed, he is being discussed. He heads for the White House but re-routes to New York City because, he explains, television was more important than visiting “daddy” (his word for Trump).

Since November 8, there has been a lot of talk on the left about how to prevent the “mainstreaming” of Trump and the alt-right. The day after Berkeley, there was Yiannopoulos on national television, describing himself as a “mainstream conservative” while clips of the Berkeley violence played. Yiannopoulos: “I don’t say anything that it outside the mainstream of any typical Trump voter. I don’t have opinions that millions of Americans don’t share.” This is true. See Jesse Singal’s excellent piece in New York Magazine for a more detailed account.

Milo goes mainstream.

It is easy for those of us who live within American protest culture to forget how shocking the tactics and images of the black bloc are to those on the outside of the culture. Images of people clad all in black, with black face masks, using weapons to smash windows and intimidate motorists are utterly baffling and even frightening to most people, no matter their privilege or skin color. If you don’t believe me, do a google image search on “black bloc” and spend a few minutes looking around. I dare you.

And the crowning glory of Milo’s achievement is that it all went down at the exact same place where the Free Speech Movement, in one of the iconic political moments of the 1960s, struggled so hard and finally won the right to speak freely on campus. At the very plaza where the Free Speech Movement actions took place. In front of the Free Speech Cafe, which honors that history and features large photos of Free Speech Movement activists. When the Berkeley faculty senate passed a resolution in 1964 declaring that “the content of speech or advocacy should not be restricted by the university,” it signaled the complete triumph of student activism.

**

Since the Trump regime came to power, every day I see the fear and confusion among students at UC Davis where I teach.The gravity of the political situation weighs on them heavily, and they urgently search for meaningful ways to resist the Trump regime. I am proud to be a part of this community.

I also see a lot of confusion about the black bloc. Many students are appalled and fascinated at the same time. The appeal is obvious. We are in an extreme situation. Extremists have come to power in this country, and they are already taking extreme measures. Shouldn’t the opposition take extreme measures in response? If we don’t, how will history judge us?

But from Davis to Seattle to Berkeley, we have now had over a month of intense activism in which thousands participated, and the end result was a blow-out victory for Milo. This extraordinary feat was accomplished not by the the thousands of protestors, nor by Yiannopoulos, but by maybe 250 anonymous people dressed in black. Altogether a few hundred people hijacked the efforts of thousands.

Criticizing the black bloc is hardly a new or original idea. A google search on “criticism of the black bloc” returns so many efforts to dissect their politics and tactics, one wonders what good yet another such effort would do. But the stakes are much higher now. The debacle at Berkeley has consequences consequences the country and even the world cannot afford right now. A serious assessment of all this is urgently required.

I am not interested here in having a moral argument about violence in the abstract, or the line between destruction of property and assaults on people. Let’s save that for another time and examine the real political effects the actions of the black bloc are having in the real world right now.

One of the problems that comes with the anonymity of the black bloc is that it is difficult to engage them in debate since no one comes forward to take responsibility for their actions. But Natasha Lennard has done so. Lennard is a former New York Times freelancer who moved from journalism to activism as a result of her experiences in the occupy movement, and recently wrote two recent essays in The Nation explaining and advocating black bloc politics from a participant perspective.

Most organizers have clear in their mind what it means to grow the movement. When the next demonstration is bigger than the last, or you get more votes in the next election than the last, or you organize more workers into a union than were organized before, you are growing the movement. For Lennard, the movement is growing if there is more violence at the next event than the last. As she notes, whether “a significant number of people are willing to engage in anti-fascist physical confrontation in Trump’s America remains to be seen.” No matter how few people join in, she will continue with “anti-fascist physical confrontation” (what most of us call violence).

Why is violence the answer?.

If we recognize fascism in Trump’s ascendance, our response must be anti-fascist in nature. The history of anti-fascist action is not one of polite protest, nor failed appeals to reasoned debate with racists, but direct, aggressive confrontation. While perhaps best associated in the United States with the anti-globalization movement’s major summit protests nearly two decades ago, the black bloc is part of the longstanding visual language of international anti-fascism, or antifa.

So. You can only fight fascism with an “anti-fascist response.” An “anti-fascist response” is whatever people who call themselves anti-fascist do. Those who label themselves anti-fascist routinely engage in political violence. Therefore the only proper way to fight fascism is through political violence.

This argument is dangerous. It advocates political violence in a manner that is impervious to criticism because the logic is circular. It is a closed loop: I am doing the right thing, and what makes it right is that this is what I have been doing. It allows for no option other than more political violence.

The reference to the anti-globalization movement is noteworthy. Black bloc violence in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests was indeed the debut of black bloc tactics. But the interests the anti-globalization movement was fighting are hardly those represented by Trump. In just his first week in office, Trump scrapped the TPP, called NAFTA into question, and threatened to put a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico. The globalization camp was represented in this past election by Clinton, not Trump. Free traders like John McCain are now mobilizing against Trump with every resource they can muster.

There are many ways we might describe the World Trade Organization, but fascist is not one of them. The black bloc engages in the same violent tactics at anti-globalization protests, occupy demonstrations, and Milo Yiannopoulos speeches not because they are opposing fascism in every case but because violence is what they like to do.

