Protesters patricipate in a rally against Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley, California, USA, 01 February 2017.
On February 1, rioting broke out in Berkeley to prevent a flamboyantly provocative Donald Trump supporter from speaking on the University of California campus. Black-masked anarchists beat and pepper-sprayed supposed attendees of the event and hurled explosive devices at police officers; the vandals ransacked and torched banks, retail businesses, and campus facilities. University and city police did nothing to quell the mayhem.
The Berkeley riot is a wakeup call, representing several converging trends in American culture: the virulent anti-cop hatred spread by the Black Lives Matter movement; police departments’ withdrawal from proactive policing in response to that hatred; academic victim culture; and anti-Trump hysteria. Such political violence is likely to spread if law enforcement does not resolve to suppress it at its first outbreak.
The roots of the police inaction during the recent anarchy can be traced back to a vicious, four-day anti-police riot in Berkeley in December 2014, in which Black Lives Matter and other radical groups participated. City police had used tear gas on the first night of violence to stop rioters from throwing bricks, rocks, metal pipes, glass bottles, and other dangerous objects at them. Nearly a dozen officers were injured; one officer, hit with a bag of gravel, sustained a dislocated shoulder. The next day, local leaders sharply criticized the police for what activists termed a “police riot.” So on the second night of anarchy, the department refrained from any crowd-control tactics, such as skirmish lines, that allegedly rile up protesters. The violence against civilians worsened, including multiple assaults, a robbery at gunpoint in the name of “No Justice, No Peace,” and shots fired at a homeowner trying to prevent damage to his backyard. Nevertheless, the second night of riots was deemed a relative success from the police perspective because officers had not had to use force to protect themselves. The official takeaway from the four-day breakdown of law and order was that it is better to allow widespread property damage than to use preventive tactics that risk confrontations with rioters and that might require officers to forcefully (and untelegenically) defend themselves. The department would only intervene in group lawlessness to protect life.
This distinction between preventing property damage and preventing personal assaults is of course specious. Rioters do not compartmentalize their behavior; allowing attacks on property will regularly lead to attacks on persons, in a literal demonstration of Broken Windows theory.
Fast forward to 2017 and the planned speech at Berkeley of Milo Yiannapoulos, an in-your-face provocateur who revels in violating politically correct taboos. (Scandal engulfed the Yiannapoulos brand this week, with the revelation of an interview in which he coyly jokes about adult sex with minors, including his own underage experience with a priest. The Conservative Political Action Conference disinvited Yiannapoulos from its annual event—he had been slated to speak—and he resigned his position at Breitbart News.) On February 1, both campus and city police were woefully understaffed in preparation for Milo’s speech, undoubtedly due to the prevailing law enforcement philosophy of not looking “confrontational.” Bay Area activists had complained during the 2014 “F—k the Police protests,” as such anti-cop riots are locally known, that seeing police in riot gear made them feel anxious. But serious conflict at the Milo event was a certainty, and the appearance of dozens of so-called “black bloc” anarchists should not have been a surprise; these lawless assailants have been a regular feature of Bay Area protests since the early 2000s.
When flaming rockets started flying at the student union where Yiannapoulos was scheduled to speak, the University of California campus police retreated to the inside of the building and never reemerged. When the rioters fanned out to city streets (even though Milo’s speech had already been cancelled), police commanders had neither the tactical tools nor the manpower to crack down on the chaos. Only one arrest was made the entire night, by school police, for failing to disperse. The rioters most certainly took notice of their unimpeded reign. The violence continued the next day, with physical assaults against Berkeley student Republicans, both on and off campus.
The next week, the Berkeley student newspaper invited several current and former columnists to justify the anti-Milo violence. It was an easy assignment. The writers needed merely to recycle the maudlin victimology rhetoric that university administrators and faculty had fed them for years. It is a given on college campuses that an ever-expanding congeries of victim groups is under virtually lethal assault from all-encompassing racism. Allegedly “marginalized” students need “allies” in order to survive their college experience, as if they are attending classes in a war zone. Berkeley’s Division of Equity and Inclusion has erected banners on campus that urge students to “create an environment where people other than yourself can exist,” as if anyone is at risk of not being allowed to “exist” on Berkeley’s welcoming campus.
People protest against Milo Yiannopoulos' planned appearance at UC Berkeley
So it was no surprise that one of the pro-violence columnists wrote that he would “fight tooth and nail for the right to exist.” (And fight he did, by his own proud confession.) Allowing Yiannapoulos to speak “could have endangered campus students . . . over their identities,” he said. Another columnist opined that the black bloc’s attacks were “not acts of violence. They were acts of self-defense.” Such thinking accords with the hundred-plus faculty who sought to close down the speech on the ground that Yiannapoulos “actually harms students through defamatory and harassing actions.”
The police were the real culprits, according to another columnist. They are “violent agents of the state” who “create an atmosphere that perpetuates violence on community members” merely by their presence in riot gear. The expectation of “peaceful dialogue” was itself a “violent act.”
Several Berkeley professors circulated emails downplaying the significance of the violence. Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French, reported to her fellow profs about the anarchy on campus: “Mostly 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 cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” [emphasis in original]. (In fact, a woman was pepper-sprayed while giving an interview and her husband was beaten so badly that several ribs were broken, among other assaults on campus.)
A San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Otis Taylor, paid poetic homage to the “soft raindrops” and “artificial snow” of the riot’s shattered glass and echoed the notion that it was Yiannapoulos who “incites” violence; the rioters were merely rejecting bigotry. Taylor correctly observed that the “protest” (a.k.a. riot) was as much about Donald Trump as about Yiannapoulos: “If the president thinks his inauguration was a celebration of his views, the after-party taking place in the streets should be a potent reminder of how differently people view the world. And him.”
Taylor’s analysis provides a window into the future. Absent a radical change in police morale, periodic rioting and assaults on perceived Trump supporters and other disfavored persons will likely continue. Those assaults began before the inauguration; they have continued since then. In the Black Lives Matter era, police officers are hunkered down, fearful of using lawful tactics that will be labelled racist by politicians and the mainstream media. This is not just a Bay Area phenomenon. The listless response to the Baltimore rioting in 2015 anticipated the Berkeley passivity. The ideology of victimhood, pumped into the body politic by universities, easily morphs into a justification not just for the suppression of speech but also for violent resistance to imagined oppressors. College graduates have been told for years that the U.S. is systemically racist and unjust; the rioters’ nauseating sense of entitlement to destroy other people’s property and to sucker-punch ideological foes is a natural extension of this profound delegitimation of the American polity.
In 1838, speaking at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln warned that “there is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.” When the perpetrators of such injustice go unpunished, Lincoln said, “the lawless in spirit are encouraged to become lawless in practice.” The nation’s police must show an unwavering determination to restore order when it collapses; intelligence officers, including the FBI, must pay particular attention to rooting out mask-wearing anarchists. California and other states have laws against wearing masks to facilitate the commission of crimes. Politically correct concerns about head scarfs should not inhibit a crackdown on this pernicious trend.
Various pro-Trump groups have announced a freedom of speech march in Berkeley for March 4; By Any Means Necessary, a left-wing organization that participated in the Milo riots, has declared: “Bring it on.” Depending on who shows up, it may be the next test of the condition of law and order in the U.S.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of The War on Cops.