Day 2: Protest!


Above: a spotlight is lit on fire at the UC Berkeley campus.

Yesterday offered a unique insight into my 28-day flip phone challenge. For those of you who saw it on the news, Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos made his way to UC Berkeley yesterday for a talk at the university. But before he even entered the building, major protests had broken out.

I had bought tickets to the talk about two months ago, and while I have always disagreed with everything Yiannopoulos has proclaimed, I insisted on seeing him speak.

As I neared the UC Berkeley campus around 6pm with the sun setting fast (the talk was planned for 8pm), the absence of my smartphone offered me a unique opportunity. My entrance ticket I had printed out said that Milo would be having his discussion at "Pauley Ballroom." Being unfamiliar with the campus, I would have normally searched the name of room on Google Maps, but I did not have this option. I realized I would have to ask someone. Rounding a corner, a woman in her mid-60s with long gray hair who looked like a caricature of a Berkeley protestor started walking near me with a poster titled "No Fascist USA." Bingo.

I approached her and asked if she knew where Pauley Ballroom was. "Honey" she replied, "I've been here since the 60's, of course I know where it is." We started to walk towards the main part of campus, and I learned that she had been protesting on campus for decades. In fact, she had gone to UC Berkeley herself, and had been arrested many years ago in the area we were walking to. The closer we got, the more clearly I could hear the sounds of helicopters swirling above, sirens off in the distance, and chants emanating near the main part of campus. As we came upon the university center (where the ballroom was also located), a scene of total pandemonium descended upon my eyes.

Upwards of 3000 protestors had occupied the main square, many with posters that had "Fuck Trump" or Yiannopoulos' face crossed out. Police in riot gear had taken over the inside of the building, and they were aiming tear gas grenade guns down at the crowds. The windows of the university center had been smashed, and a 15-foot tall spotlight had been set on fire, causing a blaze that spewed black smoke high into the night sky. A student donning a navy suit and red tie, who had gotten red paint thrown at him by a protestor (I later learned he was a member of the Berkeley College Republicans), was tripping over pieces of broken glass with the fire's reflection casting long shadows over the steps of the university center. It was a scene that almost resembled the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.

As my newly made friend and I entered the chaos, we were split up. I can remember her voice trailing off with solemn advice, "Sweetie, if you are arrested, remember the police have to let you know beforehand that..." I did not hear the rest of it, because I was quickly swept into the gargantuan crowd that had assembled. Soon enough, I learned that Yiannopoulos' talk had been cancelled because the police feared a violent break-in into the ballroom if he decided to go through with the discussion. For the next two hours, my night consisted of talking to people who represented all sides of the protests; members of the Berkeley College Republicans who were wide-eyed and shocked at the response their speaker had caused, anarchists clad in all black clothing responsible for most of the damage to the campus, and students and journalists from around the Bay Area with guarded eyes observing the spectacle before them while taking Snapchats and Facebook live videos. In fact, everyone I came across had their phones out.

What I realized was that if this had been a few weeks ago, I would have done the same. I probably would have Snapchatted the fire, Instagrammed myself in front of the broken glass, and taken a video of the police shooting tear gas grenades. But since I wasn't afforded the option to do so, I started to notice that almost everyone else was, and I was part of a small minority of people who were not on some sort of device, whether it was a smartphone or larger shoulder-mounted videocamera that some news organizations had lugged along with them. While this not only granted me the privilege of fully taking in the scene, I started to think about what it meant to have a smartphone at this protest.

Apart from documenting the craziness, is a person truly participating in an ethical manner if they are taking a video of the event? Many times I observed people taking pictures in front of the fire with friends, their faces grinning and hands making peace signs. These pictures are most likely on their Snapchat story or Instagram feed now, but I ask, what good does this do? As I walked amongst the broken glass and near the fire, the sheer amount of people taking pictures and videos astonished me. This is not to say there weren't those who were protesting with meaning and conscious. But was this only a exhibition of chaos people wanted to selfishly document?

This leads me to a deeper question that I have been pondering lately. While smartphones offer an incredible way to connect and organize (the protest was most likely organized through Facebook, however I am only guessing this is the case), does it cause a sense of voyeurism and complacency in these instances of political confrontation? I have asked myself since last night if some of the people taking pictures and video would have stayed any longer than a few minutes if they didn't have the option to post it to their social media. I include myself in these criticisms.

And while it may seem like a cliché way to end, the absence of my smartphone gave me the wonderful gift of meeting the 60 or so old veteran protestor, whose advice about being arrested I am still yearning to hear.