Why I Helped Shut the “Alt-Right” Down

While different situations call for different tactics, sometimes the only option is denying a platform.

Mukund Rathi

Left-wing activists shut down a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley, Calif., on February 1. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

This piece is part of a debate package written for In These TimesSeptember issue. The print version went to press before the recent white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va., but here the text has been slightly revised to account for these events.

We must remind our audience that it is the Right, not the Left, that has a long history of vigilantism against radical speakers.

For a response to Mukund, read Don’t Give Fascism an Inch​,” by Natasha Lennard.

For a response to Mukund and Natasha, read We’ll Beat the Fascists With Ideas, Not Fists,” by Nathan Robinson.

On February 1, far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had planned to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. Thanks to more than 1,500 students and other protesters (including myself as a student organizer), he didn’t get that opportunity.

Contrary to reports in the mainstream media, the decisive factor in stopping Yiannopoulos wasn’t the broken windows and fires started by a small Black Bloc contingent. It was the courageous presence of ordinary people who were unwilling to allow the Berkeley campus to be used as an organizing space for the far Right. When protesters rejected orders to disperse, police admitted defeat and canceled the event.

In the aftermath, the right-wing and liberal punditocracy charged the protesters with violating Yiannopoulos’ right to speak. Thousands of peaceful protesters were ignored, dismissed as dupes of outside agitators,” or lumped together into the violent protesters” smear. Most press didn’t bother exploring why the 1,500 protesters were there, or why protesters hadn’t demanded the university administration cancel the event beforehand (and thus restrict the right to free speech).

At a talk two months earlier Yiannopoulos had publicly harassed a transgender student in Milwaukee, and at Berkeley he intended to launch a campaign against sanctuary campuses” that protect undocumented students. He was reportedly planning to out these students. As Samuel Farber argued in Jacobin, Yiannopoulos blurs and often crosses the line from mere racist persuasion” into acts of intimidation.” In other words, he takes action beyond speech, and so action is appropriate in response.

Our side should choose tactics based on whether they embolden or undermine the mass movement we are trying to build. When a provocateur targets undocumented students and thousands of people want to participate in shutting this down, we should fight alongside them.

However, this also means our tactics should change in different contexts. With racist persuaders like Charles Murray (an advocate of reactionary IQ theories) who don’t cross the line into intimidation and violence, we can use tactics like heckling and brief disruptions but should stop short of preventing him from speaking. It’s important to note that shutting him down” would not violate his legal right to speak, which is specifically a protection from the state, not from students acting on their own initiative. Nevertheless, we should respect the social understanding of free speech as a broader value. To beat back the far Right, we need to build a mass movement, and sometimes that will mean vigorously debating a right-wing speaker to convince people of our ideas.

For the same reasons, we should oppose attempts by a minority of demonstrators to foreground their own actions and sideline the majority by unilaterally carrying out property destruction. We should not fetishize disruptive or violent tactics, and must remind our audience that it is the Right, not the Left, that has a long history of vigilantism against radical speakers. One recent example is the death threats directed at Princeton history professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor following her denunciation of Trump in a Hampshire College commencement address; the threats forced Taylor to cancel several speaking engagements. The recent neo-Nazi murder in Charlottesville has once again demonstrated that the far Right has nothing but contempt for free speech, and violence against those who use it.

The history of struggle for democratic rights, particularly in Berkeley, shows us why we must defend free speech. Amid mass demonstrations and direct actions in 1963-1964 to protest discrimination against Black workers in the Bay Area, the university administration (under industry pressure) cracked down on campus political expression. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) erupted in response. Over the course of three months, thousands of students protested the crackdown, culminating in December 1964 with a massive sit-in and student strike that shut down the university, created Berkeley’s graduate student workers’ union and won students the right to free speech on campus.

The FSM shows us that the state and other institutions will try to silence us when we are a threat. Pro-Israel organizations, for example, are actively suppressing Palestinian human rights advocacy on college campuses and elsewhere through event cancellations, baseless legal complaints, … administrative disciplinary actions [and] false and inflammatory accusations of terrorism and anti-Semitism,” as summarized by the Center for Constitutional Rights. UC Berkeley has assisted these efforts, most recently in 2016 by suspending a course on Palestine for spurious bureaucratic reasons.

At the same time, the FSM’s militancy should also encourage us to reject the liberal perspective that defending this right means trying to solve all problems through civil discussion. This marketplace of ideas” fantasy is peddled not only by pundits like Jonathan Chait, who decries the spread of illiberal” tactics on college campuses, but also by progres sive heroes like Bernie Sanders, who suggested that students are guilty of intellectual weakness” if they don’t want to engage in a polite way” with far-right provocateurs.

Sometimes words are not enough. FSM leader Mario Savio argued that small group meetings and conferences” are successful and meaningful only when outside there stands waiting a nonviolent standing army.” At the beginning of the December 1964 Berkeley sit-in, he implored students to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels” of the university machine” to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

For a response to Mukund, read Don’t Give Fascism an Inch​,” by Natasha Lennard.

For a response to Mukund and Natasha, read We’ll Beat the Fascists With Ideas, Not Fists,” by Nathan Robinson.

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Mukund Rathi is a socialist activist in the San Francisco Bay Area and a student at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
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