Counter Narrative: On the UC Davis Protest, Social Media, Fake News and Milo Yiannopoulos
Part one: Protest
On the evening of Friday the 13th, shortly after protesters shut down alt-right darling and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ UC Davis leg of his nationwide Dangerous Faggot Tour — one which was slated to feature a guest appearance by pharmaceutical price-gouging garbage bag and enemy of the Wu-Tang Clan (and a majority of the human race in general) Martin Shkreli — a Breitbart report claiming that the protesters involved in shutting down the event were violent in their actions appeared on the site’s news feed, a claim that even the campus police and chancellor of UCD Ralph Hexter are saying is untrue. The Breitbart report details the violence as such: smashed windows with hammers, coffee spilt on a cameraman, flung bags of feces and urine sprayed on ticket-holders waiting in line for the event. Outlets such as Esquire, GQ, TMZ all claimed that Shkreli was the recipient of a dog turd to the face (sadly, untrue). I was there and what transpired was far from destructive; in fact, it was effective.
What I witnessed was a congregation of passionate students who see it as their duty to preserve their campus as a place that is conducive with the exchange of ideas and trafficking of knowledge that a college should ideally be known for without the threat of misogyny, racism, homophobia or anything of the like that counters and impairs the opportunity for truly rich, cultural and intellectual discourse. The protest may have felt especially necessary in the wake of white nationalist flyers that were found a week after Donald Trump’s election. The flyers were taped around Sproul Hall, which houses the language, literature and religious studies departments. The propaganda featured the rhetorical question: “Are you sick of anti-white propaganda in college? You are not alone,” while another flyer claimed that: “Your professors are lying to you to keep their jobs,” with a series of recommended books on the subject of race featured on the flyer; also displayed on the flyers was the internet address of The Right Stuff, an alt-right blog.
Naturally, tense moments were prevalent during the actions taken by students; it’s a protest and today the stakes are high seeing that Milo is an editor and writer for Breitbart and that Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the influential fake-news juggernaut — who once claimed the publication as “the platform for the alt-right” — and now chief strategist to president Trump, is closely tied to him. As a result, the way in which Breitbart is managed, what they choose to publish and the language and analysis they pose, should always come under close scrutiny. But the students did not trash their campus; the students were taking out the trash, if anything. Barricades were pushed, this much is true; doors to the lecture hall in which the event was to take place were blocked by students. There was one single arrest.
Noah Benham, a student at the University, had made his way into the lecture hall in order to “echo the actions of the authorities outside.” Not in an attempt to thwart the scheduled event, but to deliver the message that “if milo would speak, he would do so outside, to the crowd, and not to his followers alone.” The motives were not to prohibit what is being seen as a free speech issue, but to allow Milo to share his message, not only with his admirers, but also with those that do not agree with his beliefs. As a result of Mr. Benham’s endeavor, he brushed against a police officer and was taken into custody. While in police custody at the Yolo County Jail, Mr. Benham felt the officers involved in his processing “acted as kindly and encouragingly as can be hoped for, including a few remarks of well-wishing and support, sure signs that hateful demagoguery is not welcome among the many.”
The protest grounds were occupied by not only those seeking to shut down the event, but also by those hoping the event would go on as planned. There was antagonism between both groups, of course, but there was also conversation between ticket-holders and protestors; an important fact to keep in mind, one that is often distorted and creates an “us vs them” narrative that may be true only to the extent in which its influence is felt. Many of these students are eager to talk to one another, peacefully.
Should it come as any surprise or under any question that students would see it fit to oppose the proliferation of misinformation so aggressively in a place where they seek the closest things to knowledge and truths? By publishing untrue and unfounded reports of violence at the hands of protesters, Breitbart proves that it is seeking to legitimize its brand of fake-news, news which appears as truth to its supporters; a symptom the left partake in heavily and the ramifications of which they should be well acquainted with by now, what with all of Hillary Clinton’s pandering and her condescension towards necessary movements such as Black Lives Matter. In other words, many of us live in media bubbles but don’t consider that media is wielded by the powerful with political aims, often with a genuine disregard for a powerless public. Media is increasingly concerned with clicks. Not with truth. America is a simulacra. Increasingly unreal in every way. And our multiple manufactured realities appear to be folding-in, like the back page of an issue of Mad Magazine, to create something horrible and new.
