When Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists descended upon Charlottesville over the weekend, its echoes rippled across the country and found their home on the opposite coast. The University of California at Berkeley, too, had been a battleground just months earlier, and I watched the war rage from my desk as managing editor of the student paper.
Demonstrations flared last spring as alt-right speakers were ousted from the Berkeley campus, but few saw the fire for what it was. If you asked Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and his viewers, the protests there were a product of “campus craziness” and nothing more.
The very malice that emboldened Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and their white nationalist supporters incited hundreds over the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville. It’s no secret these speakers have embraced anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric. They got a free pass in Berkeley, though, thanks to a perversion of everything the campus’s legendary Free Speech Movement stood for.
According to the media frenzy, college kids were fighting to dispel views that fell right of center. Antifascist anarchists were throwing bricks, smashing windows and setting fire to trees. The campus looked like something out of hell, and the left was to blame for it. But speakers’ prejudice wasn’t viewed as the underlying problem. Berkeley’s complete 180 on the Free Speech Movement, ostensibly, was — proof that people misunderstood the movement’s aims.
A quick recap of what really happened in the 1960s: Frustrated students had taken action after the university administration forbade civil-rights advocacy on campus. This legacy was corrupted last spring. Members of the Berkeley College Republicans, who had invited the conservative provocateurs, were quick to exploit the movement, casting their peers and administration as intolerant leftists.
Even critics on the left, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Bill Maher, condemned the university for its handling of the scheduled talks. (Yiannopoulos’s was canceled, and Coulter’s was postponed.) White supremacists flocked to the city to rally for “free speech,” raising their fists and making Nazi salutes. After each clash, everyone left just as angry as they came, and the campus administration was left to pick up the pieces.
Misguided critics had found their perfect scapegoat in Berkeley. They shrouded the country’s deep-rooted racism by painting students as the products of a progressive education gone haywire. They asserted that the Free Speech Movement had finally died, as if it were some endless crusade. It began in response to specific administrative injustices. It was spearheaded by a specific group of students.
But while the speech that the far-right sought to protect in Berkeley was just as hateful as anything espoused in Charlottesville, the narrative quickly skewed away from racism and toward students’ policing of conservative thought. It took a mob of enraged white supremacists bearing torches and the horrific death of an activist to open America’s eyes.
Charlottesville doesn’t have the same “free speech” issue to address. It was the culmination of what happens when the protection of hate speech is normalized. And it finally shocked us into admitting: Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.
It’s what the “crazy” kids in Berkeley have been saying this whole time. They weren’t trying to shut out divergent or conservative viewpoints. They were trying to shut out prejudice.
Maybe that campus of ours isn’t turning brains to rot after all.