Administration

What Berkeley’s $800,000 Did — and Didn’t — Buy During ‘Free Speech Week’

October 10, 2017

AFP/Getty Images
Milo Yiannopoulos climbs over a barrier as he is escorted from the U. of California at Berkeley, where he spoke briefly to supporters last month. Security for his visit cost an estimated $800,000.

Last month, after weeks of ambitious pronouncements about a weeklong festival of free speech, Milo Yiannopoulos appeared at the University of California at Berkeley. He spoke for 20 minutes. The university spent roughly $800,000 to allow him to do so.

The day after his visit, a Monday, four students sat on a bench 100 feet away from an academic building that students protesting Mr. Yiannopoulos and "fascist speech" had earlier tried to occupy. A fire alarm — it was unclear who pulled it or why — wailed steadily, a remnant of the day’s activism.

The students, recent transfers from Santa Barbara City College, had spent the past month wondering what Mr. Yiannopoulos’s much-publicized visit would bring. Now, with the event looking like an anticlimax, they pondered how their new university had handled the affair.

Even after the collapse of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s so-called Free Speech Week — which was to feature a list of conservative darlings, including Stephen Bannon, the former White House adviser and current Breitbart executive editor, and Ann Coulter, the anti-immigration author and commentator — the students described a state of unease on campus.

Their nervousness was made worse by the lines and lines of police officers they encountered all around. The officers carried nightsticks (some had rifles), wore thick armored vests, and stood against — and at one point, on top of — campus buildings.

The new chancellor, Carol Christ, has promised to dedicate this year to freedom of speech, and to pay the cost to do so. The toll isn't just financial.

One of the students asked another, Sebastian Herics, if he had attended a speech earlier in the month by the conservative speaker Ben Shapiro. (Mr. Herics had gone to check it out but hadn’t made it inside the auditorium.) That one that cost the university nearly $600,000 in security expenses. They compared the event to Mr. Yiannopoulos’s carnivalesque appearance alongside Pamela Geller, an anti-Islamic commentator, and Mike Cernovich, a right-wing conspiracist. Mr. Yiannopoulos had signed autographs for his fans and held up some of their signs — one read "feminism is a cancer" — before being spirited away by a security detail into a white SUV.

So, the students asked, was that worth it — the money, the distraction, the police presence? The verdict was mixed.

Mr. Herics, his voice diluted by the din of a helicopter whirring overhead, said he was "kind of happy" that Free Speech Week had turned out to be a bust. "It’s not going to be as anxiety-ridden. It’s just, Come to class. I am not going to have to worry about, OK, who is going to be on my campus today? How many cops are going to be walking around? Is anybody going to get beat up by cops?" But another student, Maggie Hodgins, offered a much different take on the demise of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s event. "I think this martyrizes them," she said. "That is just giving them even more leverage to be like, They’re trying to take away our free speech."

Students could debate whether Mr. Yiannopoulos ever actually intended to stage a major event on the campus, just as they could debate whether Berkeley officials took the right approach in planning for one. But there was a clear reality. The university had just made a huge cash outlay — $800,000 was the estimate; officials said they are still tallying the full cost — to put scores of officers on campus to combat an unknown threat.

The militant "black bloc" approach — much talked about, but seldom seen — has became a specter that haunts all would-be controversial speaking events at the university. Black bloc members, clad in black clothing and masks, smashed windows and set fires at an initially peaceful protest of a speech Mr. Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give in February, leading to the event’s cancellation.

The black bloc overlaps with the antifa, a decentralized and often nonviolent network of antifascist protesters. Mr. Yiannopoulos and other critics regularly cite the antifa broadly as a threat to free speech and the American way of life.

The university had every reason to expect antifa members would protest Mr. Yiannopoulos, but it was impossible to know if black bloc members would show their mask-covered faces. As it turned out, they didn’t attend the Sunday event. Instead, members of a local group, Refuse Fascism, carried bullhorns and signs. By Any Means Necessary, a local coalition of affirmative-action and immigration activists, also sent members. Both groups have websites; both were peaceful. Black bloc they were not. (Some black bloc protesters were spotted in the streets of Berkeley later that day, but they didn’t show up for the Yiannopoulos event.)

Regardless, the images and newscasts from the violent February event are still strongly tied to the university’s public identity. The new chancellor, Carol Christ, has promised to dedicate this year to freedom of speech, and to pay the cost to do so. The toll isn’t just financial. The university’s tactic for protecting far-right speech — flooding the campus with officers — wore on many professors and students.

The fire alarm continued its wail; the helicopter buzzed. Ms. Hodgins asked Mr. Herics a tough question: Would there have been violence if the police weren’t there?

"That’s what I mean," he said. "There’s a very heightened sense of, Something might happen. Because it’s true, we don’t know."

‘Consumed by One Set of Voices’

Adam Jadhav keeps in his office a red sweatshirt emblazoned with three parallel arrows pointing diagonally downward, a symbol associated with the antifa movement. He donned that sweater the day of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s appearance.

Mr. Jadhav, a doctoral candidate who teaches a geography class, was one of roughly 200 instructors who signed a petition that called for classes to be canceled from Monday to Wednesday because of potential disruption. He opted to keep the classes canceled even after the event fell apart, offering extra office hours for students to catch up with their coursework.

