See Paul Iorio’s original photos of the Berkeley riot here.
The Berkeley protests against the alt-right’s Milo Yiannopoulos ― who offers up a gay version of Ann Coulter on the college lecture circuit ― started out peaceful, but then got violent, scary and volatile on Wednesday night. From ground zero, where I watched it unfold, it looked like protesters were going to burn down the student center building at the University of California at Berkeley at one point.
That’s where Yiannopoulos was planning to speak, at the invitation of the student Republicans, and where he had arrived, amidst loud boos, just before six p.m. It was around six that the relatively peaceful demonstration ― full of chanting and inventive signs up to that point ― turned violent. That’s when a group of a few dozen, dressed in black, faces covered, stormed the building, dramatically knocking aside metal barricades, smashing windows and lighting fires. The police did very little to stop it, allowing them to blow off steam.
And they started shooting fireworks up at police officers positioned on the second floor balcony of the student union. Fires were set.
At 6:18, after around twenty minutes of violence, there was an announcement by a police officer over a loud speaker or bullhorn: “Attention everyone, the event has been shut down.”
There were big cheers from the crowd.
“Immediately disperse,” said the amplified cop. “This is an unlawful assembly.”
Some demonstrators began to file out of Sproul Plaza. But at 6:26, things took a bad turn. First, there were more extremely loud fireworks that sounded like a bomb, causing people to run in panic and almost trample others.
And then a huge fire lit up Sproul Plaza. (The anarchist contingent burned some sort of lighting equipment.) It truly looked like the building that Yiannopoulos had entered was about to go up in flames.
I asked a police officer whether the fire department was on its way to put out the fire, and he said, “No, it’s not safe.”
Indeed, it truly wasn’t. I’ve been in protests throughout the world and this was, in many ways, one of the most frightening.
A few points:
1. There were no such protests when UC students invited Louis Farrakhan to speak on campus a couple years ago ― and he’s arguably as fascistic as Yiannopoulos.
2. In the 1970s, I thought the Weather Underground had just cause for their revolutionary action, particularly after Kent State and Jackson State. But the anarchist faction last night did not. And it was a sickening sight to see that they were trying to burn down the student union with people inside of it.
In 1970, Nixon’s government was literally shooting live ammunition into crowds of college kids. That is what I mean when I say that the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers had just cause back in the day. Imagine if Trump’s National Guard had done that at Berkeley, or elsewhere. There would likely literally be violent revolution. But Trump’s people have done no such thing (yet!). So, there was far less cause to get violent last night.
The Berkeley police and the UC Berkeley police did a fantastic job in holding back and allowing the protesters to let off tension and not responding disproportionately to being shot at with fireworks by militants. A lesser police force might have intervened in riot gear, causing injuries, even death.
3. On a friend’s Facebook thread, someone voiced the view that perhaps the rioters were Milo hires. Interesting theory. After all, the demonstrators were, for the most part, peaceful ― until the 6pm hour, when a black-clad pseudo-military group of “anarchists” stormed the barricades and lit fires. They numbered in the dozens and were a discrete group, apart from the other protesters.
Having witnessed their actions first-hand, I think that’s highly unlikely that they were Yiannopoulos plants. These guys were serious actors who were genuinely trying to burn down the student union. Yiannopoulos’s people would not have risked being caught, arrested and exposed for such a serious crime.