Students advocating free speech at the University of California, Berkeley would have welcomed a provocative speaker to campus a half-century ago — but Wednesday night students at the public university lit fires, looted businesses and assaulted innocent bystanders in order to ensure ideas with which they disagree would not be spoken.
Wednesday night’s turmoil at the cradle of the Free Speech Movement was just the latest instance of violence by President Trump’s detractors since he was elected. Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said recent defeats at the voting booth have caused progressives to embrace politics by other means — in this case, rioting.
“Clearly, we have reached a moment where the frustration and the anger of the radical left is boiling over,” Mr. Wood said. “It’s a measure of its impotence and irrelevance that it’s now turning to these ostentatious and violent acts. The less able it is to mount arguments that persuade ordinary people, the more it turns to actions that are intended to incense the public.”
The catalyst for Berkeley’s conflagration was prominent Trump supporter and Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to give the inaugural address in his tour against “sanctuary campuses” Wednesday evening.
The event never got off the ground. An estimated 1,500 protesters clad in black masks, armed with heavy pipes and waving anti-fascist flags swarmed the venue hours in advance. Once nightfall fell, they began to throw rocks and pyrotechnic devices at campus police, smashed windows and set fires to trees, trash cans, American flags and other objects.
University officials promptly shut down the event and ordered the crowd to disperse. But the demonstration carried on well into the night, becoming more violent by the hour.
Rioters made their way to the downtown commercial district and blocked traffic, smashed shop windows and looted stores. Videos widely disseminated on social media showed would-be attendees being assaulted. One woman was blasted in the face with pepper spray, and a man was beaten in the middle of a road with poles until he appeared to stop moving.
A large banner carried by some of the rioters read, “This Is War.”
Occurring at the university that sparked the Free Speech Movement decades ago, Mr. Wood said the Berkeley riot not only was ironic, but it also revealed the rapidity with which progressive priorities shift in pursuit of power.
The left “valued free speech only when it feared its views would not be heard,” Mr. Wood said. “But now, having achieved supremacy on campus, it values no one else’s speech. So we’ve now seen that domination on the left has turned into a regime of censorship enforced by violence.”
The university condemned the violence but claimed it had been mainly carried out by a group of “masked agitators” comprising about 10 percent of the crowd.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the violence and unlawful behavior that was on display and deeply regret that those tactics now overshadow the efforts of the majority to engage in legitimate and lawful protest against the performer’s presence at Berkeley and his perspectives,” the school said in a statement. “We regret that the threats and unlawful actions of a few have interfered with the exercise of First Amendment rights on a campus that is proud of its history and legacy as the home of the Free Speech Movement.”
The Berkeley riot was just the latest in a steady stream of post-election, anti-Trump demonstrations — some of which have been violent.
The protests began on election night and continued uninterrupted for the next several days in major cities around the country. They flared up again on Inauguration Day, during which more than 200 activists in the nation’s capital alone were arrested after repeated run-ins with police.
Demonstrators were back at it this week, swarming airports and public spaces in response to Mr. Trump’s executive order temporarily halting the flow of refugees into the country.
Mr. Wood said the left uses protests to provoke overreactions from and turn public opinion against authority figures.
“If they can’t win their way in the voting booth, or win their way in congressional votes or things like that, instead they turn to actions that are meant to delegitimate the authority,” he said. “Not just the authority of President Trump, but the authority of law enforcement and public opinion as a whole. This is a recognizable tactic that the Marxist left uses in order to destabilize a regime.”
“It will fail, but failure comes at considerable cost and pain to our society, of which they are both heedless and proud.”
Mr. Trump said he may take punitive measures in response to the Berkeley riot.
“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” the president tweeted on Thursday.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education opposed that idea, saying it had seen “no evidence that Berkeley as an institution made any effort to silence Yiannopoulos.”
“Those who engage in violent and/or destructive protests are ultimately responsible for their unlawful behavior and may be subject to arrest and prosecution by law enforcement,” the group said in a statement. “To punish an educational institution for the criminal behavior of those not under its control and in contravention of its policies, whether through the loss of federal funds or through any other means, would be deeply inappropriate and most likely unlawful.”
But Mr. Wood said some funding cuts may actually improve the state of civil discourse in higher education.
He pointed to a 2012 Department of Education report, “A Crucible Moment,” which ushered in an Obama administration policy of funneling millions of dollars to universities to encourage the development of curricula on civic engagement.
Given the understanding of civics demonstrated at the Berkeley riots, Mr. Wood said the effectiveness of this program should be ripe for review.
“Now that we’ve had a demonstration that ‘civic engagement,’ to use the left’s own term for it, turns into an excuse for rioting, destruction of public property, assault on innocent individuals — I would say that funding might well be in question,” he said.
The National Association of Scholars also published a case study last month examining the state of civics in higher education.
The report, “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics,” found that courses comprising a traditional civics curriculum — such as American history, constitutional law and Western civilization — had been largely replaced by a “New Civics,” which prioritizes how to organize protest movements in order to advance progressive causes.
“If President Trump is willing to open the discussion of whether public universities should be able to act with impunity when law and order breaks down and free speech is compromised in drastic ways like this, I think that’s probably a conversation that the nation should have,” Mr. Wood said.
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