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When “PROTEST!” is wrong

Bruce Newsome, Lecturer in International Relations | February 2, 2017

Another protest, another unsafe campus, another strike against free speech.

On Wednesday evening, some protesters carried placards reading “hate speech is not free speech,” and they succeeded in stopping the free speech of an invited speaker (Milo Yiannopoulos).

What would he have said? What is the crowd’s counter-argument? Who represents a crowd? In this case, I had never heard of Milo Yiannopoulos until that morning, when I received an email from the university warning staff of a protest, and advising them to leave campus early, so I looked him up. In other words, the protest attracted attention to the person whom the protesters were trying to deny. Now the violence has attracted international attention to the speaker, his new grievances, and the unsafety of UC Berkeley’s campus.

What is the responsibility of the university’s administration? The university was supposed to have prepared, but its efforts to protect free speech were half-hearted and unsuccessful. The police did not man their own barricades, which protesters used as projectiles to smash the windows of the student union, and to turn over a generator, which burst into flames. Some students in passive support of the speaker were attacked with pepper spray, a pole, a bike lock, and fists. The event was canceled before anybody was even admitted. Campus was officially shut-down for hours. The protesters initially refused police orders to disperse, then marched through Berkeley into Oakland. Commercial properties were attacked with stones.

On Thursday morning, outgoing UCB Chancellor Nicholas Dirks emailed the whole community to blame the violence on “individuals who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students, and used violent tactics to close down the event.” He went on to describe them as “100 armed individuals clad in Ninja-like uniforms who utilized paramilitary tactics to engage in violent destructive behavior designed to shut the event down.” This claim is contradicted by the students who admitted to that behavior on the night, and, two days earlier, the student organizer’s use of the campus newspaper to call for students to help to shut down the event.

The Chancellor’s attempt to excuse the collapse of safety amounted to the statement that “The University went to extraordinary lengths to facilitate planning and preparation for this event, working in close concert with the Berkeley College Republicans. Dozens of police officers were brought in from UC campuses across the state. Numerous crowd control measures were put in place. But, we could not plan for the unprecedented.” He didn’t explain what was “unprecedented” about this protest, and I did not see anything unprecedented – prior university emails had warned of the potential for violence.

He concluded: “The violence last night was an attack on the fundamental values of the university, which stands for and helps to maintain and nurture open inquiry and an inclusive civil society, the bedrock of a genuinely democratic nation. We are now, and will remain in the future, completely committed to Free Speech as essential to our educational mission and a vital component of our identity at UC Berkeley.”

There more hypocrisies and contradictions arise: his administration did not succeed in defending free speech; and the normative protests on campus are disruptive to learning: for instance, the “J20 Coalition” advertised on campus for a “UC Berkeley Walk-Out” on 18 January, and on the day of the Presidential inauguration two days later. What was the only printed justification? “an art-build, direct action skill share, and finalizing our campus’s plans” – in other words, a walk-out from academia in order to develop capacity for more protests with no stated purpose.

A coincidental flyer on campus advertised for “walkouts” to “shut down schools, universities, workplaces!” under the headline “Trump must go by any means necessary.” Really? By any means necessary? The same flyer ironically claims to be countering “a fascist movement in America.” Today, academia; tomorrow, democracy?

Some protests are always vicious and never virtuous, such as violent protests against subjects that have not shown any violence or incitement to violence, or protests against legitimate democratic outcomes – one might not like particular outcomes, but in any political system somebody must be disappointed, so to turn that disappointment into a campaign against a legitimate democratic outcome is anti-democratic.

In a free and fair democracy, the normative protests of our time are unnecessary, aimless, counter-productive diversions from more virtuous, old-fashioned forms of political engagement, such as researching the issues, deliberating, and developing an argument before writing to Congress. If that sounds burdensome, and protest sounds easier, you’ve realized one of the reasons for the decline in our political discourse.

Protesting is the least constructive form of engagement: it reduces discourse to what can fit on a placard or into a chant, encourages in-group/out-group separation, prevents discourse between groups, and encourages self-evaluations based on noise and burden, rather than the quality of evidence or argument.

The current normative protests encourage as many people as possible to show up, usually on flimsy justifications (as simple as to express outrage or to show solidarity), to become a big tent or grab-bag of grievances, erring to less and less coherence or focus, until they are aimless and inarticulate, and therefore easy to dismiss, and difficult to accommodate. I can’t imagine, and I have never observed, anybody passing a protest here feeling enlightened by the few words on offer, or the subjective mood of the crowd.

