BERKELEY — On the University of California, Berkeley campus Thursday afternoon, steps away from the ashes of the fire that protesters lit Wednesday night, a crowd huddled together in the intermittent rain. It was an open debate of sorts, with three people wearing Revolution Communist Party T-shirts in the center, playing defense against dozens of students.
Among the most vocal in the crowd were students upset about the protest's violent turn and the perception that Berkeley students drove that violence. The demonstrators who bashed windows and lit fires "had shields and bats, and yet they were hiding behind students who pride themselves on a tradition of peaceful protest," student Fisher Johnson said.
He believed the destructive protesters were mostly "unaffiliated with the university but used the spirit of the university to advance their own view: anarchy." He said he found the global spotlight on Berkeley — climaxing in a tweet from President Donald Trump — "embarrassing."
The Revolution Communist Party supporters who argued with Johnson and others insisted they weren't part of the violence. But to student Sureni Weerasekera, they may as well have been; they wanted to shut down alt-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, which wouldn't have happened if the protest hadn't turned violent and campus police hadn't intervened.
"The whole concept of civil disobedience went out the fucking window," she said. "MLK and Gandhi would be so disappointed. So disappointed!"
"All it really did is further the distance between us and make us look really bad," Weerasekera continued.
She called the protest more unproductive than productive. Kicking Yiannopoulos off campus for one night is not going to stop him, but a dialogue with him could, she said. "It's like putting out a fire but only part of it, and only temporarily, instead of going to the source of the fire," she said. "Maybe I'm optimistic, but I think that minds can be changed."
Both Johnson and Weerasekera said that while they found Yiannopoulos offensive ("vile and disgusting," Johnson said), they didn't feel he should have been barred from speaking because of that alone.
"It was just as much his right to be here as it was the students' rights to protest," Johnson said.
"I believe the majority of students did not want the violence," Weerasekera said. They wanted a peaceful protest."
There wasn't much destruction of property on Berkeley's famous Telegraph Avenue on Wednesday night as the protest against Yiannopoulos tore through campus and the nearby business- and retail-lined Shattuck Avenue. With one exception: a Bank of America on Telegraph and Durant Avenue that had been spray-painted with the words "Kill Trump."
Around 2 p.m. on Thursday, cleaners said they were well into their third hour of removing the graffiti. Even after those three hours, the walls of the brick building were still smeared and smudged with deep red.
"We probably won't be able to get it all off, but we're just trying to make sure you can't still read it," said one cleaner, who asked to remain anonymous. "Someone pointed out that even if we get it all off today, someone will probably come back and put it back on tomorrow."
Jose Diaz, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, said Thursday afternoon that he hoped Trump's tweet referencing the destructive protest at Berkeley will put a "national spotlight" on the school, "putting pressure on the university that leads to a more inclusive and tolerant environment where free speech is safeguarded."
Diaz, a fourth-year political science student and "stubborn veteran" of the Coast Guard, felt "devastated, concerned, and worried," he said, in the aftermath of the protest. Diaz's group was responsible for inviting Yiannopoulos to campus, though he was not directly involved with extending the invitations. Planning for Yiannopoulos' speech — particularly addressing safety concerns around the anticipated protests — was "exhaustive and very tiresome," Diaz said. And likely for naught.
Diaz spent Wednesday night on the second floor of the student union, overlooking the growing crowd and the large fire it started. He received reports of people being injured, like a woman who was pepper-sprayed on camera after she gave an interview about why she came to see Yiannopoulos.
While he found the protest "extremely disturbing," Diaz said something that happened on Thursday struck a more emotional chord.
Around 11:30 a.m., he was giving an interview to CNN when his friend Jack was "attacked by two — I can't even call them gentlemen — two thugs." A fight broke out, and police took the two men into custody, Diaz said. He said College Republicans will watch to see whether the two men are charged by the district attorney's office.
Diaz said that incident, along with the violent protest and a threatening letter specifically referencing him that was mailed to UC Berkeley police before Yiannopoulos's visit, have made him feel personally unsafe on campus.
"I'm very concerned about this atmosphere of intimidation and violence," Diaz said. "At a place I never expected it to happen."
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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