Yiannopoulos brings Berkeley to a boiling point and free speech into question


Protesters toss a barricade into a glass window during a protest at UC Berkeley to shut down a scheduled speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2016. Protesters were able to shut down the scheduled speech before it began. (Photo by George Morin/ Special to Xpress)

Militant protests shut down a scheduled speaking event by controversial “alt-right” speaker and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos Wednesday night at UC Berkeley.

The protest resulted in an impromptu march down Bancroft Avenue after university officials canceled the event roughly an hour before it began.

Campus police announced the event’s cancellation and issued a dispersal order shortly after 6 p.m. The gathering outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building was calm until a group of militant demonstrators arrived and carried out what has become known as a black bloc.

By then, all ingress to the building had been blocked.

Demonstrators tore down barricades erected by police to prevent the crowd from entering the Pauley Ballroom housed inside the student union, where Yiannopoulos was scheduled to appear.

The protesters then began launching fireworks at police, who had taken up positions on the student union’s second-floor balcony. Windows were smashed and a mobile floodlight was set ablaze, which scorched a nearby tree.

Police attempted, amid demonstrator chants of “No Milo. No Trump. No fascist USA,” to disperse the crowd using percussive grenades, pellet grenades and threats of chemical agents. Police fired tear gas, some hitting Xpress reporters and photographers .

The crowd began to move on to the intersection of Bancroft Avenue and Telegraph Avenue. As protesters marched, several scuffles broke out on a nearby sidewalk between demonstrators and supporters of President Donald Trump. Someone in the crowd deployed pepper spray, but it was unclear by whom.

Yiannopoulos has been a lightning rod for political conflagrations. He rose to prominence as a result of the “Gamergate” controversy in which female video game developers were subject to internet abuse. He recently became the first Twitter user to be banned for life after the company found him responsible for abusing “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones in tweets, the New York Times reported in July.

In a phone interview, Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, said that Yiannopoulos “leverages his identity” as a gay man to avoid accusations of bigotry. Brooks characterized the digital provocateur as an “entertainer” who is “racist, sexist, homophobic, all of it.”

While the majority of people who gathered in Berkeley were there to protest, some were more nuanced in their views.

Kimball Strong, a UC Berkeley student who attended the event, said that while he disliked Yiannopolous, he felt that the self-proclaimed troll should be allowed to speak.

“It fundamentally comes down to a free speech issue,” Strong said.

Joshua Angelo, also a UC Berkeley student, agreed.

“It’s important to see this as a free speech issue,” Angelo said. “I think it’s important he’s able to speak.”

Some Yiannopolous supporters were present as well. Laurent Loy, a UC Berkeley student who wore a Trump “Make America Great Again” hat to the event, said many members of his family had switched from the Democratic to Republican Party in reaction to the policies of the Obama Administration. Loy said there was a point in which he was still “on the fence,” but that he had recently switched parties as well.

“Milo definitely opened my eyes,” said Loy.

Brooks disagreed, saying that Yiannopoulos provides “… no kind of political analysis at all.”

Previous dates on Yiannopoulos’s college speaking tour have also been marked by protests, including his stop at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Jan. 31. Berkeley was the last speaking event currently listed on his website.

“In our view, Mr. Yiannopoulos is a troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in part to “entertain,” but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas,” UC Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said in a statement released through the university’s website last Thursday.