Most protests today seem to serve internal, egotistical, self-righteous needs, not external ends; some protests seem to be ends in themselves – mere excuses to perpetuate a cult or carnival of outrage, on flimsy pretexts, further separating the protesters from the opportunities to learn something true.

Such protests encourage both narcissism – the belief that protest makes one special – and prejudice – a prejudgment not justified by the evidence. Both are subjectively confirmed by being surrounded proximately by a like-minded in-group, but both are actually impossible to challenge objectively given the inherent remoteness from the out-group.

Protests against a person’s views tend to be reductionist: what I saw on Wednesday night is exemplary: placards describing the visitor as a “fascist,” or promising not to “tolerate” this speaker’s views, or promising to “become ungovernable” and “this is war.” These placards are prejudicial – oh the irony to claim to be anti-fascist while reducing other people to labels and to deny them free-speech: did he declare that he intended to speak in support of fascism? where is the evidence that he is a fascist? does he describe himself as a fascist? has he voted fascist? does he belong to a fascist party? did any protester define fascism?

The most virtuous way to show displeasure with a speaker would be to avoid his speech, and do something more engaging instead (some students organized a dance), but disrupters handed the ethos to the object of their ire by stopping his speech; they confirmed the speaker’s prior view that “liberals” are ignorant because they don’t listen, are intolerant, violent, and prejudicial towards their critics. While leaving campus, he posted on Facebook: “the Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.” The President Tweeted on Thursday morning that “UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people.” They’re not wrong.

Comments to “When “PROTEST!” is wrong

  1. UC Berkeley – may as well call it Evergreen College Sr. now. The debates on this forum are pure rhetorical bullshit. Get out there and stop it. A once great institution has become the laughingstock and poster child of out of control US colleges. Where are the faculty, administrators, security? What are these students paying for? Look at the damn videos. Where are the expulsions? Come on…

  2. 40% of US population are liberals, 20% of US population are conservatives, and the rest are independents. If the left can show a little bit more tolerance, a little bit more open-minded to allow the right to express themselves with a healthy debate, the government and the world would have been ruled by the liberals for many years to come. I voted for Obama twice, and I am a pro-choice “independent”, but I am forced to vote for Trump because the left has gone too far to shut down the right with violence, self-righteousness, and ignorance. If this continues, I am not sure if the liberals will ever attract the independents to be side with them. Don’t preach to the choir among yourself (look at this blog full of one-sided arguments except Bruce Newsome’s soul-searching reflection). You should all step out your cocoons, engage the society positively, show why you are smarter than regular intellectuals as UC Berkeley students/professors, how to hold high-ground, and be a role model for how to conduct dialog. Putting pepper-spread on people’s face will forever ruin your chance to be heard again.

  3. If you young folks would watch Hillary’s America you would understand what just went on. The Ninjas are just the Demecratic party’s KKK that they set up before that they still have.

  4. I’m very disappointed in the UC Berkeley institution as a whole who didn’t proactively control the known and anticipated situation and even afterwards seem to at most express a half hearted expression of regret. Permitting and not holding accountable the criminal behaviors of physically hurting others, destroying property to a tune of at least $100,000 with no consequences is equivalent to actively executing the acts of violence and assault.

  5. While I and many others would disagree with the tactics employed by the anarchists at this demonstration, very few historians or social scientists who have studied social and political change would agree with your broad dismissal of the efficacy of protest in general. While there are plenty of examples of unsuccessful protests movements, protest actions have played a central role in major social and political change in the United States and world wide. Beyond the direct political pressure created by sustained protests, they can also play an important role in raising awareness and engaging people who than become active in many other ways. This is an area of rich study. I encourage readers of this blog to look at the research.

  6. As I left campus shortly after 5:30pm on Wednesday evening I personally observed increased police cruisers patrolling around the campus drives, but was bemused to see that no one in authority/security positions had taken note of a group of over a dozen young people staging/prepping for agitation by the steps on Bancroft leading up between the women’s gym and the Hearst Field Annex — these people were donning clothing and removing what turned out to be fireworks and pepper spray from their backpacks, and were coordinating over their phones with others, and it seemed pretty clear to me, as someone who walks through the campus every day to and from my desk, that these young people were not familiar with the area, and were not part of the student protests — the students were mostly chanting and holding up their phones, and seemed surprised and eager to get out of the way when some small number of attendees decided to pull back the barricades.

    Newsome is right that there is less than pure commitment to the ideals of the Free Speech Movement among some of today’s social activists, but he is wrong to imagine that this soundbite/meme opportunity for the alt-right to claim that the home of the FSM represses free expression wasn’t largely staged for the cameras.

