Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — Chaos that erupted at the University of California, Berkeley, to oppose right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was shocking not just for the images of protesters setting fires, smashing windows and hurling explosives at police, but because of where it took place.
UC Berkeley is the birthplace of the free-speech movement and has been known for more than a half-century as a bastion of tolerance. As the university cleaned up Thursday, it struggled with questions of why the violence spun out of control and what has happened to the open-minded Berkeley of the 1960s.
“It was not a proud night for this campus,” school spokesman Dan Mogulof said, later adding, “We are proud of our history and legacy as the home of the free-speech movement.”
The school prides itself on its liberalism and political correctness, but many on campus pointed to the irony of the historical fight for free speech turning into a suppression of unpopular views today.
The mayhem achieved its goal of canceling an appearance by Yiannopoulos, a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump and a self-proclaimed internet troll whose comments have been criticized as racist, misogynist and anti-Muslim.
“Berkeley has always stood for self-expression,” said Russell Ude, a 20-year-old football player. “Things like this discredit peaceful protest.”
Philosophy professor John Searle, a leader of the free-speech movement and professor since 1959, called the cancellation “an absolute scandal.” He said most of what Yiannopoulos professes is “disgusting” but that he’s entitled to be heard.
“Free speech has to be allowed for everyone,” Searle said.
School officials said they knew of the potential for unrest and went to “extraordinary lengths” to prepare. Other stops on the Breitbart News editor’s college tour have stirred protests and sporadic violence. But Berkeley authorities say they believe the instigators were not students and what unfolded was “unprecedented.”
Police from other campuses helped UC Berkeley as it shut down the building where Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak and erected barricades.
Yiannopoulos told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Thursday that police did not seem to do much and that he was whisked away by car after putting on a bulletproof vest.
“This is political violence in response to perfectly mainstream opinions,” he said.
Peaceful protests grew to a crowd of over 1,500, police estimated, before “more than 100 armed individuals clad in ninja-like uniforms” showed up. They hurled fireworks, Molotov cocktails and rocks at officers, UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett said.
She said officers “exercised tremendous restraint” to protect a crowd filled with students. No arrests were made and no major injuries were reported, a change from some high-profile protests at Berkeley decades ago.
Police did not advance on the crowd as they used barricades to bash windows and set fire to a kerosene generator, sparking a blaze that burned for over an hour.
A small group later took the chaos into nearby city streets.
Workers at several banks replaced broken windows Thursday, repaired damaged cash machines and cleaned graffiti from walls. Campus officials estimated the damage at about $100,000.
Amid the cleanup, a 21-year-old student who supports Trump was attacked on campus. Jack Palkovic wore a “Make America Great Again” cap as he headed to class when two young men jumped from a car and pummeled him. Police arrived and arrested them.
The university said the alleged assailants had no connection to the school.
The campus Republican club says they invited Yiannopoulos to give a voice to “repressed conservative thought” on college campuses.
“Where’s my freedom-of-expression rights?” said Jose Diaz, head of the Berkeley College Republicans, citing insults and harassment his club has faced. “We are trying our best to engage in civil debate.”
Not everyone who bought tickets for the speech supported Yiannopoulos.
“I don’t necessarily agree with his views. I just wanted to hear the other side,” said sophomore Cole Diloreto, 19, noting the irony of the protesters’ demands to cancel it. “Usually these are the same people who are arguing for free speech.”
Student activism was born during the 1964-1965 free-speech movement at Berkeley, when thousands of students mobilized to demand the school drop its ban on political advocacy. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, but it was a largely peaceful movement that attracted the likes of folk singer Joan Baez.
Other protests could be violent and destructive.
Students and activists who transformed a vacant university-owned lot into “People’s Park,” a countercultural gathering place, in May 1969 soon faced a chain-link fence that Berkeley installed.
A few thousand people marched to take it back. In battles with police, at least 169 people were injured, about 50 hit by police shotgun fire. One protester was killed.
Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan called in National Guard troops, and a helicopter sprayed tear gas on a protest over the man’s death, galvanizing the school community.
Today, the tension over politics is fueling deeper divisions on campus that extended to the White House.
Trump tweeted about the unrest Thursday, questioning whether Berkeley should be granted federal funding: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
The debate extended to the state Senate, where Democrats urged Trump not to take aim at elite universities and Republicans bemoaned what they characterized as a campus culture that devalues free speech.
“Universities should be the most open, the most welcoming harbor of all ideas, left or right,” GOP state Sen. Ted Gaines said. “But they have turned into rigid ideological prisons where stepping outside the latest progressive liberal path is considered a thought crime.”
This story corrects that the alleged assailants of a college Republican were UC Berkeley students. The school said they had no connection to the university.