This article was originally printed in the Spring 2017 issue of FaultLines.
In the midst of the Trump Administration moving forward on policies that is said to seriously endanger many targeted communities, infamous “alt-right” speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, visited UC Berkeley this past February. His visit sparked student and faculty organizing, as well as a tumultuous convergence of neo-Nazis, Black Bloc members, police, and others the night of the scheduled visit. This event was widely covered by media, including a comment by President Trump who tweeted a threat to de-fund our campus. In this issue, FaultLines shares a quick snapshot of how UC Berkeley students are connecting issues of research and organizing on and off campus in the context of this political climate. We interviewed CRG student research grantees, Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda and Istifaa Ahmed, both of whom are also organizers engaged in social justice research practices. Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda is a graduate student in East Asian Languages and Cultures, studying kinship enacted through colonial anthropology and science in 19th and 20th century Japan. Istifaa Ahmed is an undergraduate student in Ethnic Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies. Her project considers art that explores violence against black women within public space. This interview has been edited for length.
– Alisa Bierria, Associate Director
CRG: Let’s start with a summary of examples of your campus organizing.
Lisa: I’ve been involved with the Graduate Student Union on campus, but much of my activism started last October when I heard that Milo was coming to UC Berkeley. At first, I heard that Milo was visiting different college campuses giving inflammatory talks that would target students for their gender identity, their racial identity. I heard that he’d gone to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where he outed a transgender woman student in front of a lot of people. He projected her name and face onto a screen and said demeaning sexual comments about her. He targeted her specifically because she was an activist on campus fighting for gender neutral bathrooms. I was concerned because I knew he was coming to UC Berkeley the following February and felt like we couldn’t let this happen here.
We circulated email scripts [so others could] email the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, faculty, and others telling them our concerns. I wanted to make a strong case for harassment and that students deserve the right to learn in a safe environment where they’re not harassed, and I think what Milo does constitutes legal harassment. By January, it had reached enough faculty so that a small group of faculty did get together to write the administration. The administration wrote the faculty back and told them: we hear your concerns, we don’t necessarily support Milo’s views, but we do support free speech. It didn’t really go anywhere.
So we made an anti-Milo digital toolkit [embedded below], which was a moment of real creativity between us, acknowledging that we needed a fresh approach than just writing letters. We included an introduction to who Milo was, background about the “alt-right,” email scripts for people who hadn’t emailed the administration yet, and syllabi people could use to talk about free speech and hate speech. We had petitions students could file with the Graduate Student Union. If people were graduate student workers, they could file petitions that said “I have reason to believe that I won’t feel safe on this campus on those days, so I have a legal right not to go to work.”
Unfortunately, the digital toolkit was leaked to Breitbart, which is the publication that Milo works for and [Trump Senior Advisor] Steve Bannon used to run, and they published our [personal] information on the internet. Then we were getting hate mail and death threats. Breitbart also doxxed faculty members on campus and they were getting death threats as well. It creates a really unsafe environment for students. [Discussions about anti-Milo protests focused on] “violent protestors…”, but y’all didn’t see the three months of organizing. We took every possible non-violent route to get this cancelled. The administration told us they weren’t going to cancel it unless there was a riot, and there was a riot.
CRG: Two things stand out. One is that you all used a diversity of organizing strategies. You used digital strategies, direct action, base building, and work stoppages. Two, you’re challenging definitions of important concepts like “free speech” and “censorship.”
Lisa: This political concept of “free speech” has been so twisted from its original intentions. When people say UC Berkeley is the home of the Free Speech Movement (1964-65), they don’t realize that, though Mario Savio was the white face of the movement, he was trained by Black freedom riders. So the Free Speech Movement was happening in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. People forget that – isolate it and abstract it – and “free speech” becomes about saying whatever you want. But originally, it was about protecting students who wanted to speak out against the administration in power. At the time at UC Berkeley, Black students weren’t allowed at certain spaces on campus. People who were trying to ally themselves with these Black students were being punished. So free speech was about protecting those students’ freedom of speech. The Free Speech Movement was always within the context of a power dynamic. So if you take the analysis of race and power out of free speech, then it makes no sense. The concept becomes twisted to become its opposite. Now we’re using the Free Speech movement to protect those in power. Milo already has enormous amount of power, his views are represented by the President of the United States, he has a media empire, the reason people know about Milo is because he has so much access to speech. His speech is actually not in danger. So to use the concept of free speech to protect Milo is really absurd.
CRG: Istifaa, tell us more about your organizing.
Istifaa: Projects that I’m currently involved in are through the American Cultures Center and a project called UROC – Underrepresented Researchers of Color – a new and emerging research group. My platform for organizing and resistance is through research currently. You see the wariness and discomfort with students of color and research, which inspired me to investigate why that is the case. Western research has been dominated by white anthropologists entering Indigenous sites or marginalized communities to extract information for their own benefit, and then they make the information inaccessible to the communities from which they extracted the information. I believe that research should be a site for students of color, especially at Berkeley, a research institution. The project that I’ve taken on through UROC and AC is this workshop called Demystifying the Research Process. I will be working with students to integrate research ethics into their entire research process. This workshop will equip and empower students to regard themselves as researchers, and validate their communities as sources of knowledge, expertise, and knowledge production.
CRG: Do you see a connection between organizing and scholarship on and off campus?
Istifaa: It’s inseparable. All of the [organizing] I do informs my research and academic practices. Our staff at AC is supporting undocumented students who are working to make California a sanctuary space. My work with California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), a San Francisco-based grassroots organization unaffiliated with UC Berkeley, directly aids my research projects. We communicate with incarcerated women across California through letters and prison visits, and we provide them with emotional support and resources, such as medical resources. I spoke with 25-30 people in a women’s prison in Chowchilla, CA. If we’re understanding the prison industrial complex as an extension of slavery because we’re commodifying these bodies, it reminds me that these incarcerated women who are directly experiencing these struggles are the true abolitionists. We’re looking to them as the leaders of our movement. My research interest includes analyzing state-sanctioned racial and sexual violence created by the prison industrial complex against incarcerated women of color. My work would be substance-less if it weren’t for the organizing with these women I’m directly informed by.
CRG: You’re interested in working through different modalities. You’re supporting students of color to engage the research process, your own research project analyzes aesthetics and creative production contending with violence against Black women, and your community organizing is about following the leadership of incarcerated people in women’s prisons. Are there connections?
Istifaa: One example is that CCWP publishes a newsletter [The Fire Inside] every season which consists of poetry, testimonies, and art work from the women themselves. It’s humbling to see their work published on this platform that’s circulated across the prisons within the nation. We see a sense of solidarity inside and outside of prisons. Also I have seen formerly incarcerated students often become stigmatized, but in fact [like many other incarcerated people] they’ve acquired so much legal knowledge and expertise behind bars.
Image above is a sticker template from The Official Anti-Milo Toolkit.