BERKELEY, Calif. – A weeklong conservative free speech showcase at famously liberal University of California, Berkeley was supposed to start Sunday. But it apparently ended the same day after a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance by right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos and angry shouts from small groups of competing protesters who came to celebrate and condemn him.
Yiannopoulos blew kisses, posed for selfies and briefly addressed a few dozen supporters at the campus while a slightly larger crowd protesting him was kept separate by police. Wearing sunglasses and an American flag hoodie under a denim jacket, he spoke without amplification for a few moments on the steps of Sproul Hall. Then he led a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” before being whisked away in a car. The whole appearance lasted less than a half hour.
Jake Wall, a college student from Los Angeles in town to visit his girlfriend, described Yiannopolous’ showing as a “meet and greet.” He said Yiannapoulos couldn’t make any points without a microphone and promised his admirers he’d return to deliver a proper address.
“When you can’t speak through a mic, how effective was that?” Wall asked. University officials said a request for amplification, required under school rules, was never made.
A defiant Yiannapoulos announced Saturday that he would appear at an unsanctioned rally despite the sudden cancellation of a planned four-day conservative event dubbed Free Speech Week. The campus conservative group Berkeley Patriot, which had been organizing the gathering with Yiannopoulos, told university administrators that the group would cancel it, the university said.
Yiannopoulos said he was blindsided by the news.
Those hoping to hear him speak Sunday were herded through metal detectors, while demonstrators who came out against the appearance were held behind barricades on Sproul Plaza, the centre of activity on campus during the 1960s Free Speech Movement.
Kat McLain, 26, said she considers herself a liberal but decided to come out to support conservatives’ right to be heard. “There’s no way to come to a peaceful resolution until we can stop and talk to each other,” she said.
University officials said there were no injuries and at least two arrests, including one of somebody allegedly using unpermitted amplified sound. The Berkeley Police Department said at least five people were arrested near campus, most of them for carrying a banned weapon.
UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof joked that the money spent on mobilizing police for the short appearance amounted to “probably the most expensive photo op in the university’s history.” But he defended the tactical strategy of deploying so many officers, saying they had to be prepared for the unexpected.
Campus police Chief Margo Bennett estimated that the university spent roughly $800,000 on security.
Berkeley freshman Alexandria Storm bemoaned the money spent on a huge police presence for an event that went bust. “This is a waste of resources, a waste of student dollars to militarize the police,” she said.
UC Berkeley recently shelled out $600,000 for security when conservative Ben Shapiro spoke.
Berkeley’s reputation as a liberal stronghold and the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement has made the city and campus flashpoints for the country’s political divisions since the election of Republican President Donald Trump.
Yiannopoulos’ attempt to speak at Berkeley in February was shut down by masked anarchists who rioted on campus.
“Claims that this (the cancellation of the Free Speech Week event) is somehow the outcome desired by the campus are without basis in fact,” Mogulof said in a statement Saturday. “The University was prepared to do whatever was necessary to support the First Amendment rights of the student organization.”
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles.