Bring back Yiannopoulos to Berkeley? Yes, but this time...

Becky O'Malley
Friday February 17, 2017 - 02:12:00 PM

Something must be done about having a lunatic for president, that’s a no-brainer. But what?

Many of my best friends are attorneys, from my own law school days and beyond. Actually, many of us are lapsed lawyers: retired, inactive or just former, since we’ve discovered that simply passing the Bar does not set our hands on the levers of power as we might have hoped when young.

Nevertheless, of the three branches of government we learned about in high school civics classes, the judiciary still seems to offer the most hope of eventually curbing the worst excesses of the person a creative rapper has been calling “Agent Orange”. Some among us are trying to learn what we might do to defend the migrants among us, but the short answer seems to be not too much, or at least not too soon.

Demonstrations are still needed to focus public attention on the worst outrages, which can pop up anywhere at any time. The spontaneous crowds who assembled at SFO and other airports when travellers were detained were very effective in highlighting the problem in a hurry, though it was the judges in the end who stopped the worst excesses created by the rogue executive’s illegitimate order.

The SFO action was a triumph of its kind. An opera singer of my acquaintance (a soprano) jumped on BART to join the action. On the train she ran into three singer friends, also headed for the airport to protest. When they got there, they decided that shouting slogans might be harmful to their voices, so they formed a spontaneous quartet and improvised harmonically on the words of the protest chants, to great (and even louder) effect. When they paused for a moment, a little girl of perhaps ten came up to the soprano, saying excitedly, “Did you know you just sang a high B flat?” “You must have perfect pitch,” the singer replied. And indeed the little girl said she does have perfect pitch.

You never know who’s watching your demonstration, do you? And eventually the detained travellers were released.

I thought of this story as I was wondering what could be done about the self-indulgent bullies who think they’re influencing public policy by breaking windows during other people’s peaceful demonstrations. Yes, boys just like to have fun, but this makes things worse.

I stand with my peers from the Free Speech Movement: I believe that we need to hear all ideas, no matter how hateful, so that we can combat them the best way, with Justice Brandeis’ classic antidote to speech we dislike, more speech.

Watching the live stream of the Black Bloc boobies in Berkeley a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of how Ann Arbor’s African-American community handled the threat of a similar eruption of testosterone-fueled violence. 

In July of 1967, when we were living in Ann Arbor, Detroit blew up. A late night police raid on an after-hours joint frequented by African Americans was the last straw in a long history of insults to black residents—it turned into what were subsequently called the Detroit riots. Wikipedia: “The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.” And of course, most of the dead were Black, and the destroyed property and lost jobs affected African Americans most of all. 

Though my family was all white at that time, our home was in Ann Arbor’s small predominantly African-American neighborhood, in a period when housing discrimination still ruled, even in liberal northern college towns. We were right across the street from the historically segregated elementary school where our daughter was the only white child in the Head Start preschool program. 

When the carnage started tearing up Detroit, people in our neighborhood organized caravans to take food and clothing to the beleaguered Detroiters. But late one hot night at that time we looked out our front window across to the dark schoolyard and saw a crowd of noisy young men beginning to gather. They were shouting militant slogans, and it soon became obvious from what we could hear that they were working themselves up to create some Detroit-style excitement in their relatively peaceful home town.  

We were worried, because what our neighborhood didn’t need was looting, broken windows and arson, despite the very real grievances of the African-Americans among us. Just as we began to exchange anxious phone calls with neighbors, we noticed a change at the school. Out of the shadows materialized a substantial group of Black community elders, men and women, carrying yardsticks, brooms, rakes and pitchforks. They soon surrounded the cluster of angry young men, and we could hear their voices, though we couldn’t make out what they were saying. After about a half hour, though, the assembly dispersed—old and young wandered on home, no damage done. 

The peaceful protesters at the Yiannopoulos demonstration far outnumbered the violent few, but they didn’t have a game plan for how to stop the destruction.  

Like the Black elders in 1967, we grown-ups should simply plan to surround the Black Bloc rowdies if they show up at our rallies and give them a time out—send them home. We could wear our pink hats from the very effective Women’s March for gravitas.  

And meanwhile, we need to work out practical suggestions for allowing free expression of ideas without enabling an offensive speaker to do the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater. 

How about this? The unattractive Mr. Yiannopoulos could be invited back to the University of California, but this time sponsored by FSM-A, the guardians of the Free Speech Movement Archives. This time, however, the university could take serious adult responsibility for preventing violence by regulating the time, place and manner of his obnoxious expression as ­constitutional law provides. 

He could speak in broad daylight in Memorial Stadium, where a ticketed audience could be screened at the gate for weapons. His talk could even be live-streamed for anyone who couldn’t get in, though I doubt that his dribble would draw an overflow crowd. He could be required to stay to listen to rebuttals. 

And best of all, a lot of people like me who regard him as a cowardly fool should show up en masse to laugh at his ranting. Speech is a good argument against tomfoolery, but non-verbal derision might be even better. 

But what if the Black Bloc boobies show up again up in their comic-opera Junior Fascist costumes and starts pushing people around as they did before?  

One suggestion: cops could “tag” misbehaving masked protesters with paint balls so they would know who to arrest if laws were broken, and the rest of us would know who to laugh out of town, pretentious schoolyard bullies that they are. And I’m sure if we planned ahead we could think of other effective schemes for telling them that with friends like you we don’t need enemies. 

We do need to express our disgust with the ideas of people like Milo Yiannopoulos, but we also need come up with creative non-violent methods for cooling down hotheads before they damage both property and the causes we (and they) claim to support. It’s a delicate balance, and made more difficult by the probable presence of provocateurs from the other side in their midst, as those of who remember Cointelpro are well aware. It’s important not to turn fence-sitters into enemies.