On February 1, violent protesters prevented the right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at the University of California, Berkeley. The next day I fired up Facebook and learned that many of my friends had declared victory, commending the protesters for a job well done.
In my estimation, these friends had it exactly backwards. Yiannopoulos got just what he wanted out of his visit to Berkeley. So too did his reactionary masters. This article tries to explain how it worked out this way.
Here’s some background. Yiannopoulos is a provocateur who curries outrage with articles like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.” It was, at best, wildly unconstructive that the Berkeley College Republicans invited him to speak. They abdicated the worthy goals in their mission statement: “think[ing] critically about issues involving politics, philosophy, and civil service” and “tak[ing] our role as campus activists and thought leaders seriously.” There’s no shortage of conservative thinkers and politicians they could have invited, but instead they opted for provocation. That barely counts as political discourse.
Nor does the participation of the “black bloc” protesters who kept Yiannopoulos from speaking. The black bloc is an ad hoc coalition of self-professed anarchists. Dressing entirely in black, including masks, black blockers has been active in protests around the world since the 1980s, including the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle and in support of a 2011 general strike in Oakland. According to two local sympathists, black bloc tactics are defensible if malefactors like Yiannopoulos are successfully “shut down”:
The solution is not to condemn the tactics that actually succeed in shutting down the far right, but to incorporate them into well-organized plans for the demonstrations that differentiate the roles activists will play. Antifa [anti-fascist] actions succeed in the context of large demonstrations in which the participation of the oppressed is in no way secondary, and it is under these circumstances that black bloc actions contribute to successful defense.
Perhaps the black blockers and I share the same antipathy towards Yiannopoulos, but even that much isn’t clear. Some bloc members are doubtless sincere in their political passions, but others are inspired simply by the opportunity to fuck shit up. A sympathetic yet even-handed primer on the black bloc on the occupy.com website suggests as much: “The fetishization of property destruction is a problem with the black bloc, as in some cases ‘violent direct action becomes a means for a would-be militant to affirm [their] political identity in the eyes of other militants.’”
Now let’s consider the costs. First and foremost, people got hurt. Second, property was destroyed. Doubtless some of the property owners were unsympathetic actors like big banks, but even the unpopular are entitled to the rule of law. More generally, violence and destruction hijack the narrative. This is what people hear about, not the thousands of people who showed up to peacefully protest an odious ideologue.
As I suggested at the beginning of this article, many people condoned the black bloc’s actions. The Daily Californian, the UC Berkeley student newspaper, published FIVE op-ed pieces by students or former students that defended the use of violence in stopping Yiannopoulos from speaking. The common denominator was the unacceptability of hate speech.
I disagree, and wish these students would toughen up. Some of you may not be influenced by the fact that hate speech is constitutionally protected, but that does matter to a great many people. In my mind, there are two arguments that are even more persuasive.
First, exactly what constitutes hate speech? Clearly opinions differ, and I’m not comfortable with letting any individual, group, government, or institution make this determination on my behalf. Is the provocatively named Facebook page “Virgin Mary Should Have Been Aborted” hate speech? Some Christians think so, but many secular progressives probably see things differently. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the Roman poet Lucretius informed us more than two thousand years ago (and let us consider the animal rights activist objecting to the meat, and the aphorism’s exclusion of women). In short, your hate speech might not be my hate speech, and I don’t want you deciding for me. I fear the society in which “hate speech” becomes as much of a dismissal as “fake news.”
The second benefit to letting the Yiannopouloses of the world speak is their ability to create teachable moments. This has been the case every time an extremist political movement has attempted a speech, rally, or other public spectacle in the modern United States. The last few decades offer numerous examples, so let’s go with this one: in 1986, 300 neo-Nazis staged a cross-burning in the southern Idaho town of Jerome. I somehow suspect that this remote hamlet of 11,000 is not a hotbed of progressive thought. Nonetheless, a thousand anti-Nazi demonstrators, including the wife of the sitting governor, showed up to spoil the Nazi’s party. No violence was reported. What WAS reported was the size of the two rallies, Nazi and anti-Nazi. America affirmed once again that more of her citizens are willing to stand up against hatred than in support of it. Needless to say, this would have been a better outcome for Yiannopoulos’s latest act of provocation.
Instead, the violence at Berkeley handed the political right ample ammunition to attack progressives. “The Free Speech Movement is dead,” bemoaned the Berkeley College Republicans after Yiannopoulos’s cancelled speaking engagement. More ominously, Trump tweeted a threat to the university: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Surely the president knows that the violence was not orchestrated by the university. On the other hand, the president may be forgiven for not knowing that direct federal funding for the university is essentially limited to grants and contracts, funding that supports cutting edge scientific research at one of the world’s premier universities. Putting aside the fatuity of the president’s tweet, it’s chilling to see him threatening one of the crown jewels of American discovery and learning.
Yiannopoulos certainly benefited from his Berkeley visit. Needless to say, he got to decry the assault on free speech. He also got a ton of free media coverage. Most of all, he sold a lot of books. His memoir isn’t out yet, but preorders shot through the roof after his visit to the University of California. The graphic shows how his book instantly became a best-seller on Amazon in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, after falling into sales rank purgatory in the days after his last abortive university speaking gig, a month ago at UC Davis (it went down pretty much the same way the Berkeley event did, although black bloc involvement at Davis appears to have been minimal).
I’ve saved the speculative part of this essay for last. Were Trump-loving agents provocateur present among the black blockers? Certainly there’s been conjecture, with UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich, a former Clinton Labor Secretary, among those open to the possibility.
Government agents provocateur are a documented part of American history. Under the infamous COINTELPRO program in the 1960s, pseudo-radicals infiltrated various leftwing groups. The agents would proceed to egg on actual group members to break the law, or otherwise bring the group to the attention of law enforcement. This was documented by the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, better known as the Church Committee. More recently, the New York police department employed agents provocateur during demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in 2004. Violence ensued as a result.
Did agents participate in the black bloc? We’ll probably never know. Yet we can’t rule out the possibility. It’s happened before.
If agents provocateur were involved, it seems unlikely that they were sponsored by the government. Given Trump’s brief time in office, I find it implausible that his people had already mastered the squirrelly levers of power necessary to illegally deploy covert government agents and have them accepted as legitimate group members within the black bloc activists. But you never know: the FBI has not really distinguished itself as being above the partisan fray in the past few months.
The more likely possibility would be volunteer Trump zealots. It’s clear that suitably fanatical cadres already exist. The 2016 presidential campaign witnessed the emergence of the Lion Guard, a paramilitary force dedicated to protecting supporters at Trump rallies (the name of the group is inspired by a Mussolini quote once tweeted by Trump). At least in my mind, it’s a short step from wanna-be fascist paramilitary to agent provocateur.
Let’s recap. Violent protesters successfully kept Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at University of California, Berkeley a couple of weeks ago. People were hurt and property was destroyed in the process. Yiannopoulos sold a bunch of books and got copious free media attention. He and his allies on the right, including the president, all got to sound reasonable by demanding free speech and freedom from violence. Americans still on the fence—if indeed any still exist—heard about violent anarchists, instead of a peaceful demonstration.
And for what? Personally, I’d rather listen to Milo spew his toxic calumnies.