Banging on the doors of bigotry

Jon Kurinsky and Brian Kelly report from Chicago on a protest against a right-wing bigot--and consider what lessons can be learned from the successful confrontation.

DePaul students gather to protest Milo Yiannopoulus (Brian Kelly)DePaul students gather to protest Milo Yiannopoulus (Brian Kelly)

MORE THAN 250 students at DePaul University turned out to protest a May 24 speech by tech blogger and right-wing pundit Milo Yiannopoulos. The DePaul College Republicans organized the speaking event as part of a 60-campus tour by Yiannopoulos aimed at attacking social justice activists and the campus left.

After a speakout, students marched to confront Yiannopoulos at the venue for his talk, where they pounded on the locked doors to the auditorium, demanding to be let in. At the same time, multiple groups of students interrupted the speaker inside the packed event, taking over the stage for 30 minutes.

After being forced to end the event early due to protests, Yiannopoulos and his supporters attempted to lead a march to the DePaul administration's offices to demand the campus issue a refund for use of the auditorium to Breitbart News Network. But after being repeatedly surrounded and shouted down by protesters, Yiannopoulos left DePaul and retreated to his limousine.

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ON THE morning of the protest, students found the slogans "Trump 2016" and "F*ck Mexicans" written on a sidewalk in a dark, oily ink. While it's impossible to know who wrote the slogans--the College Republicans deny any involvement--it's not hard to imagine that a right-wing student, emboldened by the climate created by the Republicans' previous sidewalk chalking stunt and the planned Yiannopoulos event, was responsible. The racist chalking may explain the large turnout to the speak-out and subsequent protest.

At the speak-out--which attracted upwards of 150 students--many expressed outrage at the gulf between the "progressive education" that DePaul promises in its marketing materials and the reality of marginalization for oppressed groups on campus.

Some students described patterns of racial discrimination on the part of DePaul Public Safety in following up on claims of sexual assault and racist graffiti on campus, while others described feeling isolated in class and in campus housing. Still others explained how the college curriculum doesn't accurately reflect and speak to their experiences.

The speak-out reflected the growing realization that college campuses are not immune to or isolated from the intense racism and oppression woven into the fabric of American society.

After being led in a chant of "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, right-wing bigots go away!" by DePaul student Sam Peiffer, protesters marched to the Student Center where Yiannopoulos was speaking.

Seeing the size and enthusiasm of the demonstration, Michael Lynch--the student senator for intercultural awareness and a prominent student leader--called for students to enter the Student Center and protest outside the auditorium where Yiannopoulos was speaking. Inside, students pounded on the entrance to the doors of the auditorium, chanting, "One, two, three, four, tear down that racist door! Five, six, seven, eight, Milo is full of hate!"

Inside the event, DePaul alumnus and community organizer Edward Ward and a group of protesters bravely took over the stage, blowing a whistle and shouting, "This man is an idiot!" Faced with long disruptions inside the auditorium and a growing protest at the doors, Yiannopoulos chose to cut the event short.

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THE DEPAUL protest was reminiscent of the recent demonstration at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), where thousands of protesters caused Donald Trump to cancel a campaign appearance in March.

After the Trump protest, right-wing pundits made confused arguments about protesters' "attack on free speech." Likewise, Yiannopoulos and the campus right claim that protesting a speaker you disagree with infringes on their free speech.

But free speech rights are meant to protect people from arbitrary restrictions imposed upon them by the state. Using free speech rights to protest the speech of others in no way infringes on the right to free speech. In fact, it's one of the best ways that the right to free speech can be put to use and is fully in keeping with realizing the ideals of a democratic society. As one student's protest placard read: "Chanting is free speech, too."

In response to the announcement that Yiannopoulos was coming to campus, some students circulated a petition asking university administrators to prevent him from speaking on campus.

Going forward, campus activists should debate whether calling for restrictions on others' rights is productive, since such restrictions on the right to speak and organize are more likely to be wielded against the campus left than against the right.

Long before the so-called "chalkening," DePaul washed away an anti-police brutality chalk display created by DePaul's chapter of Amnesty International. And DePaul--with Dennis Holtschneider as president--notoriously denied tenure in 2007 to world-renowned scholar Norman Finkelstein, who came under pressure for his unrelenting criticism of Israel's colonialism and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Indeed, on campuses around the country, speech codes are most often used today against Palestine solidarity activists. In New Albany, Ohio, a high school principal recently invoked the concept of "safe spaces" to shut down a chapter of Amnesty International.