    It also annoys me when indiscriminate consumers of mass communications repeatedly go along with the conflation of joyriders and opportunists with protesters — the ‘marchers’ who ‘attacked commercial properties with stones’ were the usual hormonal hangers-on taking advantage of a chance to get away with some mischief, not Cal students.

    • Avi, what I can’t believe is the outrageous role model example of Watch and Do Nothing/Look the Other Way a supposedly responsible member of the Berkeley administration like you set.

      What does it take for you, and other Berkeley administrators to take responsible actions to prevent and protect innocent bystanders on the Berkeley campus from being injured or killed!?

      Things haven’t gotten any better since the FSM in the 60s, and our freedom of speech is in grave jeopardy again.

      • Anthony, I have to choose when to report and when to hold my tongue because the non-emergency line at the campus police department counter in Sproul tends to treat me as a bother or a loony whenever I do call — I have to pick things that I think are worth the trouble. My normal ax to grind is unauthorized commercial promotions on campus property, like credit card applications or free Red Bull distributions that haven’t been approved–it really galls me to see the campus used by big commercial interests to get a new generation hooked on Visa and caffeine. If I had confronted the group I referred to above, the kindest I might have been received as would have been a spoilsport.

        • I sympathize with you Avi, I have also heard that from others at Berkeley, even from pre-eminent faculty members over the last decade.

          Historically, Freedom of Speech is always in jeopardy, especially when the Powers That Be feel their power is threatened, especially in our chaotic Democracy today. Doesn’t matter whether it is powerful politicians or powerful intellectuals.

          As the Durants documented in their Story of Civilization, Democracy is always threatened with being overthrown by the forces of tyranny, and tyranny has ruled more often than not.

          One of my greatest regrets during my 80 years so far is that The Greatest Generation sacrificed everything to produce a legacy of opportunities for a high quality life and passed it on to my generation. So one of the things we did was produce the Free Speech Movement, but we failed to perpetuate it, got fat, dumb and happy and let down our guard. The human race always seems to be in one failure mode or another.

          And now we are faced with immediate disasters due to global warming, worldwide violence and inequalities that we may never overcome in time to produce and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life as a legacy for our newest and all future generations.

          Up until the latest election it was my last hope and prayer that UC professors and scholars would produce actions we can implement to save us from ourselves before too many tipping points topple and make it an impossible dream, and I shall never give up on that even though our politicians in Washington are threatening us with tyranny again.

          As Churchill said “Never Give Up!, they listened to him, fought back and saved our civilization, so now it’s our turn.

  7. Speaking as a person far removed from Berkeley, Mr. Newsome, I read your post with great interest & I am proud that you stand up for both free speech and constructive dialog as opposed to pointless mass demonstration. I found this site specifically to try to understand how a university that is at the helm of protecting women’s right would permit a grown man to get away scot free after assaulting an innocent, peaceful woman directly in her face with pepper spray live on national television. Apparently, this assault was tolerated, because the assailant was on the correct side of the political spectrum (Anti-fascist left), wheres the victim deserved her assault because she was on the wrong (conservative) side of the political spectrum. That logic is Fascist to the core! No real man would ever assault a woman, no matter if she is even wearing a Trump ball cap. I read the chancellor’s statement, and found the usual half hearted comdenations, while accepting no responsibility for the violence that occured. Thank you for standing up to your university system and calling them out on their hypocrisy.

  8. Hey, Dave Pacific,
    What the UC Berkeley police chief “BELIEVES” is of little or no consequence to the facts. The fact is that, a riot broke out, and the campus faculty and staff were advised to abandon ship in anticipation of that exact thing. Another fact is that, she (the chief) doesn’t know the actual numbers, neither of the so called “protesters” nor of the so called “agitators”. Although I would conclude by inference of outcome, and previous recent protests and preemptive recruitment literature for those protests, that UC Berkeley is a campus replete with “agitators”, which could conceivably bump that number up substantially. And quite frankly I find it disingenuous for you or her to assert that “none” of the “masked demonstrators” were students. By your own statement Dave, they were wearing masks, and I seriously doubt the capacity of the UC Berkeley police dept., to have the technology whereby to establish identity well within the less than 24 hour time frame of your comment and the events of the preceding evening. I find your comment just another lame attempt to blame “others”. And due to the level of national attention this situation has gotten, UC Berkeley might be well advised to consider DEEPLY its current course of tolerance for protests of this nature, excuses won’t cut it anymore the campus a staff and administrators are wholly culpable in this riot and all damages.

