The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Is Berkeley really looking for the protesters who shut down Yiannopoulos?


A week ago ago, I blogged to critique the bizarre theory, advanced by Berkeley Professor Robert Reich among others, that Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos might have secretly sent more than 100 thugs to Berkeley to break up his own speech. My post attracted many comments, including many that seemed to support Reich's theory.

For those who think there might be some plausibility to Reich's truly wacky idea, this Feb. 12 Los Angeles Times article may be a useful corrective. An intrepid Los Angeles Time reporter interviewed some of the "black bloc" protesters actually involved in the attack. Here's what the reporter's article describes:

"[Berkeley authorities] were going to allow it to happen until they determined that it was too dangerous for it to actually happen," the black bloc member said. "So what other choice did we have?"

Berkeley put the blame for the violence at the Yiannopoulos event squarely on the black bloc faction, which campus police said numbered 100 to 150 members. . . .

Videos show black bloc members using firecrackers as a shield to get close to the Student Union, where they pulled down barricades. They took turns whacking at its windows with their sticks, rocks and the crowd-control barriers themselves. The bulk of the blows were directed at the Amazon store. Videos also show black bloc members tackling and assaulting Yiannopoulos supporters.

There is a strategy behind much of the smashing, according to interviews and published manifestos. The bloc pushes back against police lines, opening and holding space for mass demonstrations as police seek to corral and disperse the crowd. They draw pepper spray, rubber bullets and other uses of force. They say they focus destruction on standard-bearers of capitalism: Bank machines and a campus Starbucks were hit after Berkeley called off the Yiannopoulos speech.

"Starbucks is a symbol of global capitalization," the black bloc member said. Those activists interviewed expressed no remorse for the property damage. They said it should pressure the university to think twice about allowing such events in the future. They hold the same regard for violence against people.

This article should put to rest any lingering conspiracy theories about who was responsible for the attack at Berkeley. It wasn't Yiannopoulos—and it wasn't the students at Berkeley—but an organized criminal conspiracy of black bloc thugs intent on creating mayhem. Perhaps Reich (and others in the same vein) will now concede this point and move on to another more pressing one: If an Los Angeles Times reporter can find the black bloc attackers, why can't the Berkeley authorities?

To be sure, the black bloc attackers don't make prosecution simple. As the article notes, the term "black bloc" was first used to describe tight wedges of black-clad protesters in helmets and masks who appeared in street demonstrations in Germany in the 1970s, sometimes confounding efforts to single out, identify and prosecute individuals. But it is not clear to me how eager UC Berkeley is to apprehend those responsible for the attack. (As I noted in my original post, authorities made several arrests that night, but they were not of any of the actual attackers.) And, as the always-informative Heather Mac Donald has recounted, at least some UC Berkeley faculty members did not seem particularly disappointed about Yiannopoulos being shut down. For example, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French, cheerfully noted after the attack that "[m]ostly this was typical Black Bloc action, in a few waves—very well-organized and very efficient. They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancelation order for the [Yiannopoulos] event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt."

I hope UC Berkeley authorities will be able to announce some progress on the investigation soon. They have said that they are working "in close concert with the FBI on an ongoing investigation into the matter." But the same report indicates that the FBI has not confirmed or denied that it is actually conducting an investigation, and it is not immediately clear whether the FBI will find that the attack warrants federal attention.

UC Berkeley, and perhaps City of Berkeley, authorities need to vigorously move forward with their own investigations. Otherwise questions will linger about how is that more than 100 organized attackers can invade the campus without being called to account.