This article originally appeared on the site Revolution/revcom.us.
“I’m all for public flogging. One type of criminal that a public humiliation might work particularly well with are the juvenile delinquents, a lot of whom consider it a badge of honor to be sent to juvenile detention. And it might not be such a cool thing in the ‘hood’ to be flogged publicly.”
“…the government should be spying on all Arabs, engaging in torture as a televised spectator sport, dropping daisy cutters wantonly throughout the Middle East and sending liberals to Guantánamo…”
On May 4th, Sunsara Taylor began her speech at the University of California Campus by quoting Ann Coulter’s insistence that Black children be publicly whipped, along with other shocking quotes.
While many have heard Coulter’s name, in recent weeks as two sides battled over whether Coulter would be allowed to speak at Berkeley’s campus, few had read and taken seriously the content and impact of Coulter’s words, so this set an important context for the speech and discussion that Sunsara Taylor led that night. About 150 people turned out to hear Taylor give a talk called, “The Battle for Berkeley: Why It Is Right, and Righteous, to Drive Fascists Off Campus, Out of Berkeley, and Out of Power!”
In recent months, a series of “intellectual” hitmen—including Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, and Milo Yiannopoulos—have targeted the UC Berkeley campus and on two occasions ready-to-brawl fascist militia types have amassed in downtown Berkeley by the hundreds. Taylor insisted that this cannot be ignored, that it will not “go away” on its own, and is closely linked to the imposition of fascism across the country by the Trump/Pence Regime. Berkeley has become a flash point with high stakes in this larger battle precisely because of its radical history and because if the fascists succeed in making inroads in Berkeley, it will greatly strengthen their hand in consolidating fascism and suppressing opposition nationwide.
At the core of Taylor’s presentation and the contentious question and answer that followed was her insistence that the issue was not “free speech”—as most in the media and on campus are claiming—but the right and responsibility of the people to resist and drive fascists out of power in this country before it is too late. Taylor exposed the concrete harm done by Coulter, Yiannopoulos, Horowitz and other fascists who have targeted Berkeley, as well as the ways that these people—and their ideas—are being implemented and given backing from the U.S. government, the most powerful state in human history. Taylor showed how the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of the people to speak and assemble free from government suppression, not the right of those backed by and tied to the government to be “protected” from vigorous protest. She also showed how even the principle that ideas should be heard by their most ardent advocates, while a very important principle, is also not—and should not be treated as—“absolute.” In a world divided into antagonistic classes as well as profound relations of oppression and exploitation, it is “not an even playing field.” Flowing from this, she argued that the ideas and speech that need protection are those that go up against and challenge the entrenched power of the state and the ideas promoted by the state. In contrast, ideas that have backing from that state and from hundreds of years of oppressive traditions do not need that protection or additional platforms.
Taylor also set the record straight on the actual history and meaning of the famous Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s. Bob Avakian (BA), now the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party and the architect of a new synthesis of communism, was a student at Cal back then and active in the Free Speech Movement from its earliest days. He was arrested, along with 800 other students, during the sit-in at Sproul Hall that was a decisive turning point in the ultimate victory of the Free Speech Movement. Drawing from BA’s experiences, Taylor showed how the Free Speech Movement had been about students demanding the right to stand up against racism and oppression, not of the right to have racists and fascists with ties to the state spew their poison at students unopposed.
The question and answer session that followed her presentation was intense and contentious. The single largest section of the audience was students, but there were also a good number of people from the Berkeley community and beyond. The majority came out of sincere curiosity and interest, both over the “Battle for Berkeley” and over the direction being imposed on this country under Trump. At the same time, organized fascists made up a significant minority of the audience, including off-campus alt-right livestreamers and some who had clearly come to disrupt and even threaten the speaker, as well as on-campus Young Republicans who had invited the fascists to speak in the first place and seemed to be seeking a “youtube moment” by challenging her from the floor. Several times throughout the night, yelling, accusations and physical disruption and intimidation broke out from these fascists in the audience and had to be firmly opposed by the event organizers.
Early in the evening, someone responded to Taylor’s exposure on the bone-deep racism and misogyny, which was a core part of the Trump/Pence campaign and now his regime, by asking if Taylor thought everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. Taylor clarified that it is wrong to say that absolutely everyone who supported Trump was a racist, but it was extremely important not to ignore or “prettify” the fact that everyone who voted for him was clearly okay with blatant and grotesque racism and misogyny, and that for a great many this was precisely the appeal. When the majority of the room burst into applause, it became clear for the first time that evening that there was a section in the room deeply opposed to the Trump Regime in the audience. This came out repeatedly in other ways, including when two different students asked very sincerely how they could get involved effectively in refusing fascism and driving out the Trump/Pence Regime.
However, when questions from the audience focused more directly on the question of speech, the room was much divided. Many who deeply hate the content of Ann Coulter’s words still feel defensive about her being shut down and are either confused by or in agreement with the argument that she has the “right” to speak at Berkeley. From many different angles, Taylor hammered at the fact that it is Coulter and Trump and the whole cabal of fascists now in power who are the real enemies of free speech (citing Trump’s threats and incitations of violence against protesters, his attacks on the media, and more) and that it is the right of people to stand up against fascism that is under attack. While there was clearly a large section of the audience that was more with what Taylor was arguing, and a smaller section of the audience that was really with the fascists, a significant portion of the audience would sway back and forth between the two when the arguments were focused up around “free speech.” This confusion and the deepening engagement on this question throughout the night underscore how important it was that these questions were being torn open and taken on frontally.
This confusion is not unique to Berkeley campus or to the Berkeley community. There are many good people, people who deeply hate and want to do something to end the horrors being committed by the fascist Trump/Pence Regime and their whole fascist movement, who are defensive and paralyzed by the false claims of victimhood of the fascists and specifically around the question of whether it is right to shut these fascists down. Fascists are getting over by claiming the mantle of “free speech” even as they move aggressively to demolish the rights of people to speak against, to report honestly on, to protest, and to resist their crimes. Across the country, hundreds of articles and countless thought-pieces have criticized the students and protesters in Berkeley that shut down Milo Yiannopoulos and were preparing to protest and resist Ann Coulter. Sunsara Taylor is alone in having gone to Berkeley to put forward a vigorous, substantive argument of why it is absolutely right to call Coulter and the others fascist and why it is absolutely right to not only drive them off campus, not only to drive them out of Berkeley, but to drive them out of power.
Everyone who is agonizing about what the Trump/Pence Regime is doing, everyone who is alarmed by the words and outlook of Ann Coulter and others like her who have significant ties to the fascist regime in power, everyone who is trying to sort out what is the best way to stand up against all this, should take the time to watch the video of this event. There is much to wrangle with and learn from how Sunsara Taylor situates and clarifies what is really at stake in this “Battle for Berkeley” and much work for all of us to do to stand up now, in the name of humanity, to refuse to accept a fascist America.
(Watch video of Sunsara Taylor’s speech here)