February 2, 2017; San Francisco Chronicle
President Trump made a Twitter threat to cut off federal funding to the University of California, Berkeley. The threat was made last week, the morning after the cancellation of a campus event by Breitbart News senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the threat prompted outcry from city and university officials.
Trump tweeted, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view—NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” USA Today reports that experts reacted to the unlikeliness of Trump succeeding with such a threat. California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom responded via Twitter, “As a UC Regent I’m appalled at your willingness to deprive over 38,000 students access to an education because of the actions of a few.” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) issued a statement, saying, “President Donald Trump cannot bully our university into silence. Simply put, Trump’s empty threat to cut funding from UC Berkeley is an abuse of power.”
Some UC officials are said to express confusion over Trump’s Twitter threat. After all, they had no intention of cancelling the event. On the contrary, “they went through extraordinary lengths to facilitate the planning and presentation of the event” organized by the Berkeley College Republicans. UC Berkeley News reported that “officials were in close contact with other university campuses where Yiannopolous had been asked to speak, and they paid close attention to lessons learned.” For instance, the Seattle Times reported that demonstrations during a Yiannopolous speech at the University of Washington some days earlier turned violent. They led to the shooting of an unarmed, left wing, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) member who was peacefully protesting the event. An anonymous man identified as the shooter posted a Facebook message an hour before the shooting claiming to have reacted after being “sucker punched” for wearing his “Make America great again” hat. It is worth noting that upon news of the shooting, crowds cheered as Yiannopolous encouraged the show to go on. He said, “If we don’t continue, they have won.”
The January UW event clearly raised flags for UC officials. Multiple crowd control methods were proactively set in place. Dozens of additional police were on duty. Rolling Stone gives further details.
The night Yiannopolous arrived on campus, 1,500 people showed up to [peacefully] protest—some carting a giant, homemade dove to symbolize their peaceful intentions. But just after sundown, the protests turned violent, as roughly 150 black-clad, anti-fascist radicals with clubs and shields lit fires, hurled Molotov cocktails, smashed windows and caused enough of a scene to achieve their objective: Deny Yiannopoulos the opportunity to spread what they view as dangerous hate speech at the university’s new Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union Center.
According to the SF Chronicle, “Ultimately, and unfortunately, however, it was impossible to maintain order given the level of threat, disruption and organized violence.” The event was cancelled hours before it started. Rolling Stone cited an estimated $100,000 worth of damage done to the MLK Student Union building. UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof told the Chronicle that he is “not sure how one plans for the unprecedented.” He acknowledged that campus destruction resulted from “nearly two dozen black-clad individuals using power military tactics,” while stressing that no police engaged in any acts of violence with anyone.
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However, ABC News reports that the Associated Press revealed that many are starting to question their “hands-off” approach. John Bakhit, a lawyer for an approximately 400-member police officers’ union, said the hands-off approach was detrimental as it prevented the police officers from doing their jobs. He says this amid extensive video reviews of the protest that are now taking place. Five people were hurt, but no one was seriously injured. One person was arrested for failure to disperse. Two others were arrested the next day for assault. More arrests are possible.
This comes with Rolling Stone’s surfacing of reports of Trump supporters being attacked by UC Berkeley protestors. One person was reported as having being seen bleeding from his eye, while another was reportedly pepper-sprayed by a masked individual following an interview with a local TV station. An online video of an unconscious Trump supporter being struck on the head while lying face down on the street is also circulating online.
Rolling Stone says that despite their disappointment about the violence, UC officials are “quickly distancing themselves from the rioters.” The militant protestors are being depicted as “being from out of town and unrelated to the UC Berkeley community”. University officials reported none of the arrested were UC Berkeley students. Indeed, it is not easy to determine their affiliations. However, Rolling Stone spoke to an anonymous activist and university graduate who pointed out rising “anger and disappointment directly pointed at the university’s administration” that parallel fears about the “xenophobia, misogyny, and [white] ethno-nationalism” of the far right.
UC Berkeley have expressed their concerns and condemn the violence. Officials have stated that Yiannopolous’ “inflaming rhetoric and provocations” oppose the basic values of the university. However, they “respected his right to come to campus and speak once he was invited to do so by a legitimate student group.” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin also condemned the violence through tweets during the protest and a statement issued afterwards.
This whole situation can be called lamentable. Although threats to cut federal funding over First Amendment rights may not exactly be how college funding works, the greater concern is how an even larger issue is increasingly showing its face. Yes, as one protestor told Rolling Stone, the riots did succeed in shutting down the event, and perhaps did send a strong message to those looking to normalize white supremacist rhetoric espoused by people like Yiannopolous. However, it may be worth reflecting on what Jack Citrin, political science professor and UC Berkeley’s Institute of Government Studies Director, told Rolling Stone:
The whole point of the free speech movement was to defend unpopular speech. There’s no point in defending popular speech. This could have been a teaching moment for our students, that it is legitimate for people with views you find abhorrent to speak, and to debate them, and to do so with a superior argument. Instead, it ends up a moment where this provocateur gets exactly what he wanted.…This is a gift to Milo, and of course presents Trump with an opportunity.
Of course, this argument has been played out on many college campuses over the years. It is, in and of itself, a part of democratic discourse. What is not so common is to have a president tweet into its midst that federal funds are at stake if the institution does not control the uppity peasantry.—Noreen Ohlrich