The day after disaster strikes, you can always kind of feel it in the air. I woke up disoriented, my sticky face pressed against the screen of my iPhone. It buzzed with 14 new texts from concerned family and friends. The fluorescent light was blinding against my sleepy eyes.
“Are you okay?” one read.
“Dude, wtf! Why were you guys so violent?” said another.
“Trump’s gonna defund Berkeley lmao. #RIPfreespeech,” a third joked sarcastically.
I sat up a bit in bed and unlocked my phone. It opened directly to Twitter, where I was browsing the #MiloatCal hashtag before I fell asleep. I shook my head, locked it abruptly, and tucked it back under my pillow before I could read anything else.
It’s exhausting to wake up every day in a world that’s on fire.
For those of you who do not attend U.C. Berkeley, did not partake in the protest against Milo Yiannopoulos Wednesday night, or are not familiar with the long history of activism at Berkeley — I can understand why you might believe what the news is reporting. U.C. Berkeley has been the epicenter of innumerable social justice movements (the Free Speech Movement in 1964, the Vietnam War protests in 1969, the Black Lives Matter marches in 2014). So it’s no surprise that the educated, know-it-all left are the first to descend into violence once again, right?
Well, actually, no. Turns out, the answer isn’t quite that simple.
Despite the fact that the majority of students on campus did not share the political views of Yiannopoulos — even Chancellor Dirks called him a “troll and provocateur” in a campus-wide statement two weeks ago — the Breitbart editor was still allowed to speak in the university’s effort to uphold our constitutional right to free speech, even though Yiannopoulos has been known for spewing hate speech and inciting violent reactions at other universities. In fact, few who have criticized the university for allowing Yiannopoulos to speak know that the only people who could have cancelled the event are the Berkeley College Republicans — the very student group who organized it in the first place.
Originally, students had planned a “Resistance Dance Party” to detract from the event by creating a space of music and celebration outside the venue. Then, another much larger Facebook event appeared that pushed for a “mass counter-protest” that stopped only at shutting down the event. For days, my classmates and I discussed whether or not to go.
“... few who have criticized the university for allowing Yiannopoulos to speak know that the only people who could have cancelled the event are the Berkeley College Republicans — the very student group who originally organized it in the first place.”
“I want to go, but I’m worried it might get a little rowdy,” I texted a friend at 5 p.m. (the event was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.). “I saw them setting up barricades.”
“Should be fine,” she responded. “Berkeley kids never really do anything.”
An hour and half later, Sproul Plaza was burning. Around a hundred all-black-clad anarchists stormed the building where Yiannopoulos was set to speak, shoving students away from the barricade to breach one of the campus’ newly finished buildings. They shattered the glass of our Amazon Pickup Center, one of the few places Berkeley students can receive packages without fear of them getting stolen. They created a bonfire of trash in the center of the chaos, picked up barricades to drive through the building’s glass walls, set off fireworks, and left a trail of rage-filled destruction in their wake as they stormed the very streets we call home.
Radical anarchists, identified as “Black Blocs,” have a long history of piggybacking off students’ protests in order to get their own violent agenda across in Berkeley. These outside groups, which rarely have any affiliation with Berkeley students, often use the university’s liberal ideals for themselves — letting us take the blame for their violence and angry rioting.
That’s not to say, of course, that us Berkeley students don’t feel the same kind of anger. We too are frustrated with peacefully protesting when it sometimes feels so helplessly futile. We too stand against racism, sexism, homophobia, fascism, and the way our country is boiling over with hate. We too are tired of waking up in a world where we lose more rights every single day.
We just know better.
I can’t speak for the entire progressive Berkeley community, but I do believe that the vast majority of us grasp how the violence of Wednesday night’s protests is, in a way, a failure for the liberal community. How the events that transpired will give the right much more leverage to de-legitimize the left. How the way the Black Blocs ruined our campus will change the way people react to educated people speaking out — especially those who hail from paradigm liberal institutions like our own.
“Radical anarchists, identified as 'Black Blocs,' have a long history of piggybacking off students’ protests in order to get their own violent agenda across in Berkeley.”
My campus is federally and state-funded. My school asphalt is public land. And the fact that my classmates, professors, and administration have been historically liberal makes us all easy targets. Take Trump’s senseless threat to defund Berkeley. Look at Yiannopoulos’ statement on Fox News. Skim Twitter’s right-wing outrage on #MiloatCal.
The students wiping off graffiti from the vandalized Bank of America ATMs, the students picking up litter in the streets to clean up the anarchists’ mess, the students that comprise the most hardworking, compassionate, sensible community I call home — we are who pay for this physical demonstration of violence.
We have been lambasted — by left and right alike — for shutting down free speech when the events of Wednesday night only occurred because our university tried to uphold that constitutional right.
It’s exhausting to wake up every day in a world that’s on fire. But my community did not fan this flame. The violence of Wednesday night does not reflect me as a U.C. Berkeley student. And, as far as I know, it does not reflect the intentions of any of my fellow students. We believe in free speech. We believe in dialogue, discussion, and discourse.
Despite how the media will portray us, despite how Trump will hate us, we believe in love. And we’ll rebuild with that.