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Whack-a-Milo: Inside That Expensive “Photo Op”

September 26, 2017
by Krissy Eliot

Former Breitbart commentator Milo Yiannopoulos spoke on the UC Berkeley campus yesterday, but I didn’t get to see it—and neither did most of the hundreds who showed up to see his speech.

In the end, it seems the provocative and flamboyant Yiannopoulos spoke for less than a half hour, without a microphone, sang the national anthem, took a few photos with his fans, then bailed.

University spokesman Dan Mogulof called the appearance “the most expensive photo op” in Cal history, citing total security costs of $800,000 for Free Speech Week—$200,000 more than the Ben Shapiro event of the week before.

Security was indeed tight. Police had blocked off the perimeter of Sproul Plaza, where Yiannopoulos was set to talk, and those who wished to enter had to pass through a solitary metal detector. Meanwhile, the rest of the plaza was aswarm with protestors, and it was hard for observers to avoid squabbles and confrontations. In one instance a man spat at Refuse Fascism protestors until eventually the police took the man, and the protestors’ gigantic speaker system, away.

UCPD on Sproul Plaza after Milo Yiannopoulos’ 20 minute appearance at the Free Speech Week rally.

Ultimately, only about a hundred people got past the barriers in time to hear Yiannopoulos speak. Pranav Jandhyala wasn’t one of them. The news editor of the Berkeley Patriot, the student group that partnered with Yiannopoulos to stage Free Speech Week, Jandhyala was surprised to see people leaving through the metal detector before he’d even gotten close to the entrance. He was even more surprised to find that the man of the hour had barely spoken for 20 minutes.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Originally, Free Speech Week was scheduled to run from the 24th to the 27th, with at least three featured guest speakers each day, from conservative think tank leader/Cal alumnus David Horowitz to Breitbart news executive Steve Bannon and controversial Fox News commentator Ann Coulter. But for weeks leading up to the event, the list had kept changing, with organizers seemingly unable to pin down most of the speakers. And, according to Mogulof, the Berkeley Patriot failed to comply with campus deadlines for booking indoor venues. Despite the disorganization, the Berkeley Patriot and Yiannopoulos insisted, up to the last minute, that the event would continue as planned.

Cancellation was only announced in a press conference on Saturday, and regardless, Yiannopoulos said he would still be coming to campus on Sunday as planned. “The purpose of today was to show up on campus no matter what and to let them know we’ll be back as many times as it will take,” Yiannopoulos told the New York Times.

When I asked Jandhyala why the Berkeley Patriot decided to call the whole thing off, he said it was due to “internal tensions” within the group, and that several members weren’t on the same page about the event’s purpose.

The "Empathy Tent" set up on Sproul Plaza during the Free Speech Rally.

“The vision for the event was a true free speech week, where ideas that were previously censored perhaps, like Milo’s, could be heard,” said Jandhyala. But since many of the speakers listed on the roster, including headliners Coulter and Bannon would be no-shows, Jandhyala said their original vision for the event “wasn’t going to align with the final product,” so they nixed it.

After Milo left, I finally went through the metal detector to enter the now mostly deserted area, which was still surrounded by cops, to stare at the sad, barren steps of Sproul Hall. A Milo fan held a poster that read “Feminism is Cancer” and gestured to where her hero had so recently and so briefly stood. She lamented that he hadn’t had a proper microphone and that people kept shouting over him. “It was also really hot,” she said.

Canadian far-right activist Lauren Southern was on hand, dressed all in black. She said it was sad the university had spent so much money on such a short event, but she mostly found fault in the security set-up.

Asked whether Milo’s appearance wasn’t simply a ploy to provoke attention from protestors and media, Southern reframed the question. “Does a girl deserve to be raped because she wears a short skirt?”

“They were blocking hundreds of people from accessing the event in the first place. The line wasn’t even moving and they only had one metal detector,” Southern said. “So how long is Milo going to stay when people aren’t even allowed into the event?”

Asked whether Milo’s appearance wasn’t simply a ploy to provoke attention from protestors and media, Southern reframed the question.

“Does a girl deserve to be raped because she wears a short skirt? No. It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter who is speaking, you don’t deserve to be attacked or shut down just because you’re wearing something provocative.”

The deserted steps of Sproul Hall, where minutes before, Milo Yiannopoulos delivered his 20 minute speech for the Free Speech Week rally.

The Cal students I spoke to, meanwhile, were nonplussed. “20 minutes and a lot of money later,” remarked Andrew Madrid, a freshman physics major at Cal wandering through the plaza after the event. “I’m convinced Milo is a hologram,” he added, recalling Yiannopoulos non-appearance last February.

Jarrett Visher, a Cal sophomore majoring in philosophy, said it was distracting from his education. “I went to the protest instead of studying,” he said.

Madrid largely agreed but said he was still glad Yiannopoulos was offered a spot on the Sproul steps. “People like Milo should be able to speak regardless of their message at the end of the day,” he said. “The beauty of this country is that you can say anything—no matter how erroneous.”

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