Freedom to oppress: Berkeley’s civil war

Protesters and police wearing riot helmets fill Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley, September 24, 2017. All photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Scene: Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley, 1993. I had recently started my first full-time job, working in Sproul Hall, and was taking my lunch break outside. I was entertained by an evangelist dancing around with a Bible, shouting out praises and curses while onlookers generally pointed and laughed. I thought about how different the scene might have been at my alma mater, Northwestern University, where religious conservatives were much more prominent and admired (although the sentiment at the time was that for NU students, apathy was the dominant political trait). Whereas when I arrived at Cal in 1992, I was told by a member of a student LGBT organization that people with anti-gay sentiments here were fearful and silenced.

Scene: Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley, 2017. It is the beginning of “Free Speech Week”, organized by the Berkeley Patriot student group to bring far-right speakers to the campus. While officially canceled by the organizers, invited speaker Milo Yiannopoulos insisted he was showing up anyway. Given the series of clashes that had occurred throughout the year on and near the campus, some resulting in violence and property destruction, the university wasn’t taken any chances. The plaza was barricaded, and the area surrounded by police officers in riot gear.

Sproul Hall and Sproul Plaza surrounded by police barricades.
Police officers wearing riot helmets stand ready in Sproul Plaza.
Police officers in riot gear line up along the southern border of campus.

The police, which cost the university an estimated $800,000, were supposedly there for the public safety. But given the history of police violence against brown people like myself, I did not feel safe. I felt that the police were there to protect white supremacists like Yiannopoulos and his fans, who wield “free speech” as a weapon against marginalized people who have never been on an equal playing field.

Ironically, I had come to Cal in 1992 specifically to study First Amendment issues. As an American Culture major at Northwestern, I wrote my senior thesis on feminist efforts to censor pornography, which I argued against from a constitutional perspective. I was quite ignorant then about feminism, and as this was long before I realized I was transgender, I thought I was writing from a woman’s perspective when I actually wasn’t. I was also quite ignorant about other social justice issues; raised with respectability politics, I truly considered myself “color blind”, and had only recently begun to shed my Objectivist philosophy and return to a more liberal political mindset.

So when I received a fellowship to study Jurisprudence and Social Policy at Boalt Hall, I was excited to delve more deeply into freedom of expression issues. During that time, the “Naked Guy” was making appearances on campus, and I wanted to write a paper about public nudity for my “Regulation of Vice” class. The professor objected, and wanted me to write about the regulation of condom advertising instead. I was not particularly interested in this subject, but ultimately it didn’t matter, as illness forced me to drop out of grad school after only one semester.

While I eventually recovered from that ailment and worked in a series of jobs at UC, fifteen years later clinical depression ultimately forced another change in my life’s trajectory. I left full-time employment, and increasingly bothersome gender dysphoria made day-to-day life difficult. Soon after beginning my gender transition in 2013, I became much more aware of the plight of marginalized people in this country. I realized that seeing “more speech” as a remedy to hate speech is naïve and ingrains oppression, in a society where freedom of expression was designed by and for the benefit of cisgender white men. Cis white male voices continue to dominate in the so-called marketplace of ideas, which is anything but an equal playing field.

ACLU president Susan Herman delivers a keynote address at Wikimania 2017.

I was thinking about these issues when I attended Wikimania, the annual Wikipedia conference, in Montreal this summer. One of the keynote speakers was Susan Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. I greatly admire much of the work of the ACLU, and listened intently to her talk. But at one point, she referred to Berkeley students who objected to speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos as wanting to be in an “echo chamber”, and only wanting to hear from people who thought just like they did.

These comments irritated me greatly, as I have been accused of wanting to be in an echo chamber simply for moderating comments in my own social media spaces. As I wrote previously on the subject, these accusers may not understand or appreciate that I live surrounded 24/7 by the echoes of people saying that folks like me are freaks, thugs, perverts, “special snowflakes”, or dangerous. These are, sadly, mainstream opinions in the US, not simply “ideas” that marginalized people should be forced to endure in all times and places for the sake of preserving the right of cis white men to speak freely.

