On a Thursday morning in September, I pulled up to the east side of the UC Berkeley campus and quickly determined that it was going to be one of those days. It was only 7:45 a.m. and already parking-enforcement officers had erected white barriers, blocking off the street where I usually leave my car. I had no choice but to park where I was and walk an extra-long route to class, passing students with to-go breakfasts and police officers with bomb-sniffing dogs.
I soon learned that someone named Ben Shapiro was coming to campus. Ben Shapiro, I thought, trying to ascertain if I knew the name, I have a cousin named Brian Shapiro. By noon, I had figured it out: Ben Shapiro was yet another conservative political commentator scheduled to speak on campus. His goal was obvious: to stir up the student body and, by extension, the media.
Few of my fellow students, however, seemed perturbed by Shapiro’s visit. We were more put out by the administration’s decision to preemptively close six buildings and hire what seemed like a platoon of militarized police officers. These security precautions would reportedly cost the school an estimated $600,000. By late afternoon, fearing that my car would get stuck behind a blockade, I decided to ditch my evening class, a preemptive move not unlike the calculation made by the administration — potentially wise, possibly unnecessary, definitely disruptive.
I was used to such disruption, of course. Ever since the former Breitbart editor and alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was evacuated from campus amid violent protests in February, Berkeley has been the site of sporadic culture-war battles, most of them around pro-Trump rallies or scheduled appearances by conservative speakers.
The media narrative around these events has tended to frame Berkeley students as the violent protesters — and, very often, as intolerant obstructionists and militant liberals intent on destroying our university’s legacy of free speech. We are also cast as excessively sensitive millennials who fear the aggressions, micro or otherwise, of conservatives and the alt-right.
But in these moments of high drama, very few of the actors are actual Berkeley students. The large pro-Trump rallies have not been organized by Berkeley students, and, for the most part, the large counter-protests have not been organized by Berkeley students. Although a conservative student group, Young America’s Foundation, invited Shapiro to campus, it wasn’t students who led the angry response, but outsiders such as the Refuse Fascism organization.
And even if that weren’t the case, even if every single protester at such events were an undergraduate enrolled at Berkeley, the selection would be far from representative of the student body. Most on-campus protests have attracted only a few hundred people. At a school of 30,000 undergraduates, a crowd of several hundred does not impress.
The truth is that daily life at UC Berkeley is, for the most part, rather ordinary. Students work and study, striving to rack up credits and minimize debt. Professors lecture, do research and hold office hours. An understaffed administration slogs through the mini mountain of paperwork that accompanies each potential graduate.
Life gets out of whack only when high-profile speakers descend on campus, at which point the students become collateral damage. We receive email alerts advising us to avoid protest areas. Teachers, citing safety concerns, cancel classes that fall at the same time as the speaking engagement. The police materialize with unsettling speed.
The dissonance between these two states is rivaled only by the dissonance between the reality of campus life and the story unfolding in the national media.
When Yiannopoulos was unable to speak on campus in February, our student newspaper, the Daily Californian, reported that, in a crowd of about 1,500 people, 150 or so violent protesters set off fireworks, threw bricks and broke windows. But those “masked agitators,” as the school would come to call them, were neither students nor affiliates of the university. I repeat: No Berkeley students were involved in any acts of violence.
You wouldn’t know this from much of the media reaction, though. “College students destroying their own campus to block free speech they don’t agree with,” a Fox News host narrated on air, conflating the masked protesters with Berkeley students. “The birthplace of the free speech movement has become its graveyard,” the conservative commentator Todd Starnes said.
President Trump was quick to up the ante, tweeting: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Perhaps most surreal, the HBO talk show host and comedian Bill Maher invited Yiannopoulos onto his show to commiserate over Yiannopoulos’ poor treatment at the hands of Berkeley students. Maher would go on to rant about how Berkeley is “a cradle for ... babies.”
In April, Berkeley administrators were unable to find a suitable place and time for Ann Coulter to speak safely, so her appearance was canceled. To read the spin, you’d think Berkeley students had joined hands to refuse Coulter entrance to some amphitheater.
In September, the four-day “Free Speech Week” was canceled, comically, by the small conservative student group that had organized. They’d encountered massive logistical hurdles. Some openly speculated that the whole point of organizing the event was to cancel it, to suggest, again, a volatile campus atmosphere in which intolerant students have the power to shut down opposing opinions.
Although UC Berkeley is not the explosive environment outsiders imagine it to be, these occasional blips make for a nervous campus environment. In the last month alone, the Berkeley Police Department has sent students 15 protest-related alerts. These notifications give us a play-by-play of road closures and reopenings, inform us of where small crowds gather and often quickly disperse, and warn us about “suspicious” activities that turn out to be nothing at all. Students also receive a steady stream of emails from figureheads in the administration, always repeating the same refrain: We condemn the hateful rhetoric, we uphold speakers’ right to come to campus, we implore you to stay safe.
Through it all, we go to class, study for tests, and try our best to ignore the hype.
Samantha Shadrow is a senior at UC Berkeley studying journalism and media.