Inside Zellerbach Hall on Thursday night, conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro delivered his speech as planned to an engaged, respectful audience estimated at 600 to 700 people. Police were present inside the hall, but not highly visible, and no hecklers disrupted the hour-and-half-long event.
Outside, as many as 1,000 people were gathered — some protesters, others onlookers — and a group of up to 50 students occupied a breezeway at the ASUC Student Union, where they’d put up a sign, “Students Against Fascism and War,” and interacted with the crowd. They exited the building calmly just before the Zellerbach event ended at 9 p.m.
“There’s a sense of relief and satisfaction that the event was able to go forward without disruption, that those who chose to protest did so in largely nonviolent ways and that, overall, things went as well as could be expected,” said UC Berkeley Assistant Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Dan Mogulof, at a media briefing later that night.
UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennett said the event was “orderly,” attended by people who were “respectful and interested” in the speaker and that it concluded peacefully.
No arrests were made by campus police until around 9 p.m., when a woman not affiliated with the university climbed over a barricade on Upper Sproul Plaza. Earlier in the day, police had set up a closed perimeter around Zellerbach Hall and surrounding buildings, and the campus’s César E. Chávez Student Center, Alumni House, Sproul Hall and the ASUC Student Union were closed.
Bennett said the City of Berkeley had made “four or five” arrests before the Shapiro event ended. While she would not say how many officers, some in riot gear, were on duty Thursday, she confirmed that UCPD had been aided by law enforcement from neighboring counties including Contra Costa, Solano and Monterey. “We reached far,” she said.
The police chief and Mogulof estimated that security for the event cost the campus $600,000, more than had been spent when Milo Yiannopoulos visited Berkeley on Feb. 1. Said Bennett, “The campus administration was totally supportive of the police department and efforts to make sure that our priorities would be met – safety for all and a successful completion of the speaking event tonight.”
“We have no regrets for having assembled the forces that we did and for providing police with the resources they requested,” Mogulof added. “It certainly didn’t hurt, and there is reason to believe that it deterred those who might have come with mal intent.”
Student Troy Worden, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, the student group that co-hosted Shapiro’s visit, said he felt the event “went well. When the police do their job, everyone’s First Amendment rights and physical safety is secure.”
Shapiro, who received a standing ovation as he approached the podium, delivered familiar remarks about identity politics for about 25 minutes and then engaged in a lengthy Q and A with students.
“I like the way Ben Shapiro talks,” said Trinidad Arceo, a transfer student from Pittsburg and the father of two, but he added that the police presence was “overkill.”
Not all students were drawn to the politics of the event. Maurice Ang, a junior, said he’d come to the lively corner of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue to see what the fuss was all about.
“I am here for school, not activism,” he said, while sipping a boba drink. “I don’t think Berkeley should host any controversial speakers, on either side. I don’t want my tuition paying for security and stuff when it could be allocated for more important things like mental health treatment.”
Ang added that students with an interest in political activism should find avenues to express themselves that don’t tie up resources meant for the broader student body.
Later this month, from Sept. 24 to 27, there are tentative plans for four days on campus of what’s being billed as Free Speech Week, headlined by Yiannopoulos.
“Today’s event is over, and now we’ll look for lessons learned as well as gather as much information as we can to plan for the next event,” said Bennett. “This is where our work on that one begins.”