In canceling a planned speech by conservative author Ann Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley, school officials made a startling admission Wednesday: they could not guarantee the safety of the controversial speaker or her crowd.
The university reversed its decision Thursday afternoon, but the about-face appeared unlikely to ease the tensions flaring since Donald Trump’s election. Coulter had vowed to speak anyway, and liberal activists were preparing to confront her and her supporters.
The entire episode, which follows a February riot and a melee in the city Saturday, served as a jarring acknowledgment that Berkeley, a one-time cradle of anti-war protests and the Free Speech Movement, has emerged as the leading theater of protest violence in the Trump era.
While conservative and liberal activists have staged demonstrations and counter-demonstrations across the country in recent months, Berkeley has stood out for participants’ eagerness to brawl. In February, the university canceled a speech by former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos just hours before he was scheduled to speak, after demonstrators set fires, threw rocks and smashed windows.
Then, at a demonstration billed as a “free speech” rally by conservative activists Saturday, police arrested 20 people and confiscated dozens of weapons after fights broke out between rally-goers and counter-protesters, leaving people bloodied on both sides.
For anti-fascist groups who chased Yiannopoulos from the city, the announcement that Coulter’s appearance had been canceled was another mark of success. Inspired by disruptive tactics that helped curb an ascendant National Front in Britain in the 1970s, the protests are designed to demonstrate weakness in the alt-right’s ranks.
“They keep getting defeated over and over and over again,” said Yvette Felarca, an organizer of By Any Means Necessary, which confronted conservative activists in Berkeley on Saturday. “And I’m proud that Berkeley did it. … We have a history of standing up and fighting racism, and we have a history of putting into action the real principles of progress and democracy.”
Yet mainstream conservatives and liberals alike viewed the volatility in Berkeley with trepidation, fearing their causes would be co-opted by fringe elements on either side. The conflict has already reverberated in Washington, where Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from the university after the decision to cancel Yiannopoulos’ address.
“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” the president wrote on Twitter last month.
The eruption of violence in the Trump era is not unique to Berkeley, with a skirmish farther south in Huntington Beach in March and stabbings at a rally in Sacramento last year. But the city’s famously liberal politics serves as a ready target for conservatives seeking conflict, while counter-protesters benefit from an abundance of far-left activists steeped in the practices of the World Trade Organization protests, Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
“These are just manifestations of a broader, radical left milieu,” said Mark Bray, a visiting professor at Dartmouth University and author of the book, “Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street.” “The Berkeley protest from the other day represents an escalation in the conflict … It’s not just a game.”
If agitators in Berkeley are intent on physical confrontation, Bray, who worked as an organizer in the Occupy movement, attributed part of the protests’ escalation to a local police force leery to trample crowds.
“Something like what happened in Berkeley would just never happen in New York because the police there … give little leeway on either side,” Bray said.
In a post-incident memo this week to Berkeley’s city manager and council members, the city’s police chief, Andrew Greenwood, said officials made 20 arrests, confiscated dozens of weapons and responded to 11 injuries. But he also said police sought “to not get swept into the volatility of the crowd.”
“A fight within a volatile crowd is not a simple matter in which to intervene,” he wrote. “Intervening on intermixed groups of armed participants fighting or eager to fight presents challenges. Intervention requires a major commitment of resources, a significant use of force, and carries with it the strong likelihood of harming those who are not committing a crime.”
In a prepared statement following the demonstration Saturday, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin lamented “outside groups” that “chose Berkeley as the location for a confrontation with intentions to create violence.” Yet while protesters arrived from as far away as Missouri, three-quarters of the people arrested were from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Levi Romero, a member of the pro-Trump group Proud Boys, said after being arrested on a charge of battery that he did not go to the rally to pick a fight, but “there was this one huge woman, I had to shove her out of my way to get to safety.”
“They’re saying get rid of us by any means necessary,” said Romero, 23, of Palmdale. “We’re tired of getting pushed around.”
John Beavers, a Trump supporter who said he was hit with brass knuckles and suffered a broken nose and split lip, suggested such a level of violence would not be tolerated in other states.
“The difference between California and here,” he said from his home state of Washington, “here and in other states, it’s concealed carry, and I guarantee you if you hit somebody with brass knuckles, people will shoot you.”
Michael Heaney, a political sociologist at the University of Michigan who surveyed participants at protests during the election and earlier this year, said the proportion of activists who favor violence at political rallies is so small that at most larger gatherings “the peaceful people win out in the balance.”
“It’s at the bigger protests where you’re less likely to see violence, because the peaceful people, they just take up all the space,” he said.
But at recent, relatively small demonstrations in Berkeley, Heaney said, “Basically, you had small crowds of extremists, and you had small crowds of extremists on both sides.”
Following the latest incident, city officials reported minimal property damage and said no bystanders were injured, though a weekly farmers market was canceled in anticipation of the violence.
Bob Mulholland, a Democratic strategist in California, said the effect of a restrained conflict is “good for the system … as long as it doesn’t get way out of hand.” Protests that spark conflict draw media attention, he said, potentially inspiring viewers to engage in politics.
But the history of conflict in Berkeley is also fraught with political peril. Amid sit-ins at the campus during the Free Speech Movement, Ronald Reagan defeated then-Gov. Pat Brown in part by harnessing middle-class anger over protests at what Reagan called a "hotbed of communism and homosexuality."
Decades later, some longtime observers of Berkeley’s protest culture fear escalating violence could now undercut the left’s own cause.
“They have this incredible ideology which somehow conflates smashing windows with bringing down the state,” said Lynne Hollander Savio, the widow of Mario Savio, one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement. “The protests in the early ‘60s were never like this, and even the anti-Vietnam War marches, where you had more physical interaction, were not, I don’t think, as mindless … There’s something very creepy about these people, the black-masked people.”
Some conservative activists said they worry about fringe elements on their side, too, even as many of them prepare to return to the Bay Area for Coulter’s appearance next week.
“They’re all trying to co-opt … they’re trying to drive the bus,” said Stewart Rhodes, founder of the militia group Oath Keepers.
“We’re going to have to be vastly more militant in kicking [white nationalists] out,” Rhodes said, while adding that his opponents on the left “can’t be tolerant of people that want to burn the First Amendment to the ground.”
On Thursday afternoon, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks offered an alternative venue for Coulter in May, while warning that her plan to speak on the campus next week “without regard for the fact that we don’t have a protectable venue available on that date is of grave concern.”
“Our police department has made it clear that they have very specific intelligence regarding threats that could pose a grave danger to the speaker, attendees and those who may wish to lawfully protest the event,” he said in a prepared statement. “At the same time, we respect and support Ms. Coulter’s own First Amendment rights.”