Conservative activist Milo Yiannopoulos visited the UC Berkeley campus Sunday, signing autographs, taking selfies and singing the “Star Spangled Banner” with supporters in a largely uneventful and brief appearance.
Around 700 to 800 people turned out to the central campus in advance of Yiannopoulis’s announced visit, and around 150 were admitted to a Sproul Plaza site surrounded by barricades, after being cleared by police checking bags and using metal detectors to safeguard against weapons.
A group in red “Make America Great Again” hats shouted “USA! USA! USA!” followed by a group of counter-demonstrators shouting,” No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” On the edges, hundreds of police stood ready to march into the crowd and break up the occasional shoving match.
Campus police reported one arrest of someone found with a pair of gloves with plastic knuckles, and another for violation of a campus policy barring amplified sound. Two other people were escorted out of the area after refusing to climb down from barricades set up to enhance security for Yiannopoulis.
The talk came on the first day of what had been billed as Free Speech Week, a series of programs set for the Sproul Plaza area Sunday through Wednesday. The Berkeley Patriot student organization announced on Saturday that it had canceled its plans for those events. Yiannopoulos was not invited by a registered student organization or anyone else representing UC Berkeley, and he appeared on campus as a private citizen.
However, campus spokesman Dan Mogulof said that extensive security measures remained in place on Sunday because of uncertainty about who might or might not show up from either the conservative side or opposing factions. Mogulof also pointed to violence – some of it deadly – that has marred other university and college speaking events in recent weeks.
“We’re seeing things here on the campus and in the country that we haven’t seen before,” said Mogulof at a news conference on Sunday for about 30 news reporters.
“These sorts of preparations were justified and needed,” he added.
He and UC Police Chief Margo Bennett answered questions about the Yiannopoulos visit, which is estimated to have cost about $800,000 for extra law enforcement personnel and equipment from about eight to 10 outside agencies. Extra safety measures will remain in place for the remainder of what would have been Free Speech Week, with daily adjustments based on who may visit and other information.
“Whether it’s overkill (or not), we’ll take that – given it (the Yiannopoulis visit) was safe,” Mogulof said.
“Now we want to move on with the rest of the semester and do what we do best,” said Mogulof, noting UC Berkeley’s academic mission and the approach of midterm exams for thousands of its approximately 30,000 students.
Mike Wright, 26, editor-in-chief of the Berkeley Patriot and graduating senior in political science, said he came to UC Berkeley to be surrounded by people he disagreed with.
“As a student, I reject the notion that anybody I invite or anybody I want to hear from I have to agree with 100 percent of what they say; that I’m responsible for 100 percent of what they say,” said Wright. “I want to hear different viewpoints, and have access to that as a student because it makes my education more rich, and I think it makes everyone education more rich.”
Noah Westerfield, a senior geography major, watched the scene on Sproul from the steps of the Martin Luther King Jr. building.
“Free speech is awesome, man,” he said as he watched police monitor the crowds on Sproul. “They should be able to say whatever they want to say. But if you know you’re coming to a place like Berkeley and you know that it can cause violence from people that want attention, I just don’t think it is productive (for you to be here). I just don’t think it is helpful.”
Instead, Westerfield suggested that they should be game for real political debate.
“I think there should be a great debate with people on both sides, I think that would be awesome,” he said. “The proof is in the pudding at that point: people are saying one thing and the other side is saying another. You can actually grab something from both sides.”
He lamented the extraordinary precautions taken for Yiannopoulis and for Ben Shapiro previously, but called them necessary: “This is the only option at this point, you gotta protect people and all these cops. This is the best way they could handle this. Berkeley has been weaponized. It kinda sucks, but I think it is necessary.”