There was yet another riot at the University of California-Berkeley over the Easter Day weekend, and judging by the all cell phone video footage that quickly wound up on the internet it was a pretty nasty affair. Such unpleasantness on the campus was a staple of the evening news way back in our boyhood, and lately it seems to be another one of those annoying ’60s fads that is back in fashion again.
This time around the violence is somehow different, though, even if it does seem destined to end in the same desultory way. Last time around Berkeley became famous as the birthplace of the “Free Speech Movement” that demanded free expression of an emerging New Left sensibility, but by now the New Left’s pony-tails have turned gray and its radical demands have become the status quo and the tie-dyed diaper baby grandchildren currently attending the university are famous for demanding speech codes and safe spaces from any sort of dissent. Those subsequent ’60s riots were a response to the Vietnam War, the wisdom of which remains debatable but undeniably involved more than 58,000 American fatalities and countless more casualties and was something you could at least understand somebody rioting about, but the previous riot at Berkeley was a response to a campus lecture by an inconsequential alt-right provocateur and self-described “faggot” named Milo Yiannapolous, which is something that most people would sensibly ignore.
Saturday’s riot happened during one of the many peaceable protests occurring around the country demanding that President Donald Trump publicly release his tax returns, which attracted one of the many counter-protests by supporters of the president, but even in Berkeley that wasn’t enough to cause a riot. So far as we can tell from all the cell phone video footage and some fine reporting by Esquire Magazine, of all places, it was the mix of black-masked self-described “anarchists” on the left and some self-described “white nationalist” types on the right that proved more combustible. The conditions for this happening are especially ripe at Berkeley, but hardly unique to that campus.
Most of the left eschews black masks and brown shirt tactics and anarchy, preferring their safe spaces and ’60s-era notions of non-violence, but they do have among them a troublesome number of people who are quite enthusiastic about all that. The vast majority of Trump’s most ardent supporters and pretty much all of the more reluctant ones have no use for white nationalism or its street-brawling ways, preferring law and order and old-fashioned notions about free speech, but by now there’s no denying they also some rather unsavory compatriots in their midst. You’ll find the extremists almost anywhere by now, and if you throw in the complex issues of race and class that you’ll find almost anywhere there’s reason to worry that Saturday’s riots could happen just a neighborhood away from anybody.
In both the distant and recent past we’ve faulted much of the left for making excuses for the more egregious behavior on its side, and been proud of the principled conservatives who took pains to distance themselves from those hippie-bashing hardhats and newfangled white nationalists who claimed the mantle of conservatism, but these days we have to admit that the Republican president did promise to pay the legal bills of anyone at his rallies who punched a protestor and openly longed for the good old days when they’d be carried out in a stretcher. Even the most peaceable sorts on both the left and right can get pretty confrontational in the comments section of any internet news site these days, all the panel discussions on all of the cable news networks seem more a verbal riot than a real debate, and even in the Senate it took the “nuclear option” to get a quite reasonable and even rather boring nominee confirmed to the Supreme Court.
We’re old enough to remember the ’60s, though, and can console ourselves that the country somehow stumbled its way through that tumultuous decade of far more violent and arguably more reasonable riots. The country had to stumble through the ’70s and all the rest of it to get to his damnable moment in time, where both the left and right seem to have jettisoned notions of free speech and full disclosure, and neither is willing budge an inch enough to disavow for their most unsavory compatriots, but for now it’s just a bunch of crazies pushing around trash dumpsters and duking it out on the always-crazy streets of Berkeley. The cell phone footage makes it look something from the last days of the Weimar Republic, but if they’d had cell phone cameras back then, and everyone could see hot very ridiculous it looked, perhaps it wouldn’t have ended so badly.
— Bud Norman