Skip to main content Accessibility

The Battle for Berkeley: In the name of freedom of speech, the radical right is circling the Ivory Tower to ensure a voice for the alt-right

After several violent protests at the University of California, Berkeley, the 'alt-right' has turned its attention to the home of the Free Speech Movement as a focus to recruit students to the radical right. 

Wearing a helmet emblazoned with the Oath Keepers insignia, goggles, padded gloves and knee pads, Stewart Rhodes jabbed his finger in the air and yelled into the microphone. Normally fixated with the federal government’s tyrannical reach to violate the constitution, at the University of California, Berkeley last week, his focus had changed.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes addresses a protest at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in Berkeley, California, on April 27, 2017. (Credit: Ryan Lenz)

Rhodes wasn’t there to defend gun rights or the public’s right to access federal lands, both battles that have put the group into the center of issues that animate the radical right. This time, it was the right of racists to speak in public.

“This is ground zero in the defense of the Constitution and the most important part of it — the First Amendment,” Rhodes said, addressing the audience over a public announcement system. “If you don’t have the right to free speech and assembly, you are not free.”

Rhodes was one of a dozen speakers who gathered last Thursday at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, in the heart of Berkeley after the university cancelled a speaking engagement from conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, whose commentary on topics as varied as immigration and Islam earned her a cherished place in the alt-right. Coulter had vowed to make an appearance, regardless of the school's wishes, but cancelled when two student groups supporting her speech pulled their support amid concerns of more violence.

That didn’t stop a ragtag mix of far-right extremists and conservative student supporters, many donning helmets, carrying medical kits and clubs in expectation of another riot like three previous instances that have shaken the campus and put it in the national spotlight as the alt-right wages a war for the minds of America’s collegiate youth. They call it the “Battle of Berkeley.”

A college student during last week's protest at Berkeley wears a helmet adorned with Pepe the Frog. (Credit: Ryan Lenz)

Other schools have seen similar turmoil in the aftermath of President Trump’s successful political campaign, which succeeded by blowing repeated dog whistles to white Americans and, effectively, did more to advance racist ideologies than any politician in decades.

In March, at Middlebury College in Vermont, social scientist Charles Murray, who uses misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by genetic inferiority, gave a speech that was disrupted by students and left one professor injured and 30 students facing disciplinary action. Last month, at Auburn University, Richard Spencer, one of the nation’s leading alt-right leaders, took the school to federal court after officials cancelled a planned speech.

But, perhaps more than any other school, Berkeley — the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in 1964 and home to a historically liberal student body — has been a white-hot target in a growing effort to recruit students.

“Berkeley. I only need to say that one word and you know exactly what I am talking about,” Spencer said recently. “It has become the battlefield for all of these forces that are part of the intensification and polarization of American politics, the fragmentation of the nation.”

Those forces — the alt-right and a growing antifascist movement of left-wing extremists vowing to meet white nationalists on campus — have repeatedly clashed at Berkeley, beginning earlier this year when protests erupted ahead of a Feb. 1 appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart tech editor. Protesters caused more than $100,000 worth of damage to the campus, the school said.

Then, on April 15, a rally on campus dubbed "the Next Battle of Berkeley" devolved into a riot when the far right — alt-right figures, antigovernment movement leaders, and a conglomeration of conspiracy theorists and extremists ranging from anti-feminists to nativists — came itching for a fight and angrily voicing their support for Donald Trump. By the day’s end, 11 people were injured and six hospitalized. Police arrested 21 people on a variety of charges.

But the radical right was hardly finished with the campus. It was only the beginning.

Last week’s event was a turning point of sorts for alt-right figures who have focused on the campus. Unlike previous speeches that have been met with violence from the left, the day was remarkable for its calm.

Alt-Right mouthpiece Tim Treadstone, also known as "Baked Alaska."

"The fake news, the mainstream media, was there, and they wanted to paint this picture that the Trump supporters were there for violence. And it was completely wrong," Tim Treadstone, a former BuzzFeed social media strategist who goes by the name "Baked Alaska," told Infowars. Treadstone painted the event as a protest for constitutional rights, not that unlike efforts of a generation ago.

"Everyone should be standing up for free speech, even if you're a liberal,” Treadstone said. “We felt we had to go and not only defend Ann, but defend everyone's right to free speech."

But that question of free speech, and the fear of violence as a movement of antifascist protesters calling itself the “Black Bloc,” poses a challenge for colleges and universities, traditionally hotbeds of left-wing activists.

Lawrence Rosenthal, Chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, which examines right-wing movements in the United States, Europe, Asia and Latin America, declined to comment for this report, but issued a written statement stressing that in a polarized political environment brought on by the election of President Trump, one that pits fascist movements against their opposition, right wing extremists are seeking to capitalize on a turn of tides.