As news spread among ticket-holders and protesters that the event was indeed cancelled, Milo posted that he would be traveling to Sacramento for a drink and would be sharing his location so that those who would like to meet him may. Milo ended up at the Hyatt Regency in Sacramento where he broadcast the meet-up on Facebook Live. At the Hyatt, Milo took selfies with his fans.
Later, at 1:05 am the day following his cancelled event, Milo updated his Facebook status to read: “I’ll be marching through the UC Davis campus from 1pm today, with Martin Shkreli and the College Republicans, to protest the cancellation of my event last night. Join us!”
Part Two: Milo’s March
The following day after arriving at the quad on the UC Davis campus to see what would come of Milo’s promise to march in protest of UCD’s free speech policy, a young white lady in a comically pointy (and possibly telling) sepia colored beanie approached a friend of mine and complimented him on his choice of sunglasses. She quickly followed this compliment with the ominous question: “Whose side are you on?” A crowd of somewhere between 150–200 Milo fans were assembled some 30 feet away from us; a number which would grow slightly. A couple hundred other people (students and others) stood from a balcony, while still more others aimlessly occupied the quad space.
Milo’s march was set to begin at 1pm; however, it was closer to 2pm when Milo, clad in designer clothes (each article of clothing, along with their cost, are graciously detailed in an article on Breitbart concerning this march) leisurely made his way down the concrete path towards his fans, who, once spotting him, hurriedly flocked to him and flanked his sides.
Upon his arrival, but before the march began, Milo stood upon a picnic table with a megaphone in hand, he was handed white roses (white roses often symbolize marriage, spirituality, and perhaps most prophetic, white roses also symbolize new beginnings), and he spoke to the quad occupied by fans and media, random students passing by about the events of the previous evening and how UC Davis was lying to them about the truth of the event being cancelled. Milo claimed it wasn’t the choice of the Davis College Republicans, the group responsible for soliciting Milo’s presence in Davis as part of his nationwide tour, but was instead the fault of the campus police and college administrators. Asked by a reporter, Milo doubled-down on his claims that there was violence at the event, “I had perhaps a dozen people come up and tell me afterwards that there was violence at the event. Meanwhile the university’s saying ‘it was a perfectly peaceful event;’ it wasn’t. And the reason they’re saying it was peaceful is because when stuff happens everyone wants to know who did it, and we all know who did it and the university does not want to reveal or admit to who did it.” He continued, “it’s the people outside who are hurling insults, making up lies and being violent.”
Directly after concluding his statement, a reporter quickly interjected with: “How has your life changed since you were censored by Twitter,” to which Milo replied, “I got a quarter of a million dollar book deal; I’m very happy,” as he dramatically turned away from the microphones and the cameras adding a surreal cinematic flair to his moment.
Milo Yiannopoulos is charismatic, there is no doubt about that. He speaks with the sophisticated fluidity and colorful articulations of a humanities major — which lead his confused followers to feel that his language bolsters their identities and their cause — but whose rhetorical meaning and heft is similar to Trump’s if he had more than a 2-year-old-with-a-full-diaper’s vocabulary.
Anti-Milo (for lack of a better term) protesters had arrived in time to march in protest of Milo’s presence and motives as his march was underway. As Milo’s march began, it was difficult to see it as anything other than a chaotic gathering of his followers all hoping to take a selfie with him. The march should have immediately struck his followers as a shallow protest, symbolic of nothing other than that Milo will manufacture a distracting spectacle out of this moment for them, and they will have had the pleasure of being a part of it — a collaboration in the politicization and weaponization of social media content.
