The University of California at Berkeley is once again bracing for chaos.
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro is set to speak on campus Thursday evening, and authorities and administrators are desperate to avoid a repeat of the violent, destructive clashes that have erupted at similar events in recent months.
The storied liberal university and birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s has become a battleground for extremists on the political left and right since President Trump’s election in November. Peaceful protests on and around campus have given way to riots, with black-clad anarchists fighting in the streets with right-wing demonstrators. Protesters have attacked police, smashed windows and set fires, causing more than $100,000 in property damage.
For Shapiro’s talk, the university may appear more like a fortified compound than an academic institution. City and campus authorities are expecting large demonstrations, and they’re deploying a host of aggressive new strategies in hopes of preventing the event from spiraling out of control.
Law enforcement presence will be heavy. Police Chief Andrew Greenwood vowed to make “very strong, rapid arrests” if any demonstrators come carrying weapons or donning masks, according to the Associated Press. Campus buildings will shut down early, and police are planning to surround the area with concrete blockades.
In an extraordinary move, the Berkeley City Council voted 6-3 this week to allow the police department to fire pepper spray at violent protesters, ending a two-decade-old city ban on using the weapon in such circumstances, as the East Bay Times reported. Police can also fire tear gas canisters to control crowds from greater distances.
“We have seen extremists on the left and on the right in our city,” Mayor Jesse Arreguin said at a Tuesday council meeting. “We aren’t distinguishing between ideology, we are concerned about the violence on both sides.”
In February, more than 100 masked anarchists dressed head-to-toe in black stormed through the campus during an otherwise peaceful protest against a planned speech by the conservative media personality Milo Yiannopoulos. They threw molotov cocktails and rocks, beat people in the crowd and smashed through doors and windows of campus buildings.
The event was canceled and the campus was placed on lockdown. President Trump responded by threatening to pull federal funding from the university. Some people criticized police and university officials for not doing enough to stop the violence.
Over the following months, several other rallies were disrupted by bloody street fights between rival groups. In April, a speech by the controversial conservative writer Ann Coulter was called off over concerns about violent protests. More recently, black-clad antifa, or “anti-fascist,” activists attacked peaceful right-wing demonstrators at a rally in the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, blocks away from the university.
Thursday’s talk by Shapiro, sponsored by the College Republicans, will serve as a trial balloon for a bigger and more contentious event scheduled for the end of the month. From Sept. 24-27, a student group called the Berkeley Patriot plans to host a “Free Speech Week” on campus featuring Stephen K. Bannon, head of the far-right Breitbart News and until recently Trump’s White House chief strategist. The speaker list also includes Yiannopoulos and Coulter.
University officials are also anticipating protests then, but told The Washington Post this week that they don’t have the information needed from organizers to guarantee security for the event.
Among those planning to demonstrate outside Shapiro’s talk is a national group called Refuse Fascism. One of its members, Sunsara Taylor, told the Associated Press that Shapiro was part of a broader fascist movement in the United States emboldened by Trump’s election.
“He’s a slick talking, reasonable sounding man, but what he actually pushes forward is white supremacy, is misogyny,” Taylor said.
Shapiro, whose speech will focus on “campus thuggery” and identity politics, seems amused by all the uproar.
“I’m just coming to campus to give a speech about the uselessness of violence in political discourse,” he told NBC Bay Area Wednesday. “And now half the city is being shut down. I have to admit I’m sort of confused at what I’ve done to cause this. Everyone’s treating it like Godzilla is coming to town.”
Indeed, Berkeley is taking extreme steps to stave off potential mayhem. On Wednesday, the city announced it would temporarily ban billy clubs, torches, flags, baseball bats, pipes and other items from public parks and the areas around campus, according to the Daily Californian. Protesters will also be barred from wearing masks and bandannas in three of Berkeley’s public parks — an attempt to contain masked anarchist protesters who damaged buildings and attacked Trump supporters at previous rallies.
“For peaceful protesters, there are a number of things people can do to stay safe,” city manager Dee Williams-Ridley wrote in the announcement. “Separate yourself from people committing violence. Doing so not only keeps you safe, it prevents criminal acts from being done under the cover of a peaceful crowd.”
Shapiro’s speech is scheduled for 7 p.m., but starting at 4 p.m. university police will seal off six buildings near the hall where the event will be held, including the student center and student union, according to the Daily Californian. Police will set up a perimeter around the area using concrete traffic barriers instead of metal fences, which protesters toppled within minutes during riots in February. The central campus plaza, the site of previous violent clashes, will be closed.
University officials have defended the decision to bring Shapiro to campus. “Free speech is our legacy,” the chancellor said in a statement last month, “and we have the power once more to shape this narrative.”
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