Safety on our College campuses: the aftermath of yiannopoulos' speech at depaul
Written by Catrien Egbert
I think I realized it halfway through a speech during our peace circle.
We were listening to a student discuss peaceful protest and the power within ourselves to make change when a group of attendees from Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech began to circle the perimeters of our circle, holding a sign which read “MILO” and an arrow pointing towards the Student Center.
Bear in mind, we were nowhere near Yiannopoulos’ speech.
Bear in mind, we were conducting a “peace circle” five minutes away from the student center.
Bear in mind, we were emphasizing the importance of compassion and solidarity.
The late-afternoon sun was burning my shoulders, the air hot and muggy; I couldn’t help but feel angry as I watched unfamiliar men stalk around our circle, suggestively laughing at every mention of “safe space.” I realized it then. Oh, I thought. This is a powder keg.
From the quad, we marched to just outside the student center, where Yiannopoulos’s speech was taking place. As we walked, we chanted “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, right-wing bigots go away,” carried signs that read “What would Vinnie do?” and condemned hate-speech. As we walked, crowds turned to watch us, most of which held their phones up — undoubtedly for Snapchat. We rallied around the statue of John Egan, and as we unified I felt the tone of the night shift.
From outside the student center we marched inwards, where we waited outside the door of Yiannopoulos’s presentation continuing our chanting of “Black Lives Matter” and “What do we want? Justice!” During this, the now-circulated students stopped and interrupted Yiannopoulos’s speech, forcing him to leave the student center. As he exited the building, chaos erupted. Suddenly we found ourselves face-to-face on one sidewalk: conservatives in Trump hats and slur-ridden shirts pressed against liberals advocating for the elimination of hate-speech and advocacy for the oppressed. As one group chanted, the other rose their voices to combat the other. The massive crowd spilled from the student center to the quad, during which altercations became violent and students — mainly marginalized students — faced physical and verbal harassment.
When I returned to DePaul University the day after the powder keg caught spark and exploded, I felt somehow like I was experiencing an alternate reality than my fellow students.
Walking through campus the next day, I couldn’t help but view the Quad differently: where I once saw students lounging and working, I could only picture the anger, violence, and altercations that had invaded the space a day prior.
I was angry, I was burning, I was fuming, but I was silent.
So far, coverage of the May 24 protest has painted DePaul students’ actions in a grossly inaccurate light. News — even reputable sources — have explained students’ anger over Yiannapoulos without contingency or context. The conservative Brietbart News has dominated the conversation, ushering thousands of angry conservatives to DePaul’s attack on social media — nevermind that the source is directly affiliated with Yiannopoulos (as one quick Google search will show).
The truth is political tensions have been high on this campus for months.
Facebook groups have been the site of flame wars. Well-meaning debate has turned into near-public brawls. Conversation has been particularly heated since April 5, when students woke up to the now infamous “chalkening,” (see more here) of phrases like “Blue Lives Matter,” “Make DePaul Great Again,” and “Trump Train 2016” written outside DePaul’s Student Center. Many students found these phrases problematic, amplified by statements from leaders of the College Republicans who have advocated “building a wall” during debates between DePaul Democrats, DePaul Socialists, and DePaul College Republicans — intended to foster friendly discourse on campus.
Those intentions were questionable.
DePaul has been the center of xenophobic, racist, and sexist remarks for months. The morning of Yiannapoulos’ visit to DePaul, “Trump 16” and “Fuck Mexico” was written in oil paint in the center of our Quad.
The premise of allowing Yiannapoulos to speak was to support freedom of speech, open DePaul to new ideologies, and allow students to engage in dialogue with perspectives apart from their own. These were the justifications the university gave when this event was originally called into question.
As someone who is engaged politically, I understand the value of expressing opinions. However, the intention of someone like Yiannapoulos is not to create productive conversation. Yiannapoulos’s college tour, titled with an intentionally provocative slur, is designed to be as offensive, inciteful, and harmful to as many marginalized groups as possible. Supporting ideologies like, “feminism is cancer,” “rape culture is a myth,” people of color should be “sent back” to Africa, being LGBTQ+ is a “choice —” Yiannapoulos is passed off as an entertainer, so-called by our university president. The truth is, violent rhetoric yields violent response.
Violent rhetoric validates and legitimizes a particular breed of hatred that removes it from the realm of freedom of speech.
