Milo Yiannopoulos greets polarized campus at Young Americans for Liberty event
Journalist’s appearance sparks protest, high tensions
Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos spoke about free speech, his support for Donald Trump and the state of Islam on Thursday night as part of a Young Americans for Liberty event, prompting a large protest on the steps of the Mary Graydon Center.
The event attracted a standing-room only audience made up of AU students and a significant number of attendees not affiliated with the University. Following an introduction by YAL president John Nagle '17, Yiannopoulos entered the room donning sunglasses.
“To the question of unscheduled interruptions, I will be donating $20 to the Donald Trump campaign for each [protestor],” Yiannopoulos told the laughing crowd as he stepped up to the podium. “And $50 to the Milo Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant for underprivileged white males.”
Yiannopoulos delivered remarks on the importance of free speech on college campuses and beyond, noting that the left has “succeeded in overreaching” so much into people’s personal lives that it started to “annoy the hot people,” along with rich and well-connected people. Yiannopoulos ended his speech with a warning for the protestors and non-believers in the room.
“If there are any feminists left stinking the back of the room up, I have one message for you, which is [that] you’ve overplayed your hand and now you’re going to lose, and it’s going to be great,” Yiannopoulos said.
Answering questions ranging from inquiries about his hair care regimen to his views on the Black Lives Matter movement, Yiannopoulos talked extensively about the impact of Islam on “Western culture,” especially in Europe and England, where he is originally from.
“[Muslims] represent an existential threat to the existence of gay people, and for the left to dare to tell me that I’m threatening their physical safety, that I represent a threat to student security, that they are triggered...that they are traumatized by my presence on campus when the candidates they vote for are bringing in people who want them dead, it is unconscionable,” Yiannopoulos said.
Nagle, who organized the event, said in a February interview that Yiannopoulos was brought to campus to “push back against popularly held notions” at AU. He reiterated the importance of dissenting opinions in an interview with The Eagle last week.
“If there’s any place where there should be an unrestricted exchange of ideas, it should be college campuses and there have been recent trends against that,” Nagle told The Eagle. “That should upset and be cause for concern for students, and they should fight to assert their free speech rights on campus.”
Within a minute of Yiannopoulos taking the stage, a student protester ran through the aisle, holding a sign reading “Roses are red, violets are blue. Milo, we are too woke to tolarate (sic) you.” Several audience members chanted “Trump! Trump!” as the woman was escorted away from Yiannopoulos by a public safety officer.
Freshman Stephanie Black chose a different method of dissent. Expecting to be quickly tossed out of the event, Black stood up from her seat soon after the first protester, holding a sign with the phrase “Free Speech ≠ Hate Speech.” To her surprise, Black said, no one asked her to leave or escorted her from the room, allowing her to stand for the remainder of Yiannopoulos’ remarks and subsequent Q&A with attendees.
“I had no idea I would be allowed to stay standing,” Black said in an interview. “So after public safety didn’t come forward to remove me, I had to make a choice to sit down and leave myself or stay standing. I chose to stay standing.”
As audience members took photos of and with her, Black continued to look straight ahead, often making eye contact with Yiannopoulos as he answered questions from the audience. Several attendees leaned over to her as they stood in the question line, whispering “good job” and at one point handing her a water bottle. Black said she has been surprised by some of the reactions to her protest.
“The trolls and the hate I was expecting. I was prepared for it,” Black said. “What I wasn't prepared for was the overwhelming amount of support I've received. Truly, I am so touched by the dozens of people who cheered me on in that room, who have reached out to me, shared my story, and shook my hand.”
When Yiannopoulos attempted to end the Q-and-A, tensions overflowed when a black student, who had been waiting in line to ask a question, approached the mic and confronted Yiannopoulos about his previous characterization of Black Lives Matter as a “black supremacist” movement. Captured on video, the exchange prompted comments from the crowd, with one man heard yelling “black privilege” as the black student continued to press Yiannopoulos about Black Lives Matter.
A woman standing at the other mic told the audience that she “didn’t think it should end like this.” The crowd applauded, bringing an end to the event. As audience members rushed to Yiannopoulos’ meet-and-greet line, a black student involved in the exchange exited the venue in tears.
“Say NO to Milo” turns spotlight to AU
Yiannopoulos’ scheduled appearance originally sparked backlash upon its announcement in February. When freshman Noah Leibowitz first heard about Yiannopoulos’ visit, she immediately wanted to organize a protest and wrote an op-ed for AWOL discussing the issue. As potential co-organizers became busy with other responsibilities, Leibowitz said she was emboldened to organize a protest by herself when she heard news of the murder of black trans woman Keyonna Blakeney in Rockville last weekend.
“That just really hit close to home so I decided I don’t care if I’m the only one organizing this, I need to make this happen,” Leibowitz said in an interview. “I just made the Facebook event [on Monday night] and it just turned into this enormous protest. I thought we would be lucky if we got 10 people.”
Titled “Say NO to Milo,” the Facebook event called for students to protest Yiannopoulos’ “deliberate expressions of transphobia, racism, and rape-apology.” Leibowitz said she wanted to expand the protest’s scope to AU, which she believes shoulders the blame for allowing Yiannopoulos to come to campus.
“A lot of people went into the protest thinking it would be us [yelling about Milo],” Leibowitz said. “That’s what people expected, but I wanted to prove a point and say that, like, ‘yeah, he’s the embodiment of what we hate, but what we hate is all around us and we’re not doing anything about it, and AU isn’t doing anything about it.’”
The protest of about 150 people took place an hour before Yiannopoulos was scheduled to appear and featured a “speak-out” in which students were encouraged to share their experiences of oppression at AU. Using Leibowitz’s megaphone, students such as sophomore Emem Obot rose to the steps and expressed their frustration with AU’s treatment of marginalized students.
— The Eagle (@TheEagleOnline) April 22, 2016
“We are nothing but a product and a commodity. We don’t mean [expletive] to AU,” Obot told the crowd. “We just give them money...that’s all they care about. They don’t care about trans folks, they sure as hell don’t care about black folks...This is not your home.”
At times, the demonstration threatened to turn violent as event attendees sporting “Make America Great Again” gear came outside of MGC to take pictures and videos of the protestors. Public safety officers circled the protest and at one point escorted a man away from the area after a heated exchange between the man and several protesters.
“It’s not like we didn’t expect that to happen,” Leibowitz said when asked about the escalating tensions during the protest. “I mean, it’s just gross on their part. They have their entire platform in a room guarded by police to say whatever the [expletive] they want, and we have to risk, so many things to make this protest happen."
Yiannopoulos has featured photos of AU protesters on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, including Leibowitz and Black. One post included a screenshot of Black’s comments during the speak-out with the caption, “dying.”
The protest trended on Facebook’s news ticker for the D.C. area from Friday night through Saturday morning. Despite widespread coverage from conservative media outlets and insults from social media users, Leibowitz said she hopes to create a “radical queer and trans activist group at AU” that operates outside of the University.
“I think the issue is that a lot of activists at AU think that instead of confronting the issues that exist and saying that AU is not a safe space, and trying to deal with the fact that it isn’t, a lot of activists choose to create a safe space in response,” Leibowitz said. “But if you’re just creating a safe space and not trying to alter the space that is AU, then you’re not changing anything.”