  9. Very insightful article on protests. I totally agree that protests are very counterproductive and more times than not fall short of accomplishing constructive change on the issues. I’m disappointed in UC Berkeley and their claim to support free speech. I myself don’t subscribe to many of the speaker’s views but I respect his right to state them. UC Berkeley has the distinction of being one of the first academic institutions to support free speech. It looks like now they will be known as one of the first academic institutions to squash that very same free speech it labored to bring about. This intolerance of free speech places a sad blemish on UC Berkeley’s once sterling record for promoting free speech–a very sad day.

  10. I could not have said it better, thank you for that. I have been trying to find words to express how I feel about what is happening on our campuses, you did it elegantly. I propose that instead of going directly into college, our youth might be better served by having to join the service, peace corps, etc. Then and only then would they have a better understanding of the world that they so shamelessly are shielded from.

    I would love to see both sides listen to each other and find a middle ground.

  11. UC Berkeley police Chief Margo Bennett estimated that at least 1,500 protesters attended the demonstration. She believes that at least 100 protesters were “agitators,” and that none of the masked demonstrators were students.
    “It was a very practiced group that came in,” Bennett said.

    (SJ Mercury News)


    ” I did not see anything unprecedented” (Lecturer Newsome)

    • err, that’s the university’s own data that I cite from primary source; you just cited a secondary source. Well done, Dave Pacific, the scourge of Berkeley Blogs, still commenting on everything, without contributing anything.

      • err, since i was not at the protest, i obviously have to rely on secondary sources.
        According to the UC police chief Bennett, an outside group of masked, well-rehearsed agitators precipitated the mini-riot, and i lean toward that explanation, whereas lecturer Newsome dismisses that with some subsidiary fact he found in the Daily Cal.
        In fidelity to the alt-right playbook, lecturer Newsome expands his attack and points the finger at UC students, UC police, UC Chancellor Dirks, and anyone not alt-right.
        The impotent childishness of lecturer Newsome’s ad hominem attacks are totally unsuited to the standard hiring and retention practices of his employer UC.

        • There you go again: the “Dave Pacific” pathology: pretend and insult, using ironically self-damning terms, without engaging the evidence or arguments, while hiding behind a fake identity.

          • Faculty Code of Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures
            for the Berkeley Campus
            As approved by the Assembly of the Academic Senate,
            the Faculty Code of Conduct is set forth in APM – 015 as follows:

            The University seeks to provide and sustain an environment conducive to sharing, extending, and critically examining knowledge and values, and to furthering the search for wisdom.

            Part II

            Professional Responsibilities, Ethical Principles, and Unacceptable Faculty Conduct
            This listing of faculty responsibilities, ethical principles, and types of unacceptable behavior is organized around the individual faculty member’s relation to teaching and students, to scholarship, to the University, to colleagues, and to the community.
            Since University discipline, as distinguished from other forms of reproval or administrative actions, should be reserved for faculty misconduct that is either serious in itself or is made serious through its repetition, or its consequences, the following general principle is intended to govern all instances of its application:
            University discipline under this Code may be imposed on a faculty member only for conduct which is not justified
            by the ethical principles and which significantly impairs the
            University’s central functions as set forth in the Preamble.

  12. Wow Bruce, I will admit that the reputation of UC Berkeley has been damaged concerning the message on FREE SPEECH. However, I do feel that there were others from the outside who came with the intention of causing disruption. I feel things will settle down. However, others will be watching to see if any others who have different views will be blocked by violence. I hope this is not a trend as only the students will be the ones to suffer. Certainly, there needs to be an extensive investigation about who was actually doing the violent acts and arrest need to be made. This will show that the University still does not tolerate violence. Also, while Trump did state the possibility of pulling funds, I don’t think this will happen. He will move on. Have a great day Friend.

  13. There is no free speech at Berkeley, there is only what they want to hear or whatever they say is free otherwise if you are not with us keep your mouth shut. FALSE- They say we have to love everyone but if you disagree with them they will scream and holler cause riots and burn you down, show me the love? FALSE- They say when they go low we go high they have never gone high always gone very low riots hurting people and property if I ever went out on the street and destroyed anothers property I would be put in jail. Last night there was no arrest this is how the Democrats act and it happens all the time and its always ok, You cant be that dimwitted.

  14. I think some of the students must have too much free time on their hands. If they were not receiving so much money and or loans to pay for school, they would have been somewhere working to earn money to pay for school. I did receive some money but still worked 3 jobs to pay for school and bills. I did not have have time to be a vandalizing brat. Universities need to stop spoiling these ingrates and let them learn to be civilized human beings while they are in college. That is more important than whatever they seem to be teaching there. Those who are guilty of the violence/vandalism should be expelled. Student should stop being brats and get a real life!

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