If it’s not irony, then it’s definitely a tragedy that the UC Berkeley administration on February 1st, the first day of Black History month, bent over backward to accommodate a speaker who promised to unleash a tirade of hate speech on the campus community. For months, faculty, staff and students peacefully mobilized to stop the event from occurring on campus. They did this not to censor free speech, but to protect vulnerable members of the community. Yet these efforts to protect the campus community from a self-styled “provocateur” were met with public condemnation, militarization of campus space by police and “law and order”-coded racial messages. It took 1,500 protesters and an organized group of 150 dissenters engaged in black bloc tactics to ultimately shut down the event that served as a public platform to incite emotional and physical violence.
Those who reported on the event focused on the spectacle of violence — smashed windows, bonfires, and masked figures in the night. From their seats on the sidelines, commentators decried the destruction of (replaceable) property and collectively wrung their hands over the perceived threat to free speech. They blamed protesters, calling them violent “invaders”, “infiltrators”, “agitators” and, the long-term favorite, “thugs”.
We write this opinion editorial to cut through these distractions. The protest should be understood as a rejection of systemic bigotry, misogyny, and white supremacy that festers in our public institutions. Hate speech degrades free speech. When speakers with large coffers and a national platform use their position of power to incite violence and harassment, they compromise the right of people who are in positions of vulnerability to go about their lives in peace.
As students, educators, and researchers who promote diversity in scholars and scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley, it is our duty to take a stand for equity and inclusivity on public campuses. We take issue with how mainstream media applies labels of violence and peacefulness and the ways in which this language normalizes discrimination and violence toward women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Misrepresentations of ongoing acute and structural violence further polarize our country during an already dangerously divisive time. Many students are drawn to public universities like UC Berkeley because of their reputation for supporting social justice and protecting vulnerable students, including those who are undocumented. This moment thus presents an opportunity to build understanding of why many students, staff, and faculty at UC Berkeley reacted so strongly against the prospect of a white nationalist mouthpiece speaking on campus.
The February 1st protests took place on a campus that, despite its misleading reputation as a leftist bastion, has experienced long-term violence at the hands of university administrators. Their first response to student activism is to militarize the campus and dismiss student concerns. In 2011, for example, campus police attacked protesters with batons and pepper spray during the Occupy movement. That debacle echoed the historic 1969 People’s Park and National Guard fight over UC land use policy that left over 100 people injured and James Rector dead. Furthermore, the university has faced legal and internal battles over racial discrimination in its academic tenure processes, censorship of research that is at odds with Berkeley’s corporate connections, and repeated sexual harassment and gender discrimination by prominent faculty. Berkeley’s structural discrimination is also reflected in campus demographics. Only 9% of all UC Berkeley faculty are made up of underrepresented groups, including Native American/Alaska Native, African American, and Chicano/Latino. UC Berkeley’s own campus Climate Survey revealed that 1 in 4 of students, staff, and faculty experience exclusion.
The UC Berkeley administration chose to welcome a speaker who calls Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization, claims that rape culture is a myth invented by feminists, and has said that transgendered people are imposters who “weasel their way where they don’t belong”. While such self-styled “provocateurs” hide behind their privileged right to voice these “views”, they use their platform to enable and embolden their more extreme followers to commit emotional and physical violence upon said targeted groups. By condoning this speaker, the administration also chose to turn a blind eye to the threat that vulnerable members of the community would be doxxed, “by using their personal information in a way that causes them to become human targets.” On February 2, a Republican Party official posted on social media that UC Berkeley protesters should be gunned down like Kent State students in 1970, stating that “one bullet stops thuggery.” Such calls for violent reprisal mark the moment when “free” speech crosses the line from discourse to weapon.
This type of hate speech further exacerbates structural racism and sexism embedded within institutions of higher education such as UC Berkeley. As one undocumented Berkeley student testified, “I walked around campus constantly looking over my shoulder that day, uncertain whether the doxing of my online profile had already placed a target on me.” To treat the destruction of property as violence while ignoring the threat of emotional and physical violence against some of our most vulnerable community members — especially in our current political moment of heightened xenophobia and nationalism — is simple hypocrisy. And that hypocrisy undermines efforts to create an environment where students can prioritize their learning, critically engage with political issues, or confidently walk campus without fearing for their physical safety.
Failure to critically interrogate the idealization of “free speech” allows hate speech and discrimination to promulgate unchecked, sheltered under the dangerous myth that all people have equal access and opportunity to voice their views. The argument that free speech must protect hate speech is peculiar to the United States. The primary international document mandating protection of free speech, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, mandates free expression, but also demands that the “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” shall not be condoned. It is possible, therefore, to advocate freedom of speech as a civil right and simultaneously oppose its interpretation as protection of hate speech.
What occurred at UC Berkeley last week goes beyond the campus, its politics, and the visiting speaker. It reflects a deep-seated problem in the national conversation around race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and power. Not all speech is equal, nor do all speakers have an equal opportunity to make their voices heard. To subvert free speech and twist it to promote hate, spread fear, and persecute those with limited power to defend themselves is a grievous betrayal of the spirit and intent of this civil and human right. We reject calls for “respectable” and “peaceful” dissent that normalize white supremacist hate speech, value private property over people, and ultimately compromise student safety. Instead of demonizing student protest and sanctuary campuses, we believe this country needs to jump-start the reconciliation process it never had. We have to envision the world that we wish to live in and not bend to our fears. This process can begin in public institutions such as UC Berkeley, but only if the need is understood.
Written by members of the Graduate Diversity Council:
and Anonymous Contributors