Thursday, February 02, 2017

Berkeley's Partially Pregnant Protests

There's an old saying that a woman cannot be "partially pregnant". Either she is, or she isn't. I'm not sure it's impossible to have a "partially peaceful protest", but at the very least it is obvious that a few well-positioned agitators can, if they choose, subvert the peaceful desires of the majority and make a nonviolent protest violent.

When Milo's speech was announced at Berkeley, I took the boring position of agreeing with Chancellor Dirks' statement more-or-less down the line: It is true that, upon invitation by a legitimate college organization Milo had the right to speak and Berkeley had no authority to block him. It is also true that the decision by the Berkeley College Republicans to invite him speaks volumes about their character as an organization, and they can rightfully be condemned for their choice.

As many of you know, Milo's speech was eventually canceled as the protest turned violent -- apparently at the instigation of a small group of "black bloc" anarchists who were filmed attacking police, property, and bystanders. It is unclear at this point how many of this cadre are themselves Berkeley students -- they may be, but it is also the case that the East Bay has a significant "homegrown"  anarchist set which is well aware that it can get a lot more attention for its antics if it performs them on our campus. "Unclear" means "unclear": it may be that most of the violent actors were Berkeley students, it may be that virtually none of them were. But there is little controversy that most of the people protesting were not violent nor were they interested in utilizing violence. It is also very clear that the violence was not only against property; while I don't think that in of itself should matter, I have seen some smarmy posts that have ignored the interpersonal elements of the "black bloc" attacks.

It shouldn't surprise you that I am deeply opposed to the violent silencing that went on here. Yet I think it is worth unpacking exactly who was silenced here. Milo was, certainly, and that was wrong -- even though he's a repulsive little troll who never should have been invited in the first place. But it's also the case that the majority of protesters had a message they wish to express that was also violently erased. Violent protests and non-violent protests express different messages; here, the few who imposed the former subverted the speech of the latter. To act as if the former and the latter were simply one indistinct entity -- the "protest" -- is to give a violent minority an authority and authenticity they do not deserve. And to speak as if the only "victim" of the violence last night was Milo or those who wanted to hear him speak is to facilitate the very deliberate erasure that the "black bloc" -- and the right-wing media, for that matter -- wishes to impose upon the majority.

The fact of the matter is that there were three speeches scheduled at Berkeley last night. One was by a racist, misogynist, hateful right-wing troll. One was by a group of bandana-clad rabble-rousers who wanted to (in the words of their banner) "become ungovernable" through violent suppression. And one was by a community resolved to peacefully tell the first speaker that his views were not welcome at Berkeley.

The last one was the one with majority support. But the middle one was the only one we ended up hearing.


Batocchio said...

Good take. Thanks.

Ben Faber said...

As always, I appreciate your thoughtful and nuanced analysis of situations, David. I wonder if you can go deeper with me in a couple of directions?
1. My contacts (mostly via social networking) with people in the non-violent protest camp indicate that their extensive efforts to get MY canceled in advance through civil discourse were increasingly met with non-civil discourse including written threats and some physical intimidation/harassment, much of which was directly traceable to BCRs.
a) To what extent do you have info on this, and to what extent does your info jibe with this characterization?
b) From both a legal/doctrinal and an ethical/principled perspective, at what point do individual uncivil harassments amount to a coordinated campaign which should be enjoined wholly, and would one not then also enjoin the incitement that prompted it?
c) Overall, my sense from these acquaintances is that though they were committed to non-violence at least in this case, they are happier with the outcome as it occurred - chaotic violence, than with the doxxing and targeted violence that were a likely result of MY actually speaking. Thoughts on that contrast?

2. MY's campus tour has literally incited violence and left chaos in its wake in multiple cities - that's violence and chaos committed by the people who asked him to speak and came to listen to him. I am familiar in broad-strokes with the idea of 'prior restraint' in the free speech context, but when he is promoting a tour, and promising that each appearance will be similar to previous ones, I want to argue that it's a continuous speech act in progress that has already deliberately incited targeted violence, and deserves to be treated differently. If you straw-polled, how many takers would I get for that?


David Schraub said...

1a: I have no information on this either way.
1b: "Incitement" only covers conduct that would *imminently* cause unlawful action, which doesn't seem to apply here. Individual harassers should be dealt with individually. And I'm not sure what an "injunction" against the harassment on a group level would look like (who is the relevant class enjoined?).
1c: Hard to say. Descriptively I have little information.

2: See above on what is and isn't "incitement". As to the straw poll, depends if the respondents are First Amendment lawyers or not. 1A lawyers would say that if he's doing something unlawful (and incitement is tough to make stick, but in some cases invasion of privacy might work) sue him into the ground -- but after the speech itself (that's the prior restraint hook).