BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — A crowd protesting a far-right commentator’s appearance at the University of California at Berkeley hurled smoke bombs, broke windows and sparked a massive bonfire, prompting officials to call off the event.
The decision came two hours before Wednesday’s talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, a polarizing editor of Breitbart News, after some 1,500 people had gathered outside the venue.
But officials said it was a smaller group of protesters dressed in black and in hooded sweatshirts that showed up as night fell to break windows, throw smoke bombs and flares, and start the raging blaze outside the building.
“This was a group of agitators who were masked up, throwing rocks, commercial grade fireworks and Molotov cocktails at officers,” said UC Berkeley Police Chief Margo Bennet.
Bennet said police determined at that point they couldn’t guarantee security, canceled the event and evacuated Yiannopoulos from the building.
There were no immediate reports of arrests or serious injuries, she said.
President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Thursday morning to comment, tweeting: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
Prior to the burst of violence, hundreds of peaceful demonstrators carrying signs that read “Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech” had been protesting the appearance for hours.
As the evening wore on, crowds of protesters cleared away from outside the building. By 8 p.m. the crowd had thinned and at least 100 protesters that remained danced to a brass band playing music and marched off campus and into a main avenue.
Yiannopoulos, a 32-year-old right-wing provocateur, is a vocal supporter of Trump and a self-proclaimed internet troll whose comments have been criticized as racist, misogynist, anti-Muslim and white supremacist. He was banned from Twitter after leading a harassment campaign against “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones.
His visit to Berkeley was sponsored by the campus Republican club. The university has stressed it did not invite him and does not endorse his ideas but is committed to free speech and rejected calls to cancel the event.
“The event has been cancelled,” Yiannopoulos posted on his Facebook page. “I’ll let you know more when the facts become clear. One thing we do know for sure: the Left is absolutely terrified of free speech and will do literally anything to shut it down.”
The Berkeley College Republicans said its “constitutional right to free speech was silenced by criminals and thugs.”
“Their success is a defeat for civilized society and the free exchange of ideas on college campuses across America,” it said in a statement.
The university, which had requested assistance from police in nine UC campuses, sent a notice to all students earlier Wednesday that warned of crowds near the student union, where the 500-seat, sold-out event was scheduled.
Yiannopoulos’ talks have sparked protests, shouting matches and occasional violence at stops around the country. A man was shot and wounded at protests outside his Jan. 21 talk at the University of Washington.
Rowdy protests at UC Davis Jan. 13 prompted campus Republicans to cancel his appearance at the last minute. His final stop was supposed to be UCLA on Thursday but the invitation was rescinded, making Berkeley his grand finale.
A statement from the university condemned the violence:
Amid violence, destruction of property and out of concern for public safety, the University of California Police Department determined that it was necessary to remove Milo Yiannopoulos from the campus and to cancel tonight’s scheduled 8 p.m. performance.
The decision was made at about 6 p.m., two hours before the event, and officers read several dispersal announcements to the crowd of more than 1,500 protesters that had gathered outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. ASUC venue.
Of paramount importance this evening was the campus’s commitment to ensure the safety and security of those attending the event, the speaker, those who came to engage in lawful protest and members of the public and the Berkeley campus community.
Yiannopoulos was escorted away from the event immediately and has left the campus.
We condemn in the strongest possible terms the violence and unlawful behavior that was on display and deeply regret that those tactics will now overshadow the efforts to engage in legitimate and lawful protest against the performer’s presence and perspectives.
UC Berkeley and the UCPD went to extraordinary lengths to plan for this event and put the appropriate resources in place in order to maintain security. Officials were in contact with other campuses and paid close attention to lessons learned at the speaker’s prior events. Dozens of additional police officers were on duty. Multiple methods of crowd control were in place. Ultimately, and unfortunately, however, it was simply impossible to maintain order given the level of threat, disruption and violence.
We regret that the threats and unlawful actions of a few have interfered with the exercise of First Amendment rights on a campus that is proud of its history and legacy as home of the Free Speech Movement. As Chancellor Nicholas Dirks made clear in his message to the Berkeley campus community, while Yiannopoulos’ views, tactics and rhetoric are profoundly contrary to our own, we are bound by the Constitution, the law, our values and the campus’s Principles of Community to enable free expression across the full spectrum of opinion and perspective.”