I worked up the nerve to address Herman during the Q/A period after her talk. I said that speaking as a black trans person, people like myself have felt targeted and threatened, particularly since the November 2016 presidential election. I argued that a university that championed gender and racial diversity and aimed to provide a place of relative safety for their students should not be obligated to welcome this speaker inside their halls, as opposed to allowing him to speak outside, in the true “public square”.

Herman responded that she understood my concerns, but still felt that the First Amendment meant freedom of speech for everyone, including hate-mongers like Yiannopoulos. She referred to an ACLU case she had talked about earlier in her speech, where two children were arrested in 1938 for not saluting the flag, which was contrary to their religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Herman said that the family’s neighbors were frightened at this refusal. If we were to prohibit Milo’s hate speech based on our fears, someone might prohibit our speech on the same grounds.

I thought this comparison was completely ridiculous, and insulting to boot. Even granting the benefit of the doubt that, given the political climate in 1938, grown adults were literally frightened of young children refusing to gesture to a piece of cloth, those adults were not being threatened with beating, arrest, deportation, or murder solely based on their skin color or gender identity. These are the fears facing marginalized people who are taunted by white supremacists, whether they brand themselves as KKK, “alt-right” or merely defenders of the Constitution.

Protesters, led by Sunsara Taylor of Refuse Fascism, kneel with raised signs and fists.

Despite the oppressive nature of their speech, I don’t necessarily object to Milo or others of his ilk having the right to speak outside on Sproul Plaza, which is publicly-funded and publicly-accessible space. What I objected to was allowing these speakers to book lecture halls and other reserved venues, which gives them a stamp of approval from the university administration and also involves additional costs for maintenance staff and utilities. Regardless of venue, the costs of disruption to student and community life are significant, even if intangible, as is the emotional distress of those targeted by hate speech.

White supremacists are eager to blame “Antifa” for all provocation and violence, overlooking that only a portion of anti-fascist activists engage in black bloc tactics. As a pacifist I do not condone any unprovoked physical aggression, but I do support immediate self-defense. Regardless, again, this is not an equal playing field. Far-left activists would not be acting aggressively if cis white people (and the token people of color and trans folks they prop up) were not coming to campus with their messages of misogyny and racism.

“Trans Women for Trump” (sole representative) Amber Cummings holds a sign reading “Milo Has The Right 2 Speak Here Commies”.

Make no mistake: I consider all supporters of Donald Trump’s presidency to be supporters of misogyny and racism. I’ve attended and photographed countless protests against Trump since the election. But I am not a Democrat, and I did not vote for Hillary Clinton. People who are protesting against Trump and his supporters are not “sore losers”. The battle for Berkeley is not about Democrats vs Republicans, and it’s not even about freedom of speech. It’s a civil war between those fighting for the freedom to continue to oppress, and those of us in the resistance who have had more than enough.

As I write this essay, “Free Speech Week” is still in full swing on the Berkeley campus, despite its official cancellation. Yesterday, fights broke out in the “empathy tent” set up to defuse tension between the warring sides. I’ve always viewed such mediation attempts warily, however well-intentioned they are. I personally have no interest in talking things out with people who think that I am a disgusting freak or that I (a third-generation US-American) should go “back” to Africa. Sure, people with extreme right-wing views probably aren’t going to come to work things out at an “empathy tent” either, but Trump normalized such views with his comments about “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” after the white supremacist rally and murder in Charlottesville.

I wasn’t really exaggerating when I described the battle for Berkeley as part of a civil war. As a pacifist I have armed myself only with my camera, and will continue to do so. But I do expect more blood to be shed in this conflict. The resistance to oppression will continue until all marginalized US-Americans have the same freedoms and opportunities that cisgender white men have enjoyed, unearned, for centuries.