The media followed him closely, cameras in his face, microphones placed by his mouth. The media all had to walk backwards as Milo marched on. Because of this, cameramen kept falling. The media were literally tripping over themselves.
At one point, a middle aged cameraman fell, certainly damaging his giant television camera. I almost helped him up when all of a sudden a chant erupted momentarily: “Build that wall! Build that wall! Build that wall!” I instantly decided I couldn’t help anyone at this event. I looked around wondering if the chant was about me. But it wasn’t, but that’s not the point either; the point is that chant was directed at someone, on the college campus; this is type of behavior that the students were protesting the previous evening.
Some among the left and right have decried the results of the cancelled event as a infringement on Milo’s right to express his ideas. The Sacramento Bee, for one, called the results of the event a “sorry night for freedom of speech.” But as the aimless march went on, and I watched as Milo supporters shouted “free speech” at the opposing protesters, I wondered whether or not a more nuanced approach to freedom of speech is necessary; isn’t it worth considering exactly what freedom is implicated in speech when what is spoken is intended to galvanize some in order to manifest the oppression of others? There is no such speech associated with freedom if its machinations are attempting to further disenfranchise and remove peoples for the benefit of a single people.
A college is an institution of higher learning, but it is still just a school; a quad is nothing but a playground divested of its monkey-bars and spiral slides; this rung most true as Milo chased protesters from the opposing side, as if it were kindergarten and he were playing at giving the protestors cooties by attempting to force a kiss upon each of them individually, threatening them with the contemporary and obscenely banal act of taking a selfie with them. Content. Weaponization. Witnessing this tactic, one has to consider Trump and Twitter, Shkreli and Twitter, Milo and Twitter. Two of these men have been banned from the social media platform for harassment; and one of them, the one who has not been banned for harassing people, even though he does, frequently, is now our president. Content. Politics. Weaponization.
The opposing protesters attempted to drown out Milo’s contingent but were outnumbered. As a result, the protesters gave Milo his march. Perhaps they felt the real victory had already been won the evening prior. But, perhaps, Milo’s fans enjoyed this more.
The march’s spectacle du jour consisted of a reenactment lampooning the 2011 pepper-spray incident that occurred on the campus during an Occupy movement demonstration which yielded a much memed photograph of a cop spraying a line of protesters directly in the face while they were on their knees; an image and incident demonstrating the deafness to the abuse of students on behalf of the college’s former chancellor, Linda Katehi. Katehi tried her hardest to massage these images and articles off the internet with plenty of her questionable green before being dismissed as chancellor in 2016 on account of conflicts of interest. Milo’s pepper-spray pantomime included Trump supporters donning MAGA hats, employing cans of silly string instead of pepper spray, as they covered Milo along with others taking the “fetal protester position,” as he put it, on the ground anticipating the stream from the aerosol cans.
Ultimately, figures like Milo, Trump, Bannon, Shkreli and so on, are small men with colossal, yet fragile, egos with insatiable appetites for validation. These are snake oil salesmen, white male supremacists, delivering the promise of jobs and prosperity to a portion of Americans who have felt largely forgotten, a section of Americans that have been taught to blame black, brown, women, LGBTQ+, Muslims and so many more cultures, lifestyles and belief systems for their problems; but these salesmen have little to do with politics and more to do with fear mongering through media and manipulation. Do not doubt this. And do destroy all their platforms.
Milo will test the waters once more on February 1st at the UC Berkeley stop of his nationwide college tour, and another on the following day at UCLA on February 2nd. As of this date (January 30th 2017), the protests at Milo’s Washington University stop on January 20th resulted in an avowed member of the alt-right, Marc Hokoana, shooting a peaceful protester. Hokoana turned himself in, attempted to justify his actions to the police who, satisfied with Hokoana’s account of the events, released him with no charges. So I call to you: Do not let these neo-nazis run the show, shut these people down whenever the opportunity presents itself. I’ll see you in Berkeley.