The University of California at Berkeley has cemented its place as the eminent domain of free speech, as it hires the much-needed security detail for an event Thursday night featuring high-profile conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.
The Associated Press reports that with protesters surely to be out in numbers, campus authorities are closing off the university’s main square, Sproul Plaza, to everyone aside from Shapiro and a sold-out, 1,000-person audience. This “closed perimeter” is intended to discourage nefarious perpetrators. There will be “an increased and highly visible police presence,” the university said in a statement.
One sign that authorities are taking this event particularly seriously is that for the first time in over two decades, police have been authorized to utilize pepper spray in the event of any violent outbreaks.
Berkeley City Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said officers would make “very strong, rapid arrests” of protesters wielding weapons and wearing masks.
With the authorization of pepper spray, the city council overturned a 1997 ban at an emergency meeting early this week.
“We have seen extremists on the left and right in our city,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, a Democrat who backed the police request to use pepper spray. “We need to make sure violence is not allowed.”
Masked left-wing activists previously disrupted an event featuring a conservative speaker last school year when the Berkeley College Republicans invited right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to speak in February.
Sociology professor Michael Burawoy, who is chairman of the Berkeley Faculty Association, says there is growing frustration over the disruptions.
“There are faculty who don’t think the campus should be the site of this, what they call, political circus,” Burawoy said, adding that the headline-grabbing visits by controversial speakers put the university in a no-win situation.
“We bring them on campus and allow them to speak, and we encourage both right- and left-wing groups” to hold potentially violent protests, he said. “If we exclude them, they say Berkeley doesn’t believe in free speech. It’s a lose-lose situation.”
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