Berkeley, Calif. — The University of California, Berkeley will seal off large parts of its campus like a fortress with a closed perimeter and a “very large” visible police presence Thursday, when the birthplace of America’s free speech movement faces its next potential clashes.
City and campus authorities anticipate demonstrations at a speech by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor, and are preparing for possible violence with a variety of new strategies and tightened security.
For the first time in two decades, officers will be armed with pepper spray after the city council modified a 1997 ban at an emergency meeting this week.
The tactics to boost security are the latest indication of growing frustrations in Berkeley and other liberal cities that have become targets of violent political protests since the election of President Donald Trump and battlegrounds for extremist groups that support and oppose him.
“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.”
Shapiro’s event, organized by campus Republicans, is being watched as a warm-up act for later this month when provocative, right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos says he plans to hold a “Free Speech Week” on Berkeley’s campus with a 20-person lineup that includes Ann Coulter and Stephen Bannon, Trump’s ex-chief strategist and head of Breitbart News. Campus officials say the event is not yet confirmed.
It will be Yiannopoulos’ second attempt to speak at Berkeley this year, after an event in February was abruptly canceled when masked, hooded left-wing anarchists rioted outside the event.
Police and UC Berkeley officials were criticized at the time for giving demonstrators wide latitude and standing aside as the masked anarchists caused $100,000 worth of damage.
Violence escalated at subsequent off-campus protests and authorities say they have learned hard lessons as they struggle to balance free speech rights with preventing violence.
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