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Collective internet gave Berkeley protests a real-time trial and execution

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A light generator burns on the UC Berkeley campus on Wednesday night during a protest over the scheduled appearance of Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. (Courtesy Mikaela Raphael/The Daily Californian)

When the first firework struck the facade of Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building in UC Berkeley on Wednesday, my back was turned as I interviewed a student nearby. The crackle of the darting firework and its explosion caught me off guard and shook me up. I never found my footing until the end of the night.

During my time as a Berkeley student, I saw countless protests come and go on Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. But Wednesday’s protest against right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos came and went with a pent-up fury that I’ve not seen before in Berkeley.

It’s important to note that only an hour elapsed in the protest when it took a violent turn. I was on the steps of Sproul Hall when I saw a phalanx of Black Bloc protesters slice through the crowd in a military procession, dressed all in black and carrying glittery black-and-purple flags. Less than five minutes later, they were breaking down barricades and throwing fireworks and Molotov cocktails.

The next few hours were chaotic not because of what was happening on Sproul Plaza — and later the streets of Downtown Berkeley — but rather by what was happening in my iPhone. Live streams and tweets were going viral immediately. Yiannopoulos and the university retreated to their online spaces to make immediate statements. And the collective Internet descended on Sproul Plaza.

Tweets and live streams are now a fundamental part of protests, but what I observed at Sproul Plaza felt extraordinary because of its speed and ferocity to vilify the event. At the first sign of violence, the right-wing online media descended on Berkeley at breakneck speed. Their opinions and judgments of what was happening began dominating Twitter results when I would search “Berkeley” or “#MiloatCal.” All this all unfolded even before the light generator caught on fire and created the now-iconic bonfire-esque photos in the middle of the campus.

By the time I ducked out of Sproul Plaza after 8 p.m., Reddit’s top article was about the Berkeley protests with more than 10,000 comments. Before I could have my journalistic say, the internet collectively decided the Berkeley student mob — overcome with emotion and left-wing hysteria — destroyed their own campus and killed the Free Speech Movement on its birthplace as Yiannopoulos became the martyr.

The snap judgments — made as the protest was ongoing — lacked any nuance or any room for postmortem evaluations. Fake photos of bloodied protesters began going viral, and untrue accounts of students being the main agitators were shared widely. Both television cameras and live streams were fixed on the brightest flash points of violence available and were totally devoid of context.

As I headed back home, I wondered if these cameras captured just how much the student part of the crowd dwindled as Black Bloc protesters destroyed property in downtown.

Violence did happen, and I am not excusing that. I saw a man wandering and screaming as he bled from his eye, and another receiving medical treatment on the steps of the MLK building. I saw a bystander snatch a burning “Make America Great Again” hat perched atop the charred light generator and at least half-dozen masked protesters swarm him until he escaped in time. A Daily Californian reporter witnessed a Syrian Muslim student get pepper-sprayed and beaten up by another masked protester, who decided the student “looked like a Nazi.” There are too many accounts of violence and property destruction on the Berkeley streets to name.

With the violence, I witnessed something almost as horrific: how quick public opinion can take shape as reality and fake news blends in real time. All that talk about getting rid of fake news and actions by Google and Facebook to curb down these outlets would have little impact if the general audience can’t exercise more restraint and patience when news breaks. It was a surreal experience seeing the internet’s wheels work in spinning its thread of what was happening as I stood in the middle of the scene.

Unfortunately, not all protests are going to stay as peaceful and lovey-dovey as the Women’s March. But the spirit of peaceful protest was there amid the blood and broken windows in Berkeley.

At the same time as the Black Bloc protesters arrived, a group of Berkeley students on the other side of Sproul Plaza were going to have a “Resistance Dance Party.” They brought free food and music for students for students to dance and protest. Nearly half the students I spoke to were there for the dance party. (Perhaps that was result of a sampling bias.) The dance party’s organizers planned to move to a different location. The students were going to dance through the night as news waves vilified them as violent thugs.

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at seungylee14@gmail.com.

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