On the night of Feb. 1, violence erupted at a UC Berkeley protest in opposition to controversial conservative speaker and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos, who had been invited to speak by the Berkeley College Republicans, evacuated the premises and his speaking engagement was cancelled at 5:45 p.m.
According to The Daily Californian, what started as a peaceful protest of roughly 1,500 students and community members was disrupted by about 150 agitators rumored to be anarchists. After the event had been cancelled, masked protesters took down police barricades, smashed several windows of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building, aimed fire crackers and a smoke bomb at the student center, and lit a flood light on fire. The fire reached as high as the second story of the MLK building, said Joel Finbloom, a graduate student at the protest. According to the Berkeley Police Department, five were injured, including an alumni attending the event, who claimed agitators punched him and threw rocks.
President Trump responded to the incident with a tweet threatening to defund the university. It read, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
As the mantra goes, two Jews, three opinions – and, unsurprisingly, Jewish students at UC Berkeley had a variety of responses to the violence on campus and Trump’s statement in the aftermath of the protest.
Video by Joel Finbloom
Some Jewish students actively participated in the protest, hoping to express that Yiannopoulos is counter to UC Berkeley’s values. “My whole thinking was Milo should never have been invited in the first place,” said Finbloom. “For me, it’s like inviting a member of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Klan. That’s not the kind of differing of opinions that needs a voice on campus. It’s not like he’s a conservative thinker that differs on tax reforms or is a pro-life speaker who respects how campus discussion should occur. He’s more like a hateful troll…”
Referring to an incident at the University of Wisconsin, where Yiannopoulos singled out and ridiculed a trans student in attendance, he said, “I’m not talking safe spaces. He makes people physically unsafe.”
But not all protesters attending the event shared the same goals. Some wanted the event cancelled. “I wasn’t there to shut down the speech,” Finbloom said. “I was there to voice my dissent. I was there to say, ‘You can speak here, but you can’t speak here unchallenged…’ I had a sign that said, ‘It may be free speech, but it’s hate speech,’ And the girl next to me had a sign that said, ‘Hate speech isn’t free speech.'”
Even though protesters’ motivations were diverse, some Jewish students are stressing that students were not responsible for the violence. “It’s important to reiterate that the violence that was incited… was NOT LEAD BY BERKELEY STUDENTS [emphasis hers],” wrote senior Rachel Marcus. “Bears are above that. Our campus was coopted by a group of anarchists wearing all black and masks known as the ‘Black Block’ that has been causing problems in Oakland for years.”
Video by Joel Finbloom
“Milo had every right to speak just as Berkeley College Republicans had every right to invite him, and every other leftist group had every right to peacefully protest and stand in solidarity against his event,” wrote sophomore Jonathan Rutchik. “Up until around 5:45, that’s what was happening. What was not okay, however, was when other groups – unaffiliated from the university – showed up to promote violence, lit a fire, destroyed MLK, and took their fight into the streets.”
He, among others, felt Trump’s response on Twitter put undue blame on students.
“What happened on campus last night was scary for liberals and conservatives alike,” Rutchik wrote. “By making his statement, Trump is allowing the two groups to further their hatred towards one another and feeding into the same hate in Milo’s rhetoric.”
Briana Broussard, a graduate student, agreed. “As a grad student at UC Berkeley, this protest was really upsetting,” she wrote. It was “co-opted by anarchists, making it unsafe for everyone, and then co-opted by the media/Trump. So, basically I felt unsafe because of other people’s agendas and then was told that I was at fault and don’t honor free speech…”
Other members of the community place more culpability on students. “Radical leftists have no respect for property,” said law student Zach Cardin. “Although many might not be Berkeley students, their actions are encouraged by the radical political opinions of the left on this campus.”
Finbloom is ultimately frustrated that violence shifted the conversation from Yiannopoulos’s message to a discussion of destructive protest on the left.
“It feels like people hijacked what was going to be a productive protest,” said Finbloom. “By committing acts of violence and destruction, you essentially change the narrative. Now no one is talking about the problems with Milo speaking… The videos on CNN aren’t of people peacefully marching. They’re of people destroying property.”
Sara Weissman is the editor of New Voices. Kvell or kvetch to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.