Smoke and the sound of drums filled Sproul Plaza just minutes after the scheduled beginning of the protest against Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ talk at UC Berkeley.
Yiannopoulos, known online as the face of the alt-right movement, which has long been noted for its white supremacist views, was scheduled by the Berkeley College Republicans to appear at UC Berkeley at 8 p.m. on Feb. 1. The announcement was met by outrage across both the Berkeley campus and surrounding schools. By the time of the scheduled event, thousands of protesters filled the courtyard in front of the Berkeley Student Union, waving signs, making music and chanting resistance, while hundreds more stood side by side on the steps of Sproul Hall, which was illuminated with rainbow colors for an LGBT+ dance party that had taken place earlier in the day.
The plaza was packed through the night with students, community members and outside activists, voicing their outrage against Yiannopoulos’ presence on the campus and barring the entrances to the Student Union, where the talk was meant to be held.
Protestors, some of whom were Mills students, expressed concern for the safety of marginalized students on the Berkeley campus, especially as Yiannopoulos’ talk was rumored to include outing several undocumented students.
“I just think it’s really important right now to not be complacent about what’s going on and recognize that what he was going to say there was going to be harmful and that it was also going to inspire others like him to feel more powerful and confident in their views,” Sophia Cook-Phillips, a Mills student who attended the protest, said. “I just felt like the more people showed up to that, the better.”
Mills sophomore and Clubs & Orgs Peer Advisor Hannah Horten came to the protest early in the night, along with Cook-Phillips, to help block entrances to the Student Union.
“Clearly [Milo’s presence] was making an unsafe place on campus, and how the administration at Berkeley really ignored that, I think, reflects a larger institutional issue,” Horten said. “It was frustrating to see it so close to home and also in a place that is seen as so progressive.”
Shortly after 6 p.m., when the protest was scheduled to meet, an industrial light placed in the plaza was tipped over, with “Milo” spray painted onto the side and crossed out. Shortly after, police decked out in riot gear, patrolling the balcony of the Student Union, called out that the event had been cancelled, and that Yiannopoulos had left campus.
Just minutes later, an unidentified protester set fire to the pool of oil dripping from the overturned industrial lamp, sending up a fifteen foot blaze that caught several branches of a nearby tree, and narrowly missed the balcony of the Student Union.
“I’m happy that Milo was not able to speak. I’m not happy that people got hurt, but I do think it’s a good thing that he wasn’t able to speak and I think that it’s too bad that it took people getting hurt for the university to cancel the event,” Britt Hart, a Mills senior who attended the protest, said.
The crowd, with no clear leadership, save for a large group of black bloc protesters and representatives from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, remained in the plaza after the event’s cancellation, some to celebrate, some to continue to assert their defiance against the ideals that Yiannopoulos and others like him stand for.
“In the name of humanity,” one Revolutionary Communist Party member shouted to onlookers, “we will not accept a fascist America.”
The protest overall was powerful, Horten thought, but she noted that the crowd seemed to lose direction after several hours.
“I truly do believe that when it comes to destruction of property, it can be very intentional and very powerful,” Horten said. “But towards the end, it didn’t seem like there was a clear purpose or leader, and it seemed like there was a lot of confusion and there were a lot of people there who were looking to wreak havoc.”
The protest was punctured with frequent warnings by police to disperse or face arrest, and even threats of tear gas, but protestors refused to leave, remaining en masse both within Sproul Plaza and, later, moving into the streets and taking over sections of Bancroft and Telegraph.
Counter-protesters appeared several times throughout the night, several of whom were seen shouting Nazi slogans, goading protestors and getting involved in physical skirmishes with protesters.
“I really didn’t agree with people when they said that not allowing Milo to present was inhibiting his free speech, which I really don’t think is an appropriate view to take on this issue at all,” Horten said. “Especially considering how much privilege he has and how powerful his voice already is.”
Similar talks by Yiannopoulos have been shut down by protestors at other schools around the country, such as UC Davis and University of Oregon. The Berkeley College Republicans, in response to the protests, issued a statement on their website: “The Free Speech Movement is dead. Last night, the Berkeley College Republicans’ constitutional right to free speech was silenced by criminals and thugs seeking to cancel Milo Yiannopoulos’ tour. Their success is a defeat for civilized society and the free exchange of ideas on college campuses across America.”
Hart said that, when it comes to free speech, a line must be drawn when it presents a direct danger to marginalized people.
“If it’s at a public university and he’s saying things that incite violence and there have been other reported incidents of violence at his events, then that crosses a line into hate speech, which I don’t think should be allowed,” Hart said. “It’s not only on the basis that I disagree with what Milo is saying, it’s on the basis that it’s making people unsafe.”
EDIT: A previous version of this story identified “black bloc” as an organization rather than a protest tactic.