Several weeks ago, we explored the “March for Trump” held in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park that quickly escalated into a violent fracas. Only six weeks after Bay Area conservatives and anti-Trump demonstrators clashed in the park, members of the far-right held a second pro-Trump rally on Saturday April 15, 2017 in the exact same location. As expected, anti-Trump demonstrators initiated a counter-protest which incited several fights. In total, Berkeley Police Department officers made 17 arrests during the April 15 incident as opposed to the 10 arrests made during the March 4 “March for Trump.” The situation escalated into what many Berkeley locals referred to as “Berkeley Round Three” when yet another clash took place in the MLK Civic Center Park on Thursday April 27, 2017. This fracas was caused when far-right extremist author and political commentator Ann Coulter cancelled a speech on the University of California, Berkeley campus after receiving countless death threats from all over northern California.
Coulter, who campaigned for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election has been regarded as one of the most hated and controversial political/media moguls to make news in the past decade. In May 2015, Coulter was interviewed by the famous Mexican journalist Jorge Ramos after publishing a book that openly vilified all immigrants. Coulter, in her own words, said “Americans should fear immigrants more than ISIS. If you don’t want to be raped, don’t go to Mexico.” Coulter has also been the subject of many satirical and critical reviews on shows such as The Daily Show and The View after she argued that her Scots-Irish ancestors were settlers and not immigrants despite the obvious fact that they left Ireland to live in the United States.
Coulter’s decision to cancel her UC Berkeley speech was influenced by a riot that broke out on the UC Berkeley campus when far-right social media mogul Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the university on February 2, 2017. Yiannopoulos has also earned a villainous reputation after posting a long series of videos that proposed arguments to justify Native American genocide, colonialism and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Demonstrators opposed to Yiannopoulos vandalized the event hall he was scheduled to speak in and set several fires on the campus. Yiannopoulos immediately cancelled his visit to Berkeley as a result.
A group of conservative and far-right UC Berkeley students known as the Berkeley College Republicans attempted to sue the University of California for not hiring enough private security to ensure Coulter’s safety. The lawsuit failed which drove the Berkeley College Republicans to meet with other Bay Area conservative groups to demonstrate at the MLK Civic Center Park on April 27. Unlike the situation involving the previous two demonstrations held at Civic Center Park, Berkeley Police officers were successful in preventing fist fights and the use of mace. Whereas BPD officers merely held a perimeter around Civic Center Park during the first two protests, BPD officers patrolled the inside of the park, confiscating weapons and cans of pepper spray as they saw them. BPD officers even confiscated a dagger from a pro-Trump demonstrator.
The increased police presence held the pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators at bay throughout the day. Members the opposing factions shouted at one another but no physical confrontations broke out.
The April 27 demonstration was considered a tactical success by the Berkeley Police Department and the University of Berkeley. However, questions still linger after the divisive debate that broke out with the cancellation of Coulter and Yiannopoulos’ speeches.
Is it ethical to silence a speaker, no matter how controversial and vilifying their words may be?
Should a university be held responsible for ensuring a speaker feels comfortable speaking there if an overwhelming majority of its students are against the speaker in question?
At what point should the constitutional freedom of speech be compromised to prevent a riot or any other violent confrontation?
We may never know what exactly Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos were going to say at the UC Berkeley campus, and perhaps the city of Berkeley and the nation as a whole is better off that way.