“Spencer argues that the fragmentation in American politic is moving toward a polarization where people will be forced to choose one or another armed side,” Rosenthal wrote. “This situation has not developed in the USA, even in this period of extreme political confrontation. But it is Richard Spencer’s goal.”

Spencer’s goal of targeting college campuses to recruit students to the alt-right, and bring a movement that gained momentum online into the physical space, is not unique to a post-Trump era, though.

In 2006, while an undergraduate at Michigan State University, white nationalist attorney Kyle Bristow pushed the school’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom toward a more racist identity, inviting a number of white nationalists to campus. That same year, Kevin Deanna, then a graduate student at American University, founded Youth for Western Civilization (YWC) to defend “Western culture” from the perils of “radical multiculturalism.” Others, including Patrick Sharp and Matthew Heimbach, both former YWC members, started White Student Unions at Georgia State University and Towson University in Baltimore.

But as much as President Trump’s campaign dog whistles normalized the movement of extremist ideologies into the mainstream of American politics, his campaign also excited conservative students who, like anti-Muslim extremist David Horowitz, rail against political correctness and argue that college campuses are “indoctrinating” the youth.

What’s left is a political climate on campus, complicated by forces outside the university wishing to confront the alt-right with physical violence, that favors people like Spencer, who late last year launched a “get them while they’re young” effort to recruit college students.

“People in college are at this point in their lives where they are actually open to alternative perspectives, for better or for worse,” Spencer told Mother Jones at the time. “I think rewiring the neurons of someone over 50 is effectively impossible.”

To that end, Spencer has won fans and acolytes from surprising corners by standing up to university officials in defense of his First Amendment rights.

Last month, just days before he was to give a speech at Auburn University’s Foy Hall, the university cancelled “based on legitimate concerns and credible evidence that it will jeopardize the safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors,” school officials said in a written statement. Spencer quickly enlisted the help of Sam Dickson, a former Ku Klux Klan attorney, and forced the school to let his speech proceed.

Richard Spencer

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Geoffrey R. Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago where Spencer finished his undergraduate studies, compared Auburn’s fight to efforts four decades earlier in Skokie, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago, to ban the neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America from marching. Criticizing the university for canceling Spencer’s speech, while acknowledging that its concern of violence was legitimate, Stone explained that the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that a threat of violence for people other than a speaker gives “power to a speaker’s opponents” and “would encourage opponents of others speakers to make similar threats.”

That case was “a landmark victory for the First Amendment,” Stone said, and proof that “the rule of law must and can prevail” for people like Spencer. After Berkeley's cancelation of Coulter’s speech, Spencer excoriated Coulter an in effort to celebrate his own legal victory as a “model that could be replicated.”

 “When you have everyone on your side, you just can’t back down,” Spencer said. “Sometimes you need to seize the momentum, and you need to pile on. You need to just jump on that wave and take advantage of it and just win now. That is what I did.”

The approach has proven incredibly effective in inspiring college students, who find an age-old appeal in Spencer’s challenge of authority.

Two alt-right college students walk away after declining to be interviewed during last week's free speech protest in Berkeley, California.

At the Berkeley rally last week, two bearded students wearing baseball helmets covered in Pepe the Frog stickers paraded through the crowd, one wearing an American flag as a cape and the other an alt-right flag for the fictional nation of “Kekistan,” a flag modeled after flags produced by Hitler’s Third Reich. When asked what the flag meant, a student who declined to give his name laughed and said, “The Kekistani flag is based on rustling jimmies.”

“Rustling Jimmies” — a meme born from 4Chan that means to doing something to inspire a feeling of discomfort in those around you — speaks to the unique motivations of those who fall under the banner of the alt-right. While the movement remains comprised of a hodgepodge of ideologies on the far-right, and its hard-core ideologues leaders, those carrying the banner on the ground are increasingly young people inspired by Trump and reacting to what they are told is the oppressive overreach of a politically correct left.

In his announcement that he would turn his focus to college campuses last year to recruit posted to the website of his journal Radix, Spencer provided a form for students to request his presence on campus, free of charge. There was a message, one the students at Berkeley seem to have read.

“Richard Spencer — the originator of the term ‘Alt Right’ and one of the most politically incorrect men alive — is coming to your college! He’ll debate your favorite feminist professor … make the SJWs (social justice warriors) cry … and rustle the jimmies of the campus, if not the world,” the announcement read.

The marketing of Spencer’s message is part of a trend targeting youth that argues, in the aftermath of decades of left-wing dominance on college campuses, conservatism is cool. It is a message that others have piggy backed on.

For weeks, Alex Jones' Infowars has hyped a new T-shirt. Silver with black letters advertising Infowars url, the shirt has a picture of conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, a growing presence on Jones network of radio, television and online channels, and a message a growing number of college students seem willing to advertise.

It reads simply, “Conservatism is the new counterculture.”

Comments, suggestions or tips? Send them to and follow us on Twitter @Hatewatch.