UC BERKELEY — At a hotly anticipated appearance Thursday night at UC Berkeley, conservative darling Ben Shapiro rejected claims from critics — including hundreds who gathered outside Zellerbach Hall in a show of protest — that he is a white supremacist and a fascist, stopping at one point to point to the yarmulke on top of his head.
“I have been spending my entire career standing up to fascism,” he said. “I am not a fascist.”
Shapiro’s visit, which came just months after a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had to be canceled amid explosive demonstrations, prompted police to dramatically shore up security and limit the number of tickets for the event.
Thursday’s event was a test run for the university as it prepares for Yiannopoulos and other conservative speakers, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, to speak at the end of the month in what is being billed as “Free Speech Week.”
“Certainly we have lessons learned,” said the school’s police chief Margo Bennett at a news conference earlier in the day. “We’re thinking outside the box.”
Bennett declined to say how many officers were on campus or discuss tactics, but she said police from all 10 University of California campuses were on hand for the event.
Signs that the campus was prepared for protests and possible unrest included barriers on Sather Road that constricted the usually wide southern entrance to a narrow opening. And a line of bright orange plastic barricades snaked in front of Sather Gate.
“Berkeley has actually achieved building a wall before Donald Trump did,” Shapiro said about the barriers outside the hall.
Rafael Kadaris, organizer of a Refuse Fascism protest, called the perimeter “outrageous.” His group had planned to protest on Sproul Plaza but moved the demonstration.
The protest was mostly peaceful, but two people were taken into custody, including a woman who appeared to spit on police. Officers arrested Hannah Benjamin, 20, of Fremont, on suspicion of battery on an officer and carrying a banned weapon. Sarah Roark, 44, of San Francisco, also was arrested on suspicion of carrying a banned weapon.
Police at one point escorted a group of ticket holders, including outspoken Trump supporter Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman, away from the crowd and through a back entrance.
The university expected to spend about $600,000 on security for Thursday’s speech, said spokesman Dan Mogulof.
“Obviously, in many ways it’s regrettable that the center of campus had to be closed off,” he said. “But we can’t turn a blind eye.”
Shapiro addressed the cost during his speech, saying it was “due to antifa hard-left morons out there breaking windows. There’s a pathetic new movement arising all over the country,” he continued, “and that movement says speech is violent and must be treated as such.”
The sidewalk in front of Zellerbach Hall was covered with chalk-written phrases such as “Your ‘free speech’ kills” and “Power to the people.'”
Jay Wilson, a 71-year-old who graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1968 and remembers visiting Cal as a student during the Free Speech Movement of the ’60s, scanned the chalk work in front of Zellerbach, snapping pictures with his camera.
“It was pretty wild,” Wilson said of his student years. “The feeling then was like this.” He formed two fists with his hands and punched them together. Shapiro should be allowed to speak, Wilson continued, even if what he says is abhorrent.
— Sophia Lee 소현 (@SophiaLeeHyun) September 15, 2017
Cal student Calli Duran also thinks it was important Shapiro be allowed to talk. “I don’t agree with him, but I think he should be allowed to speak,” she said.
A number of school officials, including new Chancellor Carol Christ, agree.
After the university canceled the Yiannopoulos talk in February and halted a planned speech by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter in April for what it said were safety concerns, the university was hit with accusations that it limited conservative free speech.
Christ has made it one of her primary missions to reclaim the school’s legacy as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement.
She had said Shapiro was welcome on campus but also tried to reassure students that the school would keep them safe. The university closed a number of buildings around Zellerbach Hall in the afternoon and created a security perimeter that only students with tickets to the event were able to pass.
The campus, some students said, felt militarized, and the Berkeley City Council’s vote this week to allow the use of pepper spray to control violent protests added to the tension. “It is not a crowd control tool for us,” Chief Bennett said of UC police but acknowledged that she couldn’t promise her officers would not use it in certain circumstances.
The roughly 1,000 tickets to Shapiro’s speech sold out in about 45 minutes, Mogulof said, far faster than expected. “We have no idea who purchased those tickets,” he said.
Shapiro, a 33-year-old orthodox Jew who graduated from UCLA and dislikes President Donald Trump, is far less polarizing than Yiannopoulos, who is slated to return to campus later this month as part of a “Free Speech Week” hosted by the conservative student organization, Berkeley Patriot.
Suspected white supremacist Ben Shapiro, who tries to mask his racist rhetoric by claiming to be jewish, is in Berkeley now #BenAtBerkeley
— Tariq Nasheed 🇺🇸 (@tariqnasheed) September 14, 2017
The Berkeley College Republicans hosted Shapiro. The group has support from the Young America’s Foundation, a national conservative organization that, as the New York Times reported this spring, has received funding from the Koch brothers and Amway’s Richard and Helen DeVos, in-laws of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The group aims to bring conservative ideas to college campuses and counts Shapiro, an opponent of transgender rights and abortion rights who has pushed back at the notion of white privilege, among its most popular speakers.
Shapiro touched on a range of topics ranging from abortion to drug laws but he spent the bulk of his time taking questions from students, some of whom identified as liberal “Thank you for coming,” he told them.
Ivan Runyon, a 21-year-old junior and member of the Berkeley College Republicans, brought his dad’s vintage Reagan/Bush ’84 baseball hat to Shapiro’s speech. As a conservative student on a liberal campus, he said he sometimes feels like he doesn’t fit in.
Students should be exposed to debate, he said, but thinks some at Berkeley, including professors, are intent on “creating a society of (expletives) where everything offends us.” Regarding the protests, he said, “I think that’s the beauty of America.”
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