On Berkeley and the uses of property destruction as protest

I wanted to present a quick analysis of what happened in Berkeley last night so that conversations can be informed by actual facts. This is not original but I wanted to compile this information in one place as a response to much of what I am seeing on social media today. Apologies that this is not polished but I wanted to get it out there. I was not personally in Berkeley because I was recovering from a cold and knew that if the protest was tear gassed, it would be extra hard on my already raw throat and nose.

I am hoping that these facts will allow us on the left to have productive conversations about the uses of these tactics, to avoid misinformation and hysteria being spread by both sides, and to really speak about being in solidarity with each other even when people use tactics that may make us uncomfortable and trying to understand those tactics. Right now I’m seeing a lot of leftists rushing to distance themselves from “mob violence”, and I think a careful analysis will show a very different perspective on what actually happened.

1) There was at least a month of letters, phone calls, all-campus emails, lengthy dialogues pro and con with students and staff in the Daily Cal (many many articles in their archives), and nonviolent protest actions encouraging UC Berkeley to cancel this talk. UC Davis canceled his talk on January 14 and there was no violence and no property destruction at those protests.

2) After the talk by the same person at UW Seattle on January 20th, a right-wing student activist shot and seriously injured a left-wing protestor. The shooter went free as he claimed it was self-defense. A teacher was also harassed. So there was definitely a possibility of violence between students after the talk as this had happened recently.

3) UC Berkeley is a sanctuary campus in a sanctuary city, meaning that the local authorities do not seek to detain undocumented people. It was stated in an article at Breitbart (link is to archive.org in order to not provide them with web traffic) in advance of this talk that the speaker would be specifically targeting this issue in advance of this talk that the speaker would be specifically targeting this issue, and this speaker has a history of naming individuals, meaning that it was quite likely that he would name undocumented students. As a matter of fact, UC Berkeley Student Affairs was really concerned about this.

4) The same speaker at the University of Wisconsin specifically named and exhibited photos of a transgender student who subsequently withdrew from the university due to the harassment received as a result of this targeting (at the bottom here is a letter from the targeted student including comments from the speaker). This is not the first time he has targeted an individual who has experienced real harm.

This speaker regularly uses the tactic of highlighting individuals in his speeches. In addition, there is precedent for the constitution not protecting speech that incites violence, which is also a line he walks. Protestors sought to shut this down because they had a legitimate concern that harm to individuals might result if this talk went on based on recent history with this speaker.

5) The destruction of the windows and doors of the building where the talk was to take place with battering rams and fireworks was absolutely a targeted, tactical act of property destruction. It was designed in order to cancel the talk without injury to bystanders. If you look at the videos and listen to the newscaster reporting live from the scene (see UC Berkeley protest 1 & 2 at the link), it was an almost surgically precise action and there was a period of calm and peaceful celebration after the talk was canceled. This does not have the hallmarks of “right wing plants who are touring the country,” “anarchists who just want to fuck shit up,” or “rich white kids.” The generator on fire to me looks to be an accident caused by an incorrectly thrown firework. [Kitty Stryker was actually there and has a better analysis of this than I could get from looking at the videos]

6) The rest of the property destruction in downtown Berkeley and in other parts of the campus that is being featured in photographs did not happen until after the police gave the order to disperse. They tear gassed the crowd and fired rubber bullets around 8:30 PM when the crowd didn’t disperse after nearly an hour of the police trying to get them to go. The police in this case tried other tactics to make people disperse and their response was initially quite measured. Tear gas and rubber bullets were probably the only option they saw.

This later property destruction was not part of the targeted action and it likely wasn’t planned or tactical — in other words, this part is a riot. There is a long long history in the East Bay of the use of excessive force (the Oscar Grant case is the most famous) and police corruption. Consequently, the relationship between the police and the community here is really poor. So as soon as shots are fired by police (even if they’re rubber bullets), it reminds protestors of their rage and fear about that history, and they frequently express it by breaking things and setting fires. I don’t think that expressing rage against the police with destroying the property of businesses is ever right or justifiable, but I think that it is worth understanding why this particular thing often happens locally, and separating that out from times when property destruction is used as a tactic.

(Note: This piece was edited after the fact based on reader feedback to provide a more balanced and detailed account of the local situation with the police in #6. I too like most people who live locally am somewhat biased by this difficult history. I also edited point #3 about to reflect that he didn’t state he would name students in that article. If anyone sees a place in which he did state that, I’d appreciate the citation. I’m also looking for a source for the assertion that “UC Berkeley said that the only way they would shut this down was if protests turned violent,” which I did not include in this piece because I can’t find evidence.

I created a second piece that is more about opinions and provocations.

Ashley Lynch also has a great analysis that comes to slightly different conclusions about this speaker.)