This is where conservative and liberal ideology differs — but when DePaul University had marginalized students voicing their worries, discomfort, and fear at Yiannapoulos’ visit, DePaul refused to listen.
How can DePaul pretend to be surprised at what happened?
How can DePaul pretend that this wouldn’t become the same kind of protest that erupted at UIC just two months ago?
The day of the event DePaul University had 4.5/5 stars on Facebook. Now, over 6,000 one-star reviews later, DePaul holds a measly 1.3/5 stars. Flocking from Yiannapoulos’s posts on Twitter and Facebook, conservatives have been quick to flood our university’s page, spam students on Twitter, and even send death threats via social media. The reviews themselves are horrendous (save yourself the blood pressure and don’t read them) but many of them criticize “fascist” and “radical” students, complain for lack of free speech, and admonish DePaul for not “protecting” a guest speaker.
Not one of the reviews expresses concerns for the protection of those Tuesday who actually experienced violence: the students.
Not one review addresses the fact that Yiannapoulos tweeted photos of DePaul students — before the protest had started and before he was even on campus — with the words, “This is what a DePaul feminist looks like,” subjugating students to degrading and humiliating attacks on their physical appearance.
Not one review addresses the conservative news reporter who, when told by a protester that she didn’t want to be filmed, began to shove his camera in the face of students and antagonize them with comments like, “Do any of you special snowflakes care to tell me what the hell you’re protesting?” (The reviews also fail to mention that this is the only other person besides the student that painted “Fuck Mexico” on our Quad the morning who was arrested — no one from the actual protest was taken into custody.)
Not one review addresses the women of color who were shoved to the ground by Yiannapoulos supporters — grabbing their chests to push them down.
Not one review addresses the man whom I watched twist the arms of a student behind her body while he pushed his pelvis into her back.
Not one review addresses the dozens of Yiannapoulos supporters who refused to leave campus long after Yiannapoulos himself was gone — the protesters who told students of color to “go back to Ferguson,” who wished “genocide on black people,” who called protesters “gangsters” and “thugs.”
Not one review addresses the direct messages students of color have received following Yiannapoulos’s presentations.
Not one review is talking about the private information leaked, the death threats, or the promises of direct physical harm to students.
Not one review addresses the noose found two days later on the sidewalk outside a DePaul residence hall.
I have to ask: DePaul, was it worth it?
Are you glad that, in letting Yiannapoulos visit campus during an already-contested time, you compromised the safety of your marginalized students? Are you proud to have done nothing — save for calling in a few useless CPD officers — to curb the violence towards your students during the protest itself?
I think so much of the pain felt from the demonstration was the fact that so much of the violence came to us, to our campus and our community, from individuals with no personal stake in DePaul. Yiannapoulos’s presentation was attended by dozens of supporters from the city, from the suburbs, and from even as far away as Indiana and Ohio. The line for Yiannapoulos wrapped around the Student Center, but the majority of attendees were not DePaul students. The DePaul College Republicans, whether intentional or not, brought hatred, violence, bigotry, and prejudice to our campus. The protesters received the violence — and the blame — from this decision.
I’ve seen a lot of DePaul students who are angry with the actions of the protestors.
I’ve seen critique that students shouldn’t have stormed the stage.
The reasons behind that anger are valid — the Student Center was closed early (though not without pay, contrary to earlier statements), leaving many on-campus residents without dinner. The protests disrupted class, space on campus, and comfortable community. But even in the pain, in the anger, in the frustration and the hurt, I hope that my fellow students (and more broadly, anyone following this debacle) finds empathy and solidarity with those of us who protested. As DePaul students, we cannot sit in a classroom knowing the person next to us is scared for their safety on this campus because of the color of their skin. We can’t call ourselves Blue Demons knowing that our LGBTQ+ community faces slurs and cruelty. We cannot advocate for freedom of speech when the result is polarization and altercation. We cannot continue to pride this university for its diversity without hearing the voices and needs of our marginalized students.
We can’t accept the comforts of passivity when it means that our friends and community face physical, verbal, and emotional violence.
It’s time for this institution to address racism, xenophobia, and sexism on campus. It’s time for accountability.
It’s time — more than ever — to stand in solidarity with each other.
Contact Catrien by email at firstname.lastname@example.org