How UC Berkeley’s ‘Free Speech Week’ affected marginalized students
In February, my mom called me panicked by news reports of violent protests on my campus, University of California, Berkeley. The protests at my school, which has a legacy of protecting free speech, targeted far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos’s plans to speak on campus. The university intervened and cancelled the event. In response, President Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from UC Berkeley and Yiannopoulos scheduled a “Free Speech Week” on campus in September. In the intervening months, Ann Coulter also scheduled a speech at UC Berkeley (although she eventually backed out), as did conservative Ben Shapiro.
“Free Speech Week” has since been largely dismissed as an insignificant failure due to its poor organization and paltry audience. But our campus certainly felt the negative effects of this event anyway. For days, police officers wearing riot gear and carrying intimidating weapons swarmed our campus. Helicopters incessantly whined above us and occasionally flew low enough to drown out professors teaching on the top floors of our buildings. I had to show my student ID to personnel guarding the Martin Luther King Student Union Building, a public space and a popular student meeting place. I felt surveilled and appraised by strange men who were supposed to be keeping my fellow students and me safe — one guard told me that I was “such a beautiful young lady.” One of my professors emailed their students with an offer to hold class at an off-campus location, and over 100 UC Berkeley faculty members called for a boycott of classes altogether in the interest of safety.
And yet, many people on campus failed to recognize how the threat of the presence of conservative speakers who utilize misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and generally offensive rhetoric (like Yiannopoulos does) can be a particularly harrowing experience for marginalized communities. For example, a white male student in a friend’s class expressed his belief that students should just continue their daily routines throughout Free Speech Week. My friend responded by pointing out that feeling safe in such a highly contentious and potentially violent political situation is a privilege — an opinion several POC women in her class echoed. He didn’t seem to understand that speakers who attack marginalized people attract crowds who share their beliefs and UC Berkeley is a public university — its campus is open to the public. While the potential presence of these speakers and their fans incites fear among already vulnerable student populations, the police officers employed to patrol campus in anticipation of these crowds can also be uniquely intimidating to marginalized communities who have a history of brutality and victimization at the hands of police.
What’s more, UC Berkeley’s heightened security cost an exorbitant amount of money. On the day of his speech alone, Yiannopoulos, who spoke for about 20 minutes, cost the university $800,000. UC Berkeley — which is already facing dire financial straits, including a $150 million structural deficit — could have put that $800,000 to good use by helping its most vulnerable student populations, like those who are housing insecure (the college does not guarantee housing for any student) and/or food insecure — the same people who, in turn, are the ones often targeted by Yiannopoulos. Instead, the administration put that money toward essentially protecting a principle.
While the lack of violence and low turnout at Free Speech Week could make the event seem inconsequential, therefore, many UC Berkeley students had a very different experience. In particular, the students most affected were those who belong to communities that already faced the most attacks from Yiannopoulos and the alt-right. UC Berkeley should be a place where these students can learn and thrive, and instead they felt unsafe. Even though Yiannopoulos did not get the week-long event he had hoped for, he still managed to inflict damage on a liberal institution by forcing it to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect his physical safety and First Amendment right to free speech, while encroaching on the lives of the people he uses as a scapegoat for the problems of the United States.
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