Expert’s advice: Don’t engage with the alt-right on campus

Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center speaks about the alt right on campus. (UC Berkeley photos by Hulda Nelson)

The alt-right is laying a trap for Berkeley students during next week’s planned “Free Speech Week,” a writer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama-based anti-hate group, told students and administrators Tuesday night.

The event, organized by the campus’s Division of Equity and Inclusion, comes ahead of a series of student-sponsored events next Sunday through Wednesday that are expected to bring right-wing speakers to campus for noon and evening rallies, although the exact plans still remain unclear. The list of speakers being circulated, though not all confirmed, includes YouTube personality Milo Yiannopoulos and conservative writer David Horowitz.

While many students are eager to protest the speakers, Ryan Lenz, the law center reporter, encouraged them to be thoughtful in their response.

“This is a group of people that wants to piss you off; this is a group of people that wants to trigger you, as they say” Lenz told the crowd of roughly 100 people in the Multicultural Community Center. “This is a group that calls you all little snowflakes; this is a group that comes from trollish environments online that does things for the lolz, for the giggles and the laughs. They are coming at you with the intent of making something uncomfortable for you, and they do it really well.”

An argumentative, even violent, response to the speakers would give Yiannopoulos exactly the kind of coverage on Fox News he is hoping for, Lenz contended.

“You should make your presence known, just as they do,” he added. “But don’t engage them.”

Lenz encouraged students to read the law center’s guide to responding to the alt-right on campus.

Drew Do, a fourth-year political science major at UC Berkeley who attended the talk, said he appreciated what Lenz had to say, although he still thought he might want to hear Yiannopoulos and other speakers, like former presidential adviser Steve Bannon. Student organizers have not confirmed that Bannon will speak on campus.

“I want to listen to Bannon and Milo to see what they say,” said Do, who describes himself as a political independent. “I’m intellectually curious to see how people think that way, and how they use their oratory skills to convince others.”

But Do said he realized that the tactics of speakers like Yiannopoulos may make it hard to stay neutral and collected.

“What (Lenz) said is logical, and that’s what we should (do), but man, is it complicated — because they try to bait people,” he said.

Oscar Dubón, vice chancellor of equity and inclusion, said at the opening of the event that Lenz’s talk was part of Berkeley’s commitment to open dialogue on campus, and called on students and faculty to respond to hate speech with their own peaceful, respectful protests.

“We have to practice our First Amendment rights,” he said. “We need to use our free speech to call out hate speech, to call out racist speech.”