An angry crowd of a few hundred protesters chanted slogans and police made a handful of arrests for weapons and violence as conservative columnist, podcaster and former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro made his much-anticipated speech against "campus thuggery" on Thursday at the University of California at Berkeley.
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“Conservatives have done something amazing,” Shapiro joked onstage, by succeeding in getting the city of Berkeley to “build a wall before Donald Trump did.” Shapiro was referring to the barrier that was erected to seal off the campus' central hub, Sproul Plaza, with a "closed perimeter" around several buildings ahead of his speech. He noted that Berkeley officials had said the security measures taken to protect the event cost $600,000 – “and all because of the Antifa hard-left morons who are out there breaking windows.”
"Go to hell, you pathetic, lying, stupid jackasses," he said, addressing anti-facism protesters.
Shapiro lamented that the auditorium, which had the capacity to seat 1,000 people who had purchased tickets, had, according to him, been purposely left partially empty by the university because of security concerns. But he did praise university and officials in what he called “The People’s Republic of Berkeley” for “unshackling the police to actually let them protect this.”
Shapiro precedes a lineup of right-wing speakers that campus Republicans have invited to Berkeley for “Free Speech Week.” The most prominent prospective speaker is former White House strategist Steve Bannon, but the lineup also reportedly includes Pamela Geller, Mike Cernovich, Erik Prince and Ann Coulter. The Los Angeles Times said that the event was being organized by a company owned by another former Breitbart writer, Milo Yiannopoulos, on behalf of a small group of Berkeley conservatives who plan to start a newspaper called the “Berkeley Patriot.” Campus officials, however, said that the organizers have not yet complied with all of the requirements to hold their event.
This comes on the backdrop of ongoing tension in the northern California college town over free speech and protests. Events held by conservative groups there have attracted both left-wing and right-wing extremists. Four political demonstrations have turned violent in Berkeley since February, when Yiannopoulos was slated to speak. The speech was abruptly canceled when masked left-wing anarchists rioted outside the event. Police and UC Berkeley officials were criticized at the time for giving demonstrators wide latitude and standing aside as masked anarchists hurled firebombs at officers, causing $100,000 worth of damage.
At the Shapiro event on Thursday, the authorities took no chances, deploying hundreds of police on campus in full riot gear, with authorization to use pepper spray if needed.
Police reported that three people protesting Shapiro’s speech were arrested for carrying weapons including pipes, sticks, pipes, and poles. One of the three, Hannah Benjamin, 20, was arrested on suspicion of battery of a police officer.
Inside the auditorium, Shapiro’s speech, in which he laid out his conservative-libertarian axioms and took audience questions, proceeded undisturbed. At the opening of the event, both the administration and a representative of the campus Republicans called for “civility and respect” and warned that anyone who disrupted Shapiro would be escorted out by campus security.
Shapiro scoffed at what he called the absurdity of protesters who called him a white supremacist and a member of the alt-right because of his conservative views, pointing out the fact that he was an observant Jew wearing a black kippa. “See the funny hat on my head? It’s called a yarmulke. White supremacists aren’t so fond of it,” he said.
Members of the alt-right, he said, were not conservatives – and he, as a Jewish conservative and libertarian, who had been a target of online anti-Semitic harassment, was not part of that movement. “You genuinely have to have a screw loose to call me alt-right,” he said, describing the movement as “a very small select group of absolutely terrible people who believe in absolutely terrible things.”
Shapiro was fiercely attacked online by Trump supporters after he resigned as an editor at Breitbart in March 2016, over the website’s handling of an alleged assault by then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on a reporter, Michelle Fields. Shapiro called his boss at the time, Steve Bannon, “a bully” who “has shaped the company into Trump’s personal Pravda, to the extent that he abandoned and undercut his own reporter.”
Shapiro later went on to create his own website and podcast platform, the Daily Wire.
“I have spent my entire career standing up to fascism,” Shapiro told the Berkeley audience. “Antifa is fascist. I am not a fascist and the idea that we are living in a fascist utopia is patently absurd.”
In his speech, Shapiro denigrated “both identity politics on the right and the left” as “bullshit.” He rejected all group identities “including the idea that there has to be a white group that fights back on behalf of the white race.”
Shapiro preached a message of personal responsibility and rejection of ideas he said the left holds that “America is bad and the reason that you fail is because America is very bad” and “the more victimized you are, the more legitimate your views are.”
“Jews have a long history of oppression but I don’t think that means anybody owes me anything,” he said.
It had been widely reported that ahead of Shapiro's visit, a letter had been sent to students, faculty and staff offering counseling services "to those who feel threatened or harassed."
In his speech, Shapiro joked that “If you require counseling because of this speech, you should have gotten psychiatric treatment a long time ago."