Berkeley’s “Free Speech Week” fades out in screaming matches

The anticipated pinnacle of the canceled “Free Speech Week” at UC Berkeley ended in a small show of right and left wing supporters clamoring to drown out each other’s voices last Wednesday.

A crowd that fluctuated in size every hour, as students walked from and to class, gazed upon the screaming matches between the conservative group Patriot Prayer and counter-protesters on the steps of Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. Although individuals from both sides conversed with one another, some vehement screaming matches disrupted the mostly peaceful day.

Trump supporters stand in front of anti-fascism protesters during a free speech rally at UC Berkeley, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. (Aya Yoshida/Golden Gate Xpress)

The rally called by Joey Gibson, leader of Patriot Prayer, was supposed to be for the right to free speech and open dialogue. But Wednesday’s rally never manifested into constructive dialogue, as the mixture of right and left wingers made for yet another clash of opinions — a frequent sight for the UC Berkeley campus in recent months.

“The insanity that I have witnessed here (is) kind of exhausting,” said Rod Webber, a documentarian who has been to several rallies across the country. “If there’s going to be any kind of discussion or progress, shouting at people is not the most productive way to do it.”

The long heralded “Free Speech Week” event was slated to host a string of right-wing speakers, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, but was canceled last minute by Berkeley Patriot, the student group that organized the event.

Yiannopoulos, who helped plan the event, made a 15 minute appearance on the campus on Sunday nevertheless. He took some selfies and sang the national anthem before leaving.

Although none of the other speakers showed on the campus, Gibson and Patriot Prayer supporters came to Berkeley on Tuesday for a mostly peaceful day of protest and counter-protests.  A few scuffles between right and left wingers ensued and police made three arrests, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Gibson’s return on Wednesday — a gesture he views as a fight against what he believes is an intolerance to the free speech rights of right wingers at UC Berkeley — concluded the supposed-to-be event.

“There is nothing more important than exercising our first amendment right,” Gibson told the Xpress. “I’m here to promote love and peace and truth — and that’s all I’m here for. Yesterday went really well, the campus respected our right and the police did their job.”

A student speaks with a Trump supporter at a free speech rally held at UC Berkeley, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. (Aya Yoshida/Golden Gate Xpress)

But for Viana Maria Roland, a political science major at Berkeley, Gibson’s message of love and peace seemed confused amid the string of his Patriot Prayer followers. Roland had racial slurs thrown at her during Tuesday’s rally by Patriot Prayer followers, a criticism associated with past gatherings of Gibson’s group.

“I did point (Gibson) out, and I did approach him and say what’s up with your beliefs; I wanted to know how well do all of their ideologies play out as a group and if they are sharing some of the same points,” Roland said.

“He seems to be sharing a lot of aspects that he supports in his political ideology that is seen a lot on the left. I understand that you cannot label (Patriot Prayer followers) all as one. There are some people who understand the complex issues that people of color in this country face; they just feel like they have an opinion that’s right on how they should deal with that oppression and on what is the best way to  handle their own oppression — to me that is inappropriate,” Roland added.

Police officers for the fourth consecutive day occupied the campus and about hour into the gathering cornered the crowd of demonstrators and counter-protesters to the left of Sproul Hall after a suspicious package was reported. The package turned out to be a false alarm and the screaming matches, never even disturbed by the possible threat, continued.

Students, seemingly used to police officers and groups not affiliated with the school pervading the campus, snapped pictures of the fiasco. Some, participated in the screaming matches, others looked on in confusion before leaving Sproul Plaza.

“I think it’s been very stressful and uncomfortable. This is also our midterms week, so everyone has tests right now,” said Aurora Rios, an English major at the school. “Two of my classes were canceled because my professors (believed) it’s unsafe — it’s kind of annoying, a lot of these people aren’t even from here.”

UC Berkeley, host and symbolic battleground for these groups to scream at each other, will most likely see more demonstrations in the future. Gibson told a pool of reporters that he believes several groups will make their way to the campus in the next months based on what he had heard.

On Wednesday, Gibson seemed pleased with how the gatherings have turned out, saying that he is proud of the school and its respect for the right to free speech.

Yet, it is not clear what Gibson’s threshold to successful dialogue is as voices screaming in disarray dominated the day.

“Right now we have these echo chambers that are so deep into (people’s) opinions and ideologies, they can’t even hear outside of it,” said Ryoga Vee, who follows Joey Gibson but is not a member of the Patriot Prayer group.

“For instance, I say Black Lives Matter, a lot of black people will get offended if somebody says, all lives matter because even (if) we understand the context of that, (some) people don’t really get it. Yes, all lives matter — I acknowledge that — but we’re talking about Black lives right now, trying to get them to understand,” Vee added. “If you say something bad about Trump (for example), you might as well be insulting Trump supporters’ religion, so how do we get away from that or how do we educate people that there is more to life than the shit we’ve been doing for the past nine months?”

A member of the Black Student Union speaks during a free speech rally at UC Berkeley, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. (Aya Yoshida/Golden Gate Xpress)

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