Lennard is acutely aware of the visible contradiction between the predominantly white black bloc demographic and the anti-racist politics that they claim to represent. She explains this by arguing that committing violence is a privilege. Her logic is this: the state punishes people accused of the same crime differently. The less privilege the accused party has, the harsher the punishment will be. If I have twice as much privilege as you, then I can commit twice the violence that you can commit yet suffer the same punishment. The difference between your punishment and mine is a measure of my privilege. For Lennard, since violence is a privilege, it comes with a moral responsibility. If a situation calls for violence, the “bearers of white privilege” should step up to the plate first. To not go first would constitute a failure to acknowledge privilege.

So:

No one should be surprised if those committing political violence in the name of cultural diversity are mostly white.

and:

If you are a white person committing political violence, and you look around and you see that almost everyone committing political violence with you is also white, don’t worry about it. This actually confirms your prior conviction that what you are doing is right. You are fulfilling your moral obligation as a bearer of white privilege.

Note that Lennard’s logic turns conventional wisdom about political violence and privilege upside down. Revolutionary movements from Vietnam to El Salvador to Mozambique to the Black Panthers in the US, have assumed that the less privileged are the most likely to engage in political violence because they have less to lose, and because they are fighting for their own interests, while those with more privilege have more to lose and are not fighting for their own self-interest but in solidarity with others.

More importantly, here again is that same circular logic that is impervious to criticism. Evidence from the real world outside the loop that should call beliefs into question is turned into fuel for yet more trips around the loop once it enters the circle. This can fairly be characterized as cult thinking, and in many ways the black bloc does function like a cult.

If you are inside this loop, then you believe that you are an “anti-fascist,” therefore everyone you are fighting is a fascist. This is already playing out in terrible ways. In both Davis and Seattle, I walked through the lines of people waiting in vain to hear Yiannopoulos. As I have written elsewhere in more detail, I found that some were Trump supporters, a larger number were Milo fans who think of him as a comedian who mocks campus “safe space” culture in ways they find refreshing and funny, but most were from the political center or even left of center who support freedom and speech and were curious to know why this guy was such a big deal. The woman who was pepper-sprayed in the face at close range on camera in Berkeley was a Trump supporter, but does that make her a fascist? In Seattle I was interviewing a group of students who had definitely not voted for Trump when the bricks and paint bombs thrown by the black bloc came hurtling in our direction. At Colorado University Boulder, while Yiannopoulos was mid-speech, everyone in attendance received an email informing them, “We know who you are, tonight we will know your faces. The identities of attendees will be released to the public on a list of known Neo-Nazi sympathizers. We do not tolerate fascists.”

Aside from the fact that real people are getting hurt, and that this is catapulting Yiannopoulos into national celebrity status, and that this is creating exactly the political frame that Trump and Bannon want, this is pushing students on college campuses away from active resistance to the Trump regime and towards the political right. Put yourself in the shoes of a student receiving that email in Boulder and this becomes obvious.

Perhaps the single most troubling thing in this whole mess is that I am writing this article at all. If there is anything in this piece that suggests that I do not think the Trump regime is an urgent threat to American democracy, and in particular to the most vulnerable people within our borders, then there is a misunderstanding.

There are different ways we could describe the Trump regime at this point. Fascist is one. Or perhaps proto-fascist is closer to the mark. But also: autocratic; populist; and crony capitalist (the opposite of “globalization”). I am always more interested in analyzing actual political dynamics instead of the names we use to describe them. And the actual political dynamics at play here are terrifying. The combination of Stephen Bannon’s oft-stated goal of tearing down today’s political institutions, Trump’s temperament, and the fact that a renewed nuclear arms race is already on the table – taken together these suggest that the possibility that this regime could execute some sort of nuclear first strike has to be taken seriously.

Pretty much the last thing I want to write about right now is a group of anonymous anarchists that totals probably less than a thousand people nation-wide. But I have no choice. I am faculty on a University of California campus. The Trump regime road show just blew through here and came away victorious.

In just the same way, I am deeply distressed to have to think and write about whether the garbage that Milo Yiannopoulos spewed at one campus or another is best described as disgusting insult, harassment, or hate speech. But over 100 Berkeley professors signed letters to the chancellor demanding that he cancel the Yiannopoulos speech on the basis of insults he directed at one transgender student while speaking at a campus in Wisconsin. Similar letters were sent by Davis faculty, where I teach. I am part of that faculty senate, so it was my duty to watch the video from Wisconsin to see what actually happened. I discovered that the description of what happened contained in the Berkeley faculty letter turned out to be substantially wrong. I doubt whether many of the faculty who signed these letters even looked at the video or read the transcript.

Democratic institutions are being threatened. Wars are looming. Yiannopoulos is the face of the Trump regime on college campuses. And he has real support. He has millions of YouTube hits. He has fans on campus. Go talk to people in the lines to see him and you will meet them. They cover a wide range of political viewpoints. I observed his events at three of the most liberal campuses in the nation and at two of the three the people lined up to see him outnumbered the protestors. Can we talk about that?

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