On February 1, 2017, student protests at University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), turned violent and destructive ahead of a planned event at which the controversial editor of Breitbart News, Milo Yiannopoulos, was due to speak.
Yiannopoulos, is a controversial web personality who was banned for life from Twitter for racist and sexist posts. Since 2015, on a US speaking tour, which has included events on several campuses; many of these events have reportedly been met with student protests. In at least one previous incident, the protests turned violent (see report).
Yiannopoulos’s invitation to speak at UC Berkeley was sponsored by the Berkeley College Republicans. Much of the university community was reportedly divided in the run-up to the event and demands were made that the invitation be rescinded. University chancellor Nicholas Dirks publicly criticized the content of Yiannopoulos’s statements, but defended his right to speak on campus.
On the afternoon of the event, thousands of students reportedly gathered to protest Yiannopoulos. Police barricades were set up and heavily enforced outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union where he was due to speak. The gathering remained peaceful until evening when a group of protesters wearing black masks and carrying glittering flags reportedly arrived on scene. Shortly thereafter, the group reportedly attacked the police barricades, shot firecrackers at the building, and broke windows. Fifteen minutes later, a police officer announced that the event had been cancelled.
According to the Berkeley Police Department, physical altercations had broken out in the crowd, protesters used bricks and aluminum bats as weapons and to destroy property, and a fire was set on Sproul Plaza on campus. Authorities ordered campus buildings locked down. Further fighting and vandalism was later reported in downtown Berkeley that night. It has been estimated that the damage caused to the UC Berkeley campus has cost the university $100,000.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about violence and the destruction of university property during a campus protest. Students and other members of higher education communities have the right to free expression and association on campus, but those rights must be exercised in a manner consistent with university values, including non-violence and social responsibility. Destruction of university property creates unnecessary risk of injury to members of the community, chills academic freedom and undermines harms university autonomy.