The birthplace of America’s Free Speech Movement faces yet another test Thursday when conservative speaker Ben Shapiro shows up to speak at UC Berkeley. Shapiro spoke at Berkeley last year without any incident. Since then, events surrounding conservative speakers in the city have turned violent, and Berkeley city officials are taking extra measures to prep for them.
On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council approved the use of pepper spray to deal with violet protesters. In an interview with NBC Bay Area Wednesday. Shapiro said he was all for protesting, but condemned the violence that came with it, specifically the group that calls themselves "Antifa" — militant anti-fascists who show up at rallies in black masks and spark chaos, sometimes setting fires and breaking city property. Berkeley police have banned masks and weapons from Thursday's event.
UC Berkeley has also offered counseling services to their students in light of a slew of conservative speakers such as Milo and Steve Bannon planning to speak on campus. UC Berkeley police will be blocking off several buildings on campus before Thursday's event, and anyone picking up tickets will need to present a photo ID. Police have warned of "strong, swift arrests" if protesters have weapons or wear masks.
Shapiro is expected to speak from 7 to 9 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall at the invitation of the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America's Foundation, a conservative student group.
Here are some exceprts from our interview with Shapiro, who is currently editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, a conservative news and opinion site.
How do you feel about tomorrow? How do you feel about the attention?
“Well, confused, I’m just coming to campus to give a speech about the uselessness of violence in political discourse and in the United States generally as well as the problems with identity politics and now half the city’s being shut down. I’ve to admit that I’m sort of confused as to what I’ve done to cause this … Sort of like Godzilla’s coming to town. I know I’ve been working out, but I don’t think I’m that threatening.”
You came to Berkeley last year, and there were no protests — so is this surprising?
“Yes, it was a packed house, no protests, everybody was fine. I speak at 20-25 different campuses a year, the vast majority of them we don’t have anything like this. It’s pretty obvious that antifa or whatever groups are agitating here have no interest in what I have to say. They’ve just decided that anybody who’s not an anarchist communist must be a Nazi.”
Some protesters have come out and called you a white supremacist — what do you have to say to them and to protesters in general?
Well you see this thing on my head here, this is called the yamaka. Not a lot of people who wear yamakas are white supremacists. Generally we are their targets. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number one recipient of white-supremacists and alt-right anti-Semitism among journalists on the internet last year. So, read a book, learn to read. Literacy can be your friend, Antifa.
Berkeley police can now use pepper spray — is that a good thing?
Yeah, what took so long? I mean, you get violent with a cop, you get pepper-sprayed. Why is this controversial? If Berkeley had shut this down, nipped it in the bud earlier this year, they wouldn't have had a continuous series of riots every five minutes.
What u think about Milo and Steve Bannon planning to come to Berkeley?
I’m no ally of Milo’s or Steve Bannon’s — this has been eminently clear from the ongoing controversy between all of us over the last year and half. Really breaks down into three questions: One is, if you’re a student group, is it worthwhile inviting Milo or Bannon. It’s your choice. If I were a student group, I wouldn’t be inviting them, particularly Milo, who’s a provocateur, not an actual conservative mind espousing a view point. The second question is, does Berkeley have a duty to defend the free speech rights of these people, and the answer is, of course they do. I’ve defended people like Milo who again I think is gross. I’ve defended Milo’s right to be in any venue where he's invited, abiding by law. And then the final question is, are these people going to be saying anything that’s worthwhile? I think it’s a mistake to conflate free speech ability with the value of the message.
What's your message to students coming to coming to Berkeley to hear you speak.
The title of the lecture is “fighting campus thuggery.” It seems rather appropriate given what’s going on. We’re going to be talking about why groups like Antifa are destroying the public debate. We’re also going to be talking about the identity politics of the left more broadly and the identity politics of the right right, and why the alt-right is a reactionary and nasty response to the leftist identity politics that’s become so prevalent on campus. This notion that if I disagree with you politically, then somehow it’s an attack on you personally, it's an attack on your identity. It's a way to deligitimize political debate.
Thoughts about protesters in general?
Protesters I'm fine with. I have always been fine with protesters — in fact I enjoy them. In all my speeches, I always say, If someone disagrees, they should raise their hand and go to the front of the Q&A line. I'm going to do an hour of Q&A tomorrow night, and if you have a problem with me, what I recommend is that you sit, and listen to the lecture, and you bring your question to me at the end of my speech. I'm not here for the riot, I'm more interested in talking to the students. I get paid the same either way. There's a difference between protesters and people who are acting violently. If you protest outside, that's your right. Welcome to America, that's First Amendment, and more power to you. If you decide to get violent with people, now you're being a fascist thug.
Are you taking any extra precautions for your own security?
We staffed up a little bit more.We've been told by UCPD that it would be worthwhilefor us gettingmore than my usual security.Usually we have two members of our security.We've significantly more coming this time. Last time, Young America's Foundation had to foot what was originally a $15,000 bill for what was additional security. They've downsized that to $9,000. But the university is taking this really seriously. UCPD is taking this really seriously, so it would be foolish to not take this seriously.
Your thoughts about the university providing counseling to students in case they need it after your speech?
If you need counseling becauseI'm talking, let me suggest you needed counseling long before you even heard of me.If you really need psychiatric counseling because everything I'm saying is so hurtful and terrible, then you're not going to be able to survive in a free and open society where people disagree with you sometimes.This is the part the administration does that annoys me. Like I'm very pleased they're trying to hold the event, that they're providing security, that's their duty, but the stupidity that the administration has to warn the students about me, I somehow doubt that they would be sending a letter like this if Ta-Nehisi Coates was coming to town.
The New York Times said in its story yesterday that you oppose identity politics, abortion and Donald Trump — who or what do you oppose the most?
In order it would go: abortion, Antifa and President Trump. PresidentTrumpI don't oppose when he does good things. I call myself "sometimes Trump." ... I did not vote at the top of the ticket at the last election cycle.