On February 2nd, I witnessed two individuals intentionally hit a Trump supporter with their car as he crossed the street in front of Sproul Plaza in UC Berkeley. News reporters who had been interviewing students nearby immediately reported the incident, producing headlines reaffirming the widespread belief that UC Berkeley exonerates violence. Seeing this event unfold, I felt angry and helpless. Most of all, I felt disheartened that my university had been overcome with such hate.
This politically motivated crime was part of a string of violence that started on February 1st during the Milo protests, catapulting UC Berkeley into national headlines for the wrong reasons. The protests were initially planned as peaceful demonstrations aimed at expressing disapproval towards Milo Yiannopoulos’ alt-right views. However, as 150 paramilitary-type anarchists marched towards campus, the protests would become anything but peaceful. News outlets descended upon campus as violent anarchists launched fireworks at police, attacked innocent liberals and conservatives, and damaged property. Over the next few hours, millions of people across the country would come to associate UC Berkeley and its students as perpetrators of violence and antithetical towards free speech.
What is most regrettable is that these violent protests and political hate crimes were not perpetrated by students, but rather by local activists attempting to use UC Berkeley as a platform to reach millions. And unfortunately, they succeeded. They succeeded in placing hundreds of students in danger, tarnishing UC Berkeley’s reputation as the home of the Free Speech Movement, and most importantly, they succeeded in giving Milo Yiannopoulos the excuse he needed to appear as a victim of leftist politics. As I helplessly shielded myself from these violent protesters, I was in a state of shock as they preceded at will to define what UC Berkeley stands for.
Afterward, I knew we as a student body needed to clearly delineate UC Berkeley from the violence. We could not allow outsiders to define our university and its values. Although the UC Berkeley administration had already condemned the violence, there was not a widespread student response to the violence. And I felt it necessary that people across the country, conservatives and liberals alike, recognize that the majority of UC Berkeley students firmly disagree with violence as a method of protest.
Therefore, I constructed a written statement (see above) that condemned violent protests and affirmed free speech as an essential component of democracy. Although the UC Berkeley student body is bitterly divided in terms of its political views, I had to ensure that this statement received bipartisan support if it were to stand a chance in representing the sentiments of students. I had Berkeley College Republicans, Cal Democrats, and other political parties on campus review the statement and confirm that it was in line with their respective political views. Afterward, the statement was circulated throughout UC Berkeley for four days, and it received approximately 500 signatures. Although this is not a large number in the context of the student body, it was a random, bipartisan sampling of students, which seemed to imply a trend in student opinions about violent protests.
Official Written Statement: “We, the students of UC Berkeley, stand for free speech. We firmly reject the justifications for violence and condemn the implications of violent protests. Regardless of our political differences and perspectives, we recognize the need for a bipartisan stance against the devolution of peaceful protests into violent demonstrations. Despite how desperate the situation may appear, we refuse to let hate and anger overcome our actions. Rather than resort to violence, we will facilitate dialogue between those in disagreement. We recognize that it is up to us, the students, to come together in an act of unity and reject those who encroach upon the safe spaces of anyone, regardless of that person’s beliefs. This is our campus and we refuse to let outsiders define what it means to be politically active.”- Undersigned UC Berkeley Students
I feel comfortable stating that most UC Berkeley students agree that violence has no place in political activism. Violence will only serve to entrench the political divisions that have sowed the seeds for bitter partisan gridlock. Violent activism is counterproductive because it suppresses free speech and grinds democratic processes to a halt. Regardless of how the media has portrayed UC Berkeley, it is necessary to realize that we as students can make a difference in how our university is perceived.
After witnessing the Trump supporter almost get run over, I reflected on former President Barack Obama’s words during his farewell address: “If you’re disappointed... grab a clipboard, get some signatures... Persevere.” I was disappointed by the way UC Berkeley had been framed on the national political stage, and I believed, similarly to other students, that we must have our voices heard. I believe this type of grassroots activism is necessary for progress and crucial to giving a voice to those who feel underrepresented. Whether you are discontent with the new administration or with something in your local community, recognize that with persistence and political engagement, change is possible.