Joel Pollak’s description of the Berkeley mob that stopped a speech by PayPal and Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel on Wednesday unleashed flashbacks.
Fourteen years ago at the University of California’s flagship campus, a similar mob, including many looking like they had crawled out from under a dock in the marina at the end of University Avenue, drowned my words with shouts of “murderer,” “racist,” and “Nazi.” They attempted to rip the microphone cord from the wall. A hirsute man “mooned” me. And, in one last indignity, the hecklers seized my writings to fuel an actual book burning.
This all happened under the watchful eyes of two pleasant Cal policewomen, who intervened only when a frustrated man petitioned the hecklers to permit me to speak. Indeed, during the event the organizers asked me to note the just-discovered presence of the officers in hopes that it might bring order. “They’ve been here the whole time,” mocked a heckler. “We f—ing invited the police.”
Back then, Mumia Abu-Jamal, a cab driver who murdered a Philadelphia cop in 1981, served as the rationale to shout down an invited speaker. On Wednesday, Eric Garner and Michael Ferguson, two African Americans killed in encounters with the police under very different circumstances, gave the protestors an excuse to silence an invited guest–and commit violence and the destruction of property in the city surrounding the campus this past week.
The student censors in 2000 and 2014 failed to grasp their own irony. In my case, a protestor held aloft a sign reading “Fight Racist Censorship” as he marched around a bonfire containing copies of my 44-page booklet, Cop Killer: How Mumia Abu-Jamal Conned Millions into Believing He Was Framed. In Thiel’s case, the billionaire reportedly readied to answer a question on political speech when the mob silenced his speech.
Between the book burning I experienced and the heckler’s veto Peter Thiel endured, that parochial inability to step outside of their shoes to understand the hypocrisy they project played out in the shameful prevention of Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking on campus in 2000, the 2001 mass thefts of newspapers containing an ad from David Horowitz criticizing the notion of slavery reparations for African Americans, the firebombing of the home of school chancellor Robert Birgeneau in 2009 by activists shouting–What else?–“No justice, no peace,” and the effort this fall to revoke an invitation for comedian Bill Maher to address the school’s graduates.
The home of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s now serves as the focal point of campus intolerance.
The unfortunate development has its roots in the self-righteous radicals who championed the Free Speech Movement a half century ago. In the fall of 1964, Mario Savio applied lessons learned in the civil-rights movement in the Deep South to Berkeley. Activists wished to allow off-campus groups to proselytize their views on public walkways. The school, seeing itself as an institution of higher learning rather than a political convention, balked. Savio implored students to “put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels” of the machine, i.e., the University of California-Berkeley.
The machine arrested Savio that December as he agitated for expanded speech. Less than two years later, the cops arrested Savio for trying to muzzle the speech of military recruiters seeking to meet with interested students on the Berkeley campus. “Free speech for me–but not for thee,” as Nat Hentoff would say.
The figurehead of the Free Speech Movement misunderstood his campus movement to the point of delusion. “Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights,” Savio explained. “This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley.”
Affluent students weren’t the equivalent of oppressed blacks, Sproul Hall wasn’t the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and Berkeley police officers weren’t Ku Klux Klan Kleagles, or, as Savio maintained, American versions of Adolf Eichmann. The sanctimony unleashed by the conflation of every campus controversy into a life-and-death struggle for justice predictably resulted in a complete disregard for the rights of others.
This month, fifty years after Mario Savio used a police car as a platform and a bullhorn as a microphone, journalists chronicled the Free Speech Movement on its own terms rather than as a euphemism for radical rule-or-ruinism. “I think about the Free Speech Movement as helping to end the McCarthy era,” NYU professor Robert Cohen told the AP in a story commemorating the anniversary of the Berkeley unrest, which, incidentally, occurred exactly a decade after the Wisconsin politician’s formal condemnation by the U.S. Senate. The delusion of the FSM’s leading man proved contagious.
Even mobs burning books or attempting to burn a physicist-cum-administrator’s home can’t shake the notion that Berkeley somehow means what John Peter Zengler does. As Peter Thiel discovered this week, you get to speak at Berkeley–if the audience agrees.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008), edits Breitbart Sports.