Twice he has been featured on Mr. Yiannopoulos’s social-media accounts as an example of what’s wrong with Berkeley. Under one, a photo that shows Mr. Jadhav announcing the cancellation of his class, online commentators called for his termination. In the other, Mr. Jadhav wears his red sweatshirt — he calls it his protest gear — while chatting with the dean of students, Joseph Greenwell. The commentators online chastised the dean for speaking to the activist, taking broader shots at the university and the antifa as a whole.

Yes, the antifa: It’s a term that Mr. Jadhav more or less embraces, referring to himself as anti-Fascist. In his shared office, he has printed out the word "Resist" and stuck it to the windows. Passers-by can see the message while strolling across the grassy lawns and paved pathways surrounding the building. He has gotten permission to write the word "NOPE" — an inversion of the Obama slogan "Hope," applied to Donald Trump — on the roof of his office building.

Mr. Jadhav declined to criticize masked protesters — "I don’t judge people who feel vulnerable enough such that they can’t let their name be known," he said — but like many members of the campus community who identify with anti-Fascist movements, he showed up to the protest without a mask and with no intention toward violence. "I am prepared to take the punch rather than throw one," he said.

On Monday, he joined a crowd of about 200 protesters on a grassy hill, many wearing shirts adorned with the Berkeley logo and the phrase "Anti-Fascist." Agitators, armed with camera phones, heckled those gathered. Police officers circled the scene; before the day was over, they broke up at least one scuffle.

The protesters eventually led a march across the campus, culminating in a small sit-in at the academic building that Mr. Herics and Ms. Hodgins looked out on. Classes were disrupted. The police monitored the whole affair, moving alongside the rally and standing inside with those who tried to occupy the building.

The march could be seen as a demonstration that Berkeley used police to safeguard the speech not just of conservative speakers but also of campus counterprotesters. In a telling but underreported moment, the university even appeared to support the right of professors to cancel their classes.

"We fully trust our faculty to cover their curriculum over the course of the semester. How and when and where they do that is up to them," Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman, said at a news conference following the Sunday event.

But Mr. Jadhav questioned whose free speech the university was really defending. The nation has laws about what speech is forbidden on the public airwaves, he said, so university campuses should also be able to deem some speakers, like Mr. Yiannopoulos, inappropriate or inciting, rather than spending money on their behalf.

Berkeley, he said, is "being consumed by one set of voices, and those voices cross all lines from political argument into open harassment."

Costs and Consequences

Where did the $800,000 go?

The university declined to state how many police officers were on campus during Mr. Yiannopoulos’s September visit. But cost breakdowns for his February event and an abortive speech by Ms. Coulter in April offer some insight into how the university might have spent its money this time around.

The greatest difference in money paid between the two prior events — the first cost nearly $270,000, the second ran about $664,000 — was the amount spent to bring in outside police officers. In February, no money was spent on outside agencies. In April, that number exploded to $414,500. Officers were outnumbered in February, Mr. Mogulof said, and administrators wanted to avoid making that mistake again.

Some costs did decrease: Damage to equipment ran the university just under $10,000 after the Yiannopoulos event. In April, when protests took place even though Ms. Coulter did not end up speaking, that figure was at zero. The cost of building repair and cleanup fell from roughly $52,800 to about $3,800.

Ms. Christ, the chancellor, has said she wished the money for security could have been spent differently. And she said she understood the frustration some people feel in seeing the university pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into an event that didn’t happen.

"Free speech isn’t free by a long shot," Ms. Christ has told The Chronicle.

But the university finds itself walking a tightrope. Spend too little on security, and officials risk a repeat of the events in February. Spend too much, and they get complaints from professors and students who feel the university is militarizing the campus at their financial and mental expense.

Part of the challenge, Mr. Mogulof said, is that Berkeley had to prepare for a collective that didn’t announce its plans, but whose past actions forecast violence. In the weeks leading up to Free Speech Week, black bloc protesters physically clashed in the city of Berkeley with protesters on the far right, he said, adding that the university also had to prep for the possibility of far-right protesters, who have a track record of violence. (In Charlottesville, Va., for example, far-right protests resulted in the death of a counterprotester. Antifa activists, meanwhile, were seen by many as protectors, not instigators.)

"It would have been simply reckless to assume just because we hadn’t received form letters, this fairly mysterious group wasn’t going to show up again," Mr. Mogulof said. "Everyone’s worst nightmare is being underprepared and as a result a student or faculty member or a member of the public, a law-abiding citizen, pays the price."

At Berkeley, in the aftermath of the Free Speech Week flop, some people said they had paid a price anyway — not just in taxes or tuition, but in mental real estate.

Mona Dibas, another recent transfer student, said she was among those people. On a Wednesday, when she said she should have been studying for an exam, she was instead engaging with another group of protesters who came to the campus to demonstrate against Berkeley’s handling the free-speech event. Ms. Dibas said she certainly wasn’t ready for the extensive presence of law enforcement at Berkeley.

"I wasn’t expecting a police state on our campus." she said.

And Leigh Raiford, an associate professor of African-American studies, recalled how her department decided to close for the day following the fracas surrounding the ultimately canceled event featuring Ms. Coulter in April. People, she said, don’t realize what it’s like to try to study under the whir of a helicopter.

"I think the part that people forget is that it is our workplace," Ms. Raiford said at a cafe a few miles from the university. "To come to work and to feel threatened, or to see different areas of the campus that have become staging grounds, or the riot police, is really stressful. That spectacle has material consequences. It has psychological consequences. It has financial consequences."

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.