In defense of the Berkeley rioters
This story was penned by The Revolutionary Student Committee, a group at Beloit College.
Last week, the infamous far-right Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. Well known for his public verbal attacks against trans people, Black Lives Matter and Muslims, it’s no surprise protests have followed him at every speaking arrangement of his tour. A massive student demonstration greeted Milo as he arrived on campus. It was initially a relatively sedate affair, but things changed when night fell.
A contingent of some 200 masked radical leftists emerged from the crowd and broke through the security barrier. The hooded youth threw rocks and fireworks at police, got into scuffles with “Make America Great Again” hat-wearing college Republicans and destroyed a police spotlight. The administration declared a security emergency, and Milo had to be escorted from campus in a bulletproof vest before he could give his talk. In the days that followed, both liberal and conservative journalists, pundits and elected officials quickly and publicly condemned the riot and stepped up to defend Milo against what many called an attack on his right to free speech.
Journalists who have covered the series of protests around Milo’s speaking tour have for the most part described him with very consistent language: he is a conservative “troll”, a “provocateur” or even a “firebrand” to those who are committed to the polishing of his ego. We suppose the first two are accurate, as Milo’s plastic, packaged gay minstrelry (used as a smokescreen to legitimize his countless acts of bigotry) and forwards-from-your-aunt political rhetoric does provoke the lowest common denominator into malicious reactionary frenzy, as the Jan. 20 shooting of an anti-Milo protester in Seattle demonstrates. There are, however, more accurate ways to describe Milo and better labels with which to describe him. Fascist-apologist, ethnic-cleansing enabler and agitator of gendered violence could all fit the bill.
The most oft-repeated talking point in Milo’s repertoire, free speech, is a non-issue. We should be concerned with the First Amendment when the State decides the speech of an individual needs to be suppressed, not when an individual faces rightful backlash after targeting, harassing and organizing against other individuals, as he did when he publically targeted a transwoman at his University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee talk. Milo is quick to bring up the differences between words and actions because he doesn’t want to be treated as a political actor with an actual effect on the world. He may not call himself be a neo-Nazi himself, but he is providing them with a platform and a space for organization.
His agenda is twofold. Primarily, he is cheering on state violence: Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that tear families apart, emboldened police finally “doing their job” by murdering more black people and new prisons erected near the border filled with “criminal” immigrants that didn’t pay parking tickets on time. Secondarily, he wants nothing less than the organized destruction of feminist and anti-racist spaces and organs of power. This could be accomplished through the defunding of public universities who don’t toe the Trump administration’s line, the growth of a combatant and outwardly racist student right-wing or the blacklisting of student and faculty activists.
Milo stokes the flames of racial resentment, then puts on the air of a persecuted intellectual, denying his connection to fascism while he projects the names and private information of undocumented students in front of a crowd of hundreds along with the message “purge your local illegal”. This is what he did at the University of New Mexico, and according to multiple sources it was his plan at UC Berkeley.
It was the actions of the Berkeley rioters that prevented Milo from placing the lives and livelihoods of undocumented students directly at risk. Some may tell you that this show of force is what Milo wants, to portray the left as violent and thuggish while he occupies a moral high ground. This is inaccurate.
Milo wants to have a platform and give his speeches. He does not want to face this kind of opposition at every event he books. He does not want his fans to face resistance; he wants them to think they are winning. What the Berkeley anti-fascists did was create a situation that both demonstrated the power of a militant student left and made going through with the speech too much of a security risk for U.C. Berkeley to bear.
Milo takes it for granted that the people he is trying to victimize will simply protest powerlessly while the deportation machine kicks into gear and the police prepare to inflict pain without consequences. He was offered a sharp correction in Berkeley, a correction that must be reinforced over and over and over again if we want to keep our campuses and communities safe from the worst of the Trump regime.