BERKELEY, Calif. – Walking across Sproul Plaza on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, it is hard to discern Jonathan Chow from any other student at the school.
In his UC Berkeley water polo shirt, cargo shorts and sneakers, the 21-year-old history major seems like any other undergrad rushing to class or sipping coffee in the plaza.
But Chow is not like most of his fellow students. He’s part of a small minority of seemingly marginalized students at one of the largest universities in the U.S. He’s a conservative.
“I came here to conduct my own social experiment,” Chow told Fox News. “The idea was to see if there was any way of convincing people or having a dialogue with really radical people. It has not been as successful as I wanted it to be.”
While UC Berkeley does not keep statistics on its students’ political leanings, the school has long been known as one of the country’s centers for liberal and progressive thought, and now – following a slew of high-profile, violent protests against conservative speakers on campus – Chow and other like-minded students say that life has become more difficult for anyone whose politics lean toward the right.
“It’s certainly not easy,” Steven Hayward, a conservative commentator and resident scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, told Fox News. “There are not many conservative students -- and those that are conservative are, many times, afraid to speak for fear of being mocked or trolled by their fellow students.”
Chow and other conservatives on campus say that while harassment by fellow students isn’t new – they’ve been yelled at, sent hate mail, had their signs stolen when tabling and even spat upon – the animosity aimed in their direction has ratcheted up over the last year.
In February, 150 leftist black-clad protesters rampaged through Berkeley’s campus, where they caused $100,000 worth of damage, beat students and forced the University of California to cancel a planned speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
“There were over 100 Antifa members on campus causing trouble,” Rudraveer Reddy, a conservative sophomore at UC Berkeley and a member of the Berkeley College Republicans (BCRS) and the Berkeley Patriot website, told Fox News. “My friend was there and he was beaten by Antifa and the police did nothing.”
Since then, violence by Antifa, a far-left group whose name means “anti-fascist,” has continued on Berkeley’s campus and throughout the college town, with controversial conservative writer Ann Coulter canceling a speech at the school in April after the Young America’s Foundation pulled its support for the event amid threats of violence.
In August, a group of around 100 hooded members of Antifa stormed what had been a largely peaceful rally for free speech in the town of Berkeley and attacked at least five people, including the leader of a politically conservative group that had canceled an event a day earlier in San Francisco to avoid potential violence.
Along with actual acts of violence, Berkeley’s contingent of conservative students have also had to deal with less direct threats.
Graffiti has appeared in restrooms and on school signs that read “Kill the BCRS” and “Behead the BCRS,” while the Berkeley Antifa Twitter account tweeted out the names of some BCR members and alleged that the members were meeting at a local bar with Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson and right-wing activist Kyle “Based Stickman” Chapman. BCR members and students in the conservative Young America’s Foundation have said Antifa members have stalked them while they hung posters around campus.
“Conservatives in Berkeley are routinely targeted, harassed, and stalked,” BCR External Vice President Naweed Tahmas said in an email to the Daily Californian, the campus newspaper. “It has become socially acceptable in Berkeley to physically beat someone for being a conservative.”
Officials at UC Berkeley have vehemently denied that they condone any threats or violence directed at conservatives and said they have diligently worked to protect their students while also protecting free speech.
“We’re not going to play games when it comes to the safety of our guests and the members of the campus community,” Dan Mogulof, a UC Berkeley spokesman, told Fox News.
The university last month shelled out $600,000 in security for an on-campus appearance from conservative pundit and former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro. Further, it is estimated that UC Berkeley spent close to $1 million on security ahead of the planned “Free Speech Week” hosted by the conservative Berkeley Patriot group and Yiannopoulos.
While administration members said they are doing all they can to protect and defend free speech, the Berkeley College Republicans targeted by Antifa don’t feel the same way.
“The university’s response has been pathetic, at best,” Matt Ronnau, a BCR member, told Fox News.
“Free Speech Week” was canceled at the last minute amid a dearth of speakers and problems with the organizers, but the event galvanized both conservatives in Berkeley and those opposed to them.
It also highlighted a divide among the school’s conservatives that some blame for the ramping up in the harassment aimed at the group.
Chow, who has been a member of BCR for two years, said the organization’s new leadership is taking the group in a different direction – now it focuses on bringing in provocative speakers with far-right views and creating pet projects like the Berkeley Patriot. He said the group now seems more interested in sparking controversy than making positive changes.
“They are all about creating outlandish remarks and trying to pull off these outlandish events,” Chow said, “… there is hypocrisy on both sides.”