BERKELEY—A wall of police barricades surrounded the near-empty Sproul Plaza where Milo Yiannopoulos had intended to kick-off "free speech week." Half a century earlier, radical students had launched the Free Speech Movement from those same steps.
Speaking for just a few moments to a crowd of perhaps 30 people—security was so tight that at least a hundred others were still stuck in line—Yiannopoulos vowed to return to Berkeley again one day, and then signed autographs—and at least one fidget spinner—before beating a hasty retreat.
Elsewhere, pockets of antifa-sympathizers and alt-right irritants marched down the streets of Berkeley, hurling insults, and occasionally fists, at each other.
This event Sunday—formally cancelled by Milo in his incredibly brief remarks—was a disaster in every sense of the word, and a sad reflection on the current state of free speech on university campuses.
All parties involved are at fault: primarily the organizers, but also the university, and Berkeley's frustratingly illiberal community.
The Berkeley Patriot, the conservative student group working with Yiannopoulos to host a series of right-wing speakers at the campus this week, screwed up so badly that one wonders if they ever intended the event to actually take place. Even Lucian Wintrich, a writer for Gateway Pundit and notorious pro-Trump troll, thinks the whole thing was a setup. The organizers only made a half-hearted attempt to engage speakers for the event; many who were billed as participating never agreed to do so.
Berkeley administrators, unlike those at other campuses, have maintained they are committed to protecting free speech on campus, and deserve praise for it. Organizers claimed the administration tied their hands, but offered no evidence that campus officials were anything but accommodating in the weeks leading up to the event.
That said, the security measures taken by the university on Sunday were incredibly restrictive, making it impossible for the planned rally to proceed. All of Sproul Plaza was blocked off, and the only access point had a metal detector. No one was allowed through with a bag, purse, or backpack, and the process was so time-consuming that only about 20 or 30 people had cleared security by the time Yiannopoulos appeared. At least a hundred students, and possibly more, were still in line.
These security measures seemed excessive to me. But if they were necessary, it was because of the threat of heckling and violence from left-leaning protesters—which brings us to the Berkeley community. Yiannopoulos, or anyone else, should be able to give a speech on the steps of Sproul Plaza without the protection of police barricades and one hundred cops. He couldn't, and that's the fault of people who have vowed to shut down everyone, violently if need be, with whom they disagree.
After Yiannopoulos's departure, I followed demonstrators and counter-demonstrators as they marched. The left chanted "No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA," while the right chanted "Move, cucks, get out the way, get out the way cucks get out the way." Several tense moments necessitated police intervention. I saw police tackle and arrest a member of antifa who had gotten physical with a conservative. Later, the alt-right surrounded a communist book store and made threatening advances toward the door until police forced them away.
Never before had it seemed so obvious to me that antifa and the alt-right were two sides of the same illiberal coin. A pox on both their houses, and a big fat middle finger to everyone who had a hand in either sabotaging free speech, or shackling it behind a wall of police barricades.