© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Breitbart Editor's Event Canceled As Protests Turn Violent At UC Berkeley

Protestors watch a bonfire on Sproul Plaza during a rally against the scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley Wednesday.
Ben Margot
Protestors watch a bonfire on Sproul Plaza during a rally against the scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley Wednesday.

Updated at 6:40 a.m. ET

A planned appearance by far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was canceled Wednesday at the University of California, Berkeley, after a group of protesters shot fireworks at police, broke windows, started fires and threw barricades.

It's far from the first time a Yiannopoulos speaking event was canceled because of protests, which occur regularly at his events.

In a statement, the university said: "The violence was instigated by a group of about 150 masked agitators who came onto campus and interrupted an otherwise non-violent protest."

It said that at the time more than 1,500 protesters were gathered outside the event.

"This was a group of agitators who were masked up, throwing rocks, commercial grade fireworks and Molotov cocktails at officers," UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennet told The Associated Press. Police put the campus on lock down for several hours. There were no reports of arrests or serious injuries, according to the AP.

On Twitter Thursday morning, President Trump questioned future federal funding for the school, saying it "does not allow free speech."

Sukey Lewis of NPR member station KQED captured images of the demonstrations.

Protesters marched down the street with banners reading, "Become Ungovernable" and "This Is War."

According to the university, the talk was canceled and Yiannopoulos was "escorted from the building and left campus" about two hours before the planned start time of 8 p.m.

Yiannopoulos is an editor for the far-right website Breitbart News, which has promoted conspiracy theories and has been described by its former chief as "the platform of the alt-right." The alt-right is an Internet-based movement widely seen as espousing white supremacist and anti-Semitic views. Among other things, Yiannopoulos has equated feminism to "bowel cancer." He was banned from Twitter for inspiring racist tweets against actress Leslie Jones.

The cancellation isn't unprecedented. Yiannopoulos' appearance at UC Davis was canceled on Jan. 13 after protests, and UCLA revoked an invitation to speak Thursday, according to The Associated Press. A man was shot outside a scheduled Yiannopoulos event at the University of Washington on Jan. 21.

In an interview with Fox News afterward, Yiannopoulos blamed the violence on "the left that is terrified of anyone who they think might be persuasive or might be interesting or might take people with them." He continued:

"You know, I am not a scary far-right, you know, kind of neo-Nazi as some of the posters claim. They put those things on posters to try to legitimize their own violence against me and against my supporters. Instead, I'm just sort of libertarian, gay, Trump-supporting provocateur who likes to, you know, present interesting arguments. ... [The left] just cannot tolerate anyone popular on campus who does not subscribe to their own crazy views."

The tension between free speech and provocation has been a constant point of discussion and disagreement at many college campuses, including UC Berkeley.

Yiannopoulos' talk was "the subject of much controversy here on campus, with people calling for the speech to be canceled and saying there's no room for his message here," KQED's Lewis says. One protester held a sign reading: "Hate makes spaces unsafe so why should we make safe spaces for hate?"

"On the other hand, Berkeley is also known as a bastion for the Free Speech Movement" of the 1960s, Lewis notes.

The university said that while "Yiannopoulos' views, tactics and rhetoric are profoundly contrary to those of the campus," it is committed to the "enabling of free expression across the full spectrum of opinion and perspective."

The Berkeley College Republicans sponsored the event. "The Free Speech Movement is dead," they said in a statement. "Today, the Berkeley College Republicans' constitutional right to free speech was silenced by criminals and thugs seeking to cancel Milo Yiannopoulos' tour. Their success is a defeat for civilized society and the free exchange of ideas on college campuses across America."

The UC Berkeley police tweeted that the lock down had been lifted shortly before 11 p.m. local time, and announced that classes and business will go on as scheduled Thursday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.