Being in the middle of Free Speech mania at UC Berkeley is confusing and disheartening. I have issues with the right, who argue that the Free Speech Movement is dead. As if the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, which fought for open conversation and political dialogue, is comparable to their fight to normalize hate speech. I have issues with the left, especially the violent left, who think that causing massive commotion and creating dangerous spectacles is the best way to combat the equally inflammatory ideas of speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos (when really it’s just giving them more attention and making them seem like victims). I have issues with my university, which seems to prioritize correcting its public image over the safety and well-being of students.
But there is one group of people that no one is talking about, a group of people that disappoints me the most. And I am meeting more and more of them.
I hear people around me on campus asking each other if they are going to “watch” the protest later that day. I open my Snapchat and see my peers posting videos of the barricades and police forces on their stories with captions like “Typical Berkeley LOL.” I go on Instagram and Facebook to find my feed filled with students posting selfies with police officers stationed on the south side of campus. People in the dining halls and between classes talk excitedly about how many helicopters there are, how exciting the protest is, and whether or not it will get violent.
These are the people I take the biggest issue with. The people who go to the protest not to protest, but as a form of entertainment. You haven’t had the quintessential Berkeley experience until you’ve seen a massive protest, right? They watch joyfully as arrests are made and damage is done; they love the spectacle. They vlog the whole scene, showing all their friends from home how crazy their campus is, and how cool it is for them to be right in the middle of it.
It is one thing to cover an event for a journalistic purpose. It is one thing to make a statement about the event and use social media as a medium for that. Perhaps you want to argue that the university should not be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on security in a single week, and you use footage of the protest as evidence. That is one thing. But these people who are not invested in these issues whatsoever and go for their own enjoyment are completely another.
These issues are not about you. You clearly do not care about free speech or hate speech or the right to peaceful protest and to have one’s voice heard. It doesn’t matter to you who is speaking or what is being protested. That would be perfectly fine if you just stayed home. But to make light of the whole situation, to watch from afar as people are tear gassed and buildings are set on fire — you are undermining the purpose of everyone who had a reason to be there. You support violence and inflammation for your own pleasure.
As UC Berkeley jumps into Free Speech Week, whatever that means at this point, I encourage these people to educate themselves on the issues at hand. They are very serious, whatever side you choose to take. And if you don’t have an opinion, don’t go to the protest. You are disrespecting not only the people involved, but the ideas being debated and the nature of protest as a whole.