Both the anti-Trump mobilization in March and the recent demonstration at DePaul show that when it comes to fighting far-right bigotry, activists don't have to call on administrations or the state to fight our battles for us. We're more than capable of confronting bigotry with solidarity and organization.

While it's right to demand a campus, city and world safe from violence and bigotry, the only people who can keep us safe are ourselves.

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STUDENTS ARE right to be outraged by Yiannopoulos' backward views. He denies and tries to explain away features of oppression in U.S. society, like the wage gap between men and women, the problem of sexual assault on campus, and higher rates of suicide among Black and LGBT youth. Yiannopoulos associates Muslims with terrorism and calls Black Lives Matter a "Black supremacist" movement, raising the slogan "Blue Lives Matter" in response.

Yiannopoulos is wrong, which is enough to justify protesting him. But Yiannopoulos also represents a more dangerous threat than run-of-the-mill Republican bigotry in the context of an increasingly polarized society hit hard by economic crisis. He pries open the gates for even more nefarious right-wing forces to organize by downplaying the threat they pose and making them seem more respectable in the process.

As DePaul Socialists supporter Sam Peiffer said during the campus speak-out:

Milo goes online and he says, "Oh, well, I'm not a Nazi, I'm just a troll. And all these kids who post swastikas and write 'Trump 2k16' and 'Fuck Mexico'--they're not Nazis either, they're just messing around, fuck your 'safe space.'" When Milo says that, what that's doing is creating a greater capacity to organize for people who sympathize with those ideas.

Populist and far-right forces characteristically seek to deflect anger created by hard economic times and government cutbacks away from the system responsible for the crisis and direct it at convenient scapegoats instead--usually minorities, immigrants, the labor movement and the left.

Behind Yiannopoulos' attention-grabbing tactics lies a deeply reactionary worldview that advocates building a far-right movement aimed at smashing the left and rolling back the gains won by social movements of the past.

To see this at work, consider Yiannopoulos' open praise for extreme right-wing parties around the world--such as UK Independence Party in Britain and PEGIDA in Germany--all of which blur the distinctions between themselves and the openly fascist right. In a U.S. context, Yiannopoulos has given political cover to the small but growing "alt-right" online movement.

This dynamic was also evident when Donald Trump failed to disavow the support for his campaign from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan when asked about them directly in late February.

Though the far right in the U.S. is still disorganized and has yet to gain a mass following, the filth that Yiannopoulos' speaking tour stirs up lends urgency to the project of pre-empting the far right's efforts to turn our universities into platforms for their bigotry before they're able to gain a foothold. In response to "Black Lives Matter!" chants at the DePaul protest, for example, some of Yiannopoulos' supporters raised slogans like: "We want nightsticks, not lynching" and "I should've brought my gun." Another called for Black protesters to "go back to Africa."

The problem is not that Yiannopoulos says hurtful things--though he is certainly an expert at that--but that he helps to create an atmosphere where people who want to do far worse than insult activists can feel confident to organize openly. The best way to prevent them from succeeding is to expose the role Yiannopoulos is playing and to oppose his presence on university campuses through big and combative demonstrations wherever he appears.

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THE DEMONSTRATION against Yiannopoulos exceeded organizers' expectations and took on a life of its own beyond their plans. Organizers' expectations were low in part because very few student organizations endorsed the demonstration prior to the day it occurred, mainly, it seems, because they weren't sure about what a mobilization could accomplish.

To build on and repeat the May 24 victory, DePaul activists will need to build a culture of solidarity based on the idea that "an injury to one is an injury to all," in which students who support social justice come together to support each other's struggles and organizations. While some activists in the run-up to the event expressed concern about administrative reprisals, the best defense against political repression is solidarity and strength in numbers.

But some activists argued that any protest would strengthen Yiannopoulos and the Republicans by giving them attention--not realizing that well-organized and thoughtful protest can shape the nature of this attention in a way that instead strengthens the left.

Organizers were right to move on from these debates and focus on bringing groups and individuals on board who were ready and willing to fight. Hopefully, the experience of Tuesday's demonstration will bring these organizations into the fold in the future.

Lastly, debates about whether to call for the university to shut down the event were and are important, but these shouldn't be an obstacle to achieving unity in action around those things activists do agree about--calling and organizing large demonstrations against bigotry.

In the future, activists will benefit from forming ad-hoc organizing coalitions much earlier in response to provocations like the Yiannopoulos tour. With planning and patience, future protests can bring out not just hundreds, but thousands--eventually in coordination with students at other universities--setting the stage for DePaul students and all young people in Chicago to become a force for justice in the city.