This Sunday saw yet another clash between political extremes, allowing radical politics to overshadow healthy political discourse. On one side were conservative demonstrators — led by Trump supporter Amber Cummings — who believe that they were participating in a righteous crusade to rid UC Berkeley of its leftist hegemony. On the other side were left-wing groups that call themselves “anti-fascists” while making true fascists proud of their attempts at censorship. The event was marked by little to no violence due to the active intervention of the police, and it is safe to assume that a majority of campus students do not even know that it occurred. Its implications for the future toxicity of political polarization on campus are ominous, however. While a free society must always make provisions for demonstrations and protests of all kinds, conflicts such as the one on Sunday create a false portrait of rising political hostilities in UC Berkeley when the truth is just the opposite.
Consider for a moment the two opposing sides in the showdown on Sunday and how poorly they reflect UC Berkeley’s political culture at large. On one end is a group of right-leaning activists who believe that some obscure far-left groups, almost entirely composed of non-student activists, have perpetuated a reign of Marxist terror in UC Berkeley. On the other end is a collective of far-left groups who believe that anyone who professes beliefs that fall to the right of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign platform must be a fascist worthy of being violently suppressed. If someone assumed these groups to be representatives of the level of political dialogue on the UC Berkeley campus, he or she would be left with a dystopian image of ceaseless conflict between two opposing camps that cannot make common cause with each other. The point remains that these groups, far from representing UC Berkeley’s culture, act as anomalies that attract the attention of the news media while tarnishing the image of the university and the city itself.
This is not to say that UC Berkeley’s past has not been littered with several instances of actions intended to silence conservative voices. In early 2017, self-proclaimed “anti-fascists” set fire to the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union in order to prevent conservative commentator, Milo Yiannopoulos, from speaking on campus. More recently, Leadership Institute activist, Hayden Williams, was brutally attacked while tabling for a conservative organization on Sproul Plaza. That being said, both of these acts were performed by individuals that bear no affiliation to this campus and, given that UC Berkeley is a public university, it is impossible to ensure that all persons from such groups are kept off campus.
In order to improve discourse on campus, professors and administrators should openly condemn these off-campus groups, including avowedly militant organizations like By Any Means Necessary. City administrators should also give the police more power to deal with members of such groups when they resort to violent means. Additionally, members of the UC Berkeley faculty should refuse to sign any petition seeking to strip a conservative speaker of their platform to speak at this university. These are direct steps that university officials and faculty can take to use their bully pulpit to promote free dialogue on campus.
However, contrary to popular narratives, the reason why off-campus leftist movements such as Antifa have resorted to overt militancy is not because they have succeeded in turning UC Berkeley into a Marxist cesspool. The increasing marginalization of Antifa’s ideology from the mainstream of UC Berkeley discourse drives them to use illiberal means to further their cause. As a result, it is foolish to view the relations between off-campus leftist and rightist extremist groups as mutually destructive. In fact, the relation between these groups is, to a large extent, symbiotic. Both sides in these manufactured conflicts feed off each other’s attention because nobody else will give it to them. If they do not stage spectacles like the one on Sunday, their speeches of fighting tyranny in our time would not draw the rapt attention of the news media. Without their conflict theater, they fear the show would go on.
The political violence at UC Berkeley has made it the focus of national attention. After the Milo riots in 2017, the image of burning student buildings became associated with UC Berkeley in the eyes of many across the nation. Therefore, one can infer that the shadow of illiberal censorship is long and hard to get rid of. In the years since the riots, political discourse on campus has improved but narratives have formed and reputations have been entrenched. Conservative groups on campus, such as the Berkeley College Republicans, will continue to call out violations of our rights when we see them, but will do so in a manner that furthers campus dialogues instead of hinders it. Free discourse is our legacy as part of a free nation and the UC Berkeley community should cherish it, without letting off-campus organizations set Berkeley’s narrative in this regard.