Why America's Anti-Fascist Students Are Their Nation's Grown-Ups
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
In a year when American tensions have repeatedly come to a head at the University Of Berkeley, current student Veronica Irwin argues that its her generation of supposed snowflakes who are behaving with far more maturity than their elders.
When I registered at the United States’ top ranked public university, I never expected to have classes cancelled because students were too afraid to attend. But in the past few months, this has been my experience as a UC Berkeley student.
Milo Yiannopolous was Invited by the Berkeley College Republicans to appear at the university's Pauley Ballroom in early February as part of his 'Dangerous Faggot' college tour. It was a tour already notorious thanks to Yiannopolous’ hateful rhetoric, including the public exposing of students without citizenship paperwork and verbally attacking Muslim audience members. Although students were protesting peacefully, violence broke out before his speech even began when city of Berkeley Antifa set off fireworks, setting a tree on fire dangerously close to the student union building. It was all at once confusing, scary, irritating, galvanising and a little bit funny - I laughed in the way you laugh when you don’t know what else to do. Wandering through the tangled crowd my mood swung rapidly from high to low. At one moment I held hands with my friends as we sang against the hideousness, but the next felt panic at the sound of a loud noise, and called my parents from Sproul Plaza to tell them I wouldn’t be surprised if someone pulled out an automatic weapon. Meanwhile the media focused on the $100,000 of damage incurred on a nearby Amazon delivery centre.
More significant than the highly publicised Milo ‘incident’, though, was the day two months later when right wing political commentator Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak. Known for similarly offensive and provocative comments targeting people of colour, women and the disabled, Coulter also looked to capture media attention by speaking at my university. After losing the conservative student backing she'd initially had, she made plans to speak on the same plaza steps where Mario Savio helped launch Berkeley’s countercultural free speech movement. After the notoriously over-budget Berkeley administration spent $600,000 deploying militarised police in preparation for the event, Ann Coulter never came.
That day I idled away my lunchbreak with my classmates outside the Martin Luther King student union, staring in shock at the hundreds of cops that filled that same plaza I called my parents from two months earlier. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think, and I struggled to even surface any emotions at all. While excessive policing exacerbated campus animosity and anger, massive barricades and building closures kept me from getting help at the financial aid office, and my friends from seeking community at the Multicultural Center or getting counseling and mobility-related accommodations at the Disabled Students Program Office. Extended security measures gave police the right to search and seize private property if a student carried anything classified as a potential weapon, including benign items like glass food and drink containers or rolling tobacco. Many of my fellow students and I, having had our own right to peaceful protest stripped and our comfort on campus robbed, were left waiting for the moment fascist protesters might attack. While the Milo Yiannopoulos incident felt like an outlier, the day Ann Coulter was expected on campus is when we all realised fascist attacks on college campuses were not going to just go away.
In the six months since, Joshua Dukes was shot at a Milo protest at UW, near-graduate Richard Collins III was stabbed in Maryland, and multiple peaceful protestors were encircled by tiki torch-bearing white supremacists and beaten at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Later that day at UVA, Heather Heyer was killed by a fascist who drove into a crowd of peaceful protesters.
Now, six months later, Chancellor Carol Christ is pouring money into more police-led security measures to protect professional hate-mongers as they conduct events like 'Free Speech Week', a four-day celebration planned for this week of conservatism and hatred led by Milo Yiannopoulos that lost student backing before it even began. We, the famously liberal students at the UC Berkeley, have become every Trump-supporting bigot’s go-to example of what’s "wrong" with the left. I get sexist trolls commenting on my social media posts, calling me "another useless feminazi," "snowflake," or (my personal favourite) "so dumb it’s borderline mental illness." ASUC senators Juniperangelica Cordova-Goff and Hani Hussein had to temporarily close their social media accounts after racist, transphobic, and Islamophobic harassment by white supremacist trolls. Major conservative news outlets like Fox News love to lambast students and administrators for refusing to uphold free speech, even though the university has overall spent four times more on security for provocateur speakers like Ben Shapiro than $15,000 it charged the conservative student group hosting him. Many university professors feel they have no choice but to cancel classes in order to keep their students safe. I get emails and texts from worried friends and family terrified by the incessant manipulation and lies they see online and on TV perpetuated by conservative pundits, university spokespeople and the president himself. So yes, I am angry. I have every right to be.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, my peers and I aren’t gearing up to set fire to university buildings in response. Students have been organising productive protests and community gatherings - intellectual and heartfelt attempts to actually make something good out of this nationwide PR shitshow. Muslim-American student Katebah Alolefi encourages Berkeley College Republicans to bring more "articulate" speakers like John McCain, rather than a guy who points out hijab-wearing women in the audience. My housemate Wendy Lopez turns her attention toward mental health support for undocumented students. ASUC senator Rizza Estacio is organising on a peer and student-government level to "decolonise our campus", targeting discriminatory financial aid policies, low visibility for students of colour and buildings named for slave owners. In the face of a radically childish president and an impassive university administration, my peers are responding with maturity.
UC Berkeley students have always pushed back against corruption in our administration. After all, it was a dispute between students and campus administrators over students’ rights to conduct political activities on campus that led students to occupy Sproul Plaza in 1964. When the administration spends $500,000 on police to protect Ann Coulter but leaves 40% of UC students food-insecure at some point during their four years, we speak up. While Chancellor Christ is praised for her willingness to acknowledge the provocateurs’ words as "hate speech", students are blowing the whistle on her inability to protect Dreamers from Milo’s "outing", black and brown students from militarised policing, and all students from physical and psychological harm.
The campus has come alive with renewed academic activity, not through what Milo calls "left-wing indoctrination" but through open and intelligent discourse on a public and a small classroom scale. During my first week of classes every single one of my teachers brought up the current state of affairs, each deliberately stating that, with a strict policy of empathy and inclusion, we can use the current climate to start a dialogue about how what we are learning has real-life implications. A student-taught "copwatch" class is offered for academic credit, focusing on community-based police accountability. The central project of my introduction to political science class asked us to draft our own explanation as to why our country is so deeply polarised. Better yet, we’re educating each other on the history of the Black Panthers, on the Stonewall riots, and other movements that prove wrong the conservative-fuelling story that says leftist counter-protest is as destructive as white-supremacist rhetoric. Academic knowledge and theory is inherently tied to ethics and political action, and we are allowing our education to make our action informed, well thought-out and productive.
On a community scale, students have risen up across demographics to create student-led support systems. On the days of protests and major political upheavals, I receive emails from fellow students who are opening their rooms for group decompression and emotional support, providing space - and often dinner - for protesters. On a larger scale, groups to protect those who are particularly marginalised are more visible than ever, from the Gender Equity and Resource Center reviving their Queer Cal Pals programme to the African American Student Office hosting their second annual Black Student Group Showcase this year. The nationwide hostility is unignorable, but Berkeley students are loving and supporting each other more than ever.
It’s incredibly frustrating to hear people describe our activism as a condemnation of free speech. If people want to say we’re intolerant, sure - we’re intolerant of racism, sexism, bigotry, and hatred, and that’s something I am absolutely proud of. But we know this was never about free speech. This is about right-wing provocateurs making a show for the press to promote their own careers and vile rhetoric, racism, and the worst of American history. This is about our right to exist safely and peacefully, regardless of our identities. This is about our right to study and learn without the verbal violence of our presidential administration turning to the physical violence at college campuses around the country.
We are not here waiting to fight fire with fire, to show the alt-right hatred like they show us, or to ruin the reputation of a university that has always been known for its values of respect and equality. But in a world where the people with power either throw fits or cower in fear like children, we are confronting the problems of our country like adults.