In the glare of the fire and in the throngs of protesters I see a friend and former professor of mine I haven’t seen in a while. I jump from the ledge I’m standing on and run up to him, excited to say hi. He turns around and quickly recoils, looking terrified.
For a split second, I’m confused. Then I remember and pull the black bandanna down off the bridge of my nose.
His grimace stretches into a smile and we embrace, sharing the joy of the moment we just created together. I, dressed in black and with my face covered up and he, with his sign and his friends surrounding him, are ecstatic at the news that Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart editor and white supremacist has just been evacuated from the building. Together we have made the campus a little bit safer.
In a matter of months the real threat of fascism has emerged from the shadows. What seemed like a fringe element to many has suddenly been doing interviews on CNN, trending on Twitter, and gaining seats in the White House cabinet. People who have championed the KKK. People who want my friends deported, imprisoned, or killed. People who want me dead.
And yet, in the aftermath of the demonstrations at Berkeley, the political back flips performed by the moderate left have made it clear what matters, (and, spoiler alert, it isn’t the systemic violence done to our marginalized communities). Suddenly my white liberal friends are demanding I defend the militant tactics that forced the police to shut down the modern equivalent of a Nazi rally. Suddenly the value of “free speech” is being turned on its head and used against marginalized people in defense of White Supremacists. Suddenly my former professor, Robert Reich, is publicizing his own conspiracy theory, which accused people in masks of working FOR the alt-right.
My initial reaction is to be angry. I am angry that you can’t understand why I feel called to fight for my life. I am angry that you seem more upset about the bank windows than you do about Milo’s plan to report immigrant students to get them deported. I am angry that you wouldn’t do what it took to keep him from publicly humiliating another transgender student, like he did in Milwaukee. I am furious that an anti-fascist was literally shot by a white supremacist in Seattle, his shooter later being released by the police, and that the headlines are all about the tree that caught fire in Berkeley.
When I step back and look at my whole self, the same person who fought in High School to stop censorship in our school newspaper, who went to UC Berkeley because I was so inspired by the Free Speech Movement, the person who loved Reich’s Wealth and Poverty course, who believes deeply that the government should never violate someone’s right to speak their truth, I can understand where you are coming from. None of us want to build a society in which our government gets to say which speech is safe and which speech is “inciting violence.” We all want the freedom to speak out. And yet here we are, turning out to shut down a public speaking event.
At first glance this could seem like an inconsistency. But I ask people who are sitting in discomfort right now to look a little deeper. Because I went to UC Berkeley on Wednesday night ready to do whatever was necessary to keep Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I am a former UC Berkeley student who showed up in black bloc, ready to break shit, ready to stop the event from happening. I am queer. I am trans. I am femme. I am fighting for survival. I am fighting for my people.
The slave owning authors of the First Amendment did not guarantee Free Speech because they wanted to mandate that everyone engage only in civil discourse with each other. They did so because they believed that the government should not be permitted to suppress ideas that would seek to undermine it. They believed that revolution is important and necessary, and that those who criticize the state should be protected from state retaliation. We are not the state. We do not have armed guards ready to move at our command. We are our own armor, and we must fight for each other if we are to survive. Facing the consequences of our words in the public sphere is actually a critical component of creating accountability that exists outside of the State.
I would not celebrate if Milo were taken to jail. I am much more disturbed by the strength and violence of the State than I am by a handful of attention-starved white boys with an embarrassing mascot. I don’t want the police to deny Milo the right to speak. I don’t even want the University to do that. I want Milo to be so afraid of us, the students and the queers and the immigrants, that he evacuates the building. That he never books another tour. That his followers won’t speak to the media. I want them to feel afraid of us.
As Martin Luther King Jr, for whom the building set to host Milo is named, himself said “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”
The deeper reality is that words do not exist in a vacuum. The idea that someone should have the freedom to say whatever they want to say without facing the backlash of those who are hurt is ludicrous in the way that asking someone under attack not to fight back is ludicrous. Words don’t dissipate into air. They build walls that create violent borders between nations. They detain immigrants and tourists in airports across the country. Words lure transwomen into dark corners and leave them bloody and gasping for breath.
If the Milo Yiannopoulos event had been stopped by the crowd standing around with signs demanding the event be shut down, I would have gone home satisfied. But that didn’t work in Boulder, in Colorado Springs, in Seattle, in San Luis Obispo, Albuquerque. And it didn’t work in Berkeley. Students as well as “outsiders,” a term that seems to refer to anyone who has lived in Berkeley or Oakland for more than four years, had been standing around with signs for an hour before the black bloc rolled in and shut down the event within 20 minutes. Of course, none of us are outsiders. As Martin Luther King Jr, for whom the building set to host Milo is named, himself said “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”
My question now is whether or not we are ready to escalate to respond to the far-Right escalation? When you called for the event to be shut down, did you mean it? If Donald Trump builds a wall, do you actually intend to tear it down? Or will you condemn those who do so as violent, call them “outside agitators?” Will you pretend you don’t know us? That you didn’t ask us to come?
Together we were able to stop Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley. We need you as much as you need us. Your student faces, your classroom chic was the reason the police didn’t kill anyone that night. Black bloc’s militant tactics are the reason the event was successfully shut down. The reason no one is being deported. The reason no trans-person was forced to drop out of school. We do the work you won’t do. It’s dangerous, and it’s hard. And I respect your choice not to do it.
You may not agree with my choices, but I hope you can be honest with yourself about what we’re really facing. Because the time we are in calls for disciplined self-defense, in keeping with a long tradition of militant defense by marginalized peoples locally and around the world. And if we want to survive, we’re going to have to fight.
I run into the crowd and quickly pull off my mask, donning on a brightly colored coat before joining the people dancing around the speaker system. Like everyone else here, I celebrate our victory surrounded by people I love and admire. I don’t even hear the bank windows shatter as Rihanna bumps and we grind. I feel joy, I feel awe, I feel calm.
I feel ready for what is to come.