After protesters swarmed a lecture hall at UC Davis last month, canceling a highly anticipated address, the subject of their ire jumped out of the back seat of a sport-utility vehicle and swept into the downtown Sacramento Hyatt Regency lobby to a throng of adoring, selfie-snapping young supporters.
Their invitation to the late-night rendezvous came on social media from the provocateur himself, Milo Yiannopoulos, a 33-year-old editor at Breitbart News, the populist website that championed Republican Donald Trump’s outsider presidential bid by marshaling a right-wing movement that incorporates extremism, xenophobia and white nationalism.
“Beer me, baby,” Yiannopoulos, dressed in a fur vest and sunglasses, had written on Facebook, tagging himself at the hotel. “Come say ‘hi.’ ”
Yiannopoulos’ online videos and college tour have made him a hero for young conservatives and libertarians in search of their own flashy, ideological counterweight to the politically motivated celebrities who entertain and inspire their peers on the left. Many of his speeches, including the one planned at UC Davis, are sponsored by College Republicans, with protests reviving a timeless campus debate over the limits of free speech.
But the demonstrations against Yiannopoulos have taken a violent turn in recent weeks, igniting the UC Berkeley campus Wednesday in a Molotov cocktail-fueled fire that prompted UC administrators and authorities to cancel his speaking engagement hours before it was to start. Early Thursday morning came a tweet from Trump, who admonished the university for stifling free speech and raised the possibility of withholding federal funding to UC as a result.
The violence has elevated Yiannopoulos’ standing while raising questions about his level of connection to the Trump administration. Breitbart was run by Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who has since brought two of his former employees to work in the White House.
Dana R. Fisher, an expert on protest movements at the University of Maryland, noted that Yiannopoulos’ notoriety is exploding: “It’s hard to imagine there isn’t somebody, not necessarily pulling puppet strings, but trying to coordinate these efforts.”
“How amazing that all these things are happening,” Fisher added. “It’s a real stretch” to suggest a coincidence.
Speaking on UK TV, according to an article posted on Breitbart, Yiannopoulos was asked in November whether he believed Bannon harbors “horribly regressive attitudes.”
“Well, Breitbart is a company staffed almost entirely by Jews,” he replied. “I am a gay Jew, and he made me into a star.”
The British journalist’s latest tour, named to include a derogatory description of homosexuals, was announced on Breitbart last summer with plans to hit 26 campuses across the country, where he would denounce Islam and Black Lives Matter and call feminism a “war on men.” Some universities and sponsors canceled events over security concerns, including a bomb threat during his visit to Florida Atlantic University in October. Last month, on the night of Trump’s inauguration, a man was shot outside Yiannopoulos’ event at the University of Washington in Seattle.
University officials in Berkeley condemned in the “strongest possible terms” the actions of agitators “who invaded the campus, infiltrated a crowd of peaceful students” and resorted to violence. But the outburst and threatened intervention by the president are stirring concerns among liberals about a backlash that could erode the moral high ground they’ve sought since Trump’s surprise election.
“The violence is very, very, very stupid,” said Larry Remer, a veteran Democratic political strategist and self-described “old lefty” demonstrator. “It’s counterproductive, and it does not advance the cause at all. You don’t fight bad ideas by shutting them down. You do so by showing their absurdity and pointing out the consequences. The stuff I saw at Berkeley was very unfortunate.”
The images only serve to help Trump, agreed Charles Postel, a San Francisco State University professor who focuses on social movements and U.S. politics. There is nothing like some gasoline and a bottle to make for “great television,” Postel said. “And this is a television presidency.”
“We are living in an age of great provocation, and it’s coming from the White House. Trump is a bomb thrower. That’s how he’s governing,” Postel said. “That’s what he needs to govern because Trump’s vision of politics is he is coming in to put out these fires.”
Still, he added, the Berkeley event was not a typical example because the violence-prone group of Bay Area protesters that descended on the campus has perfected the art of crisis and panic. The group reportedly included anarchists and anti-capitalists intent on destroying businesses.
“Of course he should be allowed to speak,” Postel said of Yiannopoulos, “and there should be very strong protests against him.”
That Yiannopoulos would claw his way into the national consciousness came as no surprise to his supporters, including those who joined him at the hotel bar last month in Sacramento, and then attended a makeup event the next day. Atop a picnic outside Memorial Union, Yiannopoulos, who on several occasions has stated that he doesn’t belong to the “alt-right” movement, decried the cancellation of the speech, which organizers blamed on protests.
“They can’t stop us,” he said. “They can’t stop us electing the president we want, wearing the clothes we want, using the language we want.”
Yiannopoulos and his supporters contend that the cancellations are an attempt to infringe on his free speech and underscore the left’s intolerance. But it’s that kind of attention that has landed him a $250,000 book deal with Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
While he says he does not accept speaking fees, student groups such as Berkeley College Republicans sometimes pay thousands of dollars for added security. The university and the UCPD went to “extraordinary lengths” to plan the event and assemble the necessary resources to ensure order and security, the administration said in a statement. Officials put the estimate on campus damages at $100,000 and launched an investigation into the masked assailants.
Matt Shupe, executive director of the California Young Republican Federation, said the university was ill-prepared for the escalation, which he called “unfortunate for our state and our county.”
“It really saddens me to say this, because of the way it’s being done, but this helps Republicans,” said Shupe. “I would much rather be able to win a campaign through an argument of solutions and ideas.”
The debate touched down at the state Capitol on Thursday, where Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, called on UC Berkeley officials to invite Yiannopoulos back to speak on campus. “As a student at UC Berkeley in 1965 ... we saw and witnessed the challenge against free speech,” Hill said.
Other Democratic lawmakers said the university is being cast in the wrong light and should not shoulder the blame of inhibiting free speech, though Republican Sen. Ted Gaines, a conservative from El Dorado Hills, said the university must be held accountable.
“Universities should be the most open, the most welcoming harbor of all ideas, left and right,” Gaines said. “But they have turned into ideological prisons where stepping outside the latest progressive liberal path is considered thought crime. Now it is worse.”
A publicist for Yiannopoulos did not return a call seeking comment. On Facebook, he said the Berkeley unrest was not a “protest,” but a riot.
“American universities are on notice. The president is watching,” Yiannopoulos added, pasting a copy of Trump’s tweet. “The days you could silence conservative and libertarian voices on campus and still expect to collect their tax money are coming to an end. I am the catalyst for this change.”
Angela Hart contributed to this report.