A Report from UConn CAN
Many of us here at UConn are still reeling from the most intense political clash we’ve seen on campus in years. You’ve probably seen the news, but here’s a quick recap.
White nationalist, Milo-wannabe, Lucian Wintrich comes to campus for a speech. At least 75% of the 200-member audience there are hostile, with at least 100 other hostile people outside who couldn’t get in. Students of color and queer students formed a significant part of the opposition. Tons of heckling. Speaker talks about white persecution, the un-assimilability of people of color, and flashes the Pepe the Frog meme. Seventy-five percent of the room walks out. As people are milling around waiting to exit, a female student takes the speaker’s lecture notes. Speaker assaults woman. Speaker arrested. Fist fight. Broken glass outside from the people outside who want to get in and confront the speaker. One man arrested for standing too close to the glass door then “de-arrested” by the crowd, which snatch him out of police custody and spirit him back into their arms. And once all the students are out, and when the only people left in the building are the speaker and the police who have Wintrich in custody, someone lobs a smoke bomb into the auditorium, probably to flush him out. This all happens at a pretty unradical campus, and in a part of the state they call “The Quiet Corner.”
Without a doubt, the people who showed up to protest the event shut it down. They did it with heckling, a walkout, tense exchanges, but without initiating any violence on their side. As a member of the UConn Campus Antifascist Network, what I’m offering here is a strategic breakdown of how this shutdown came to be, and a set of lessons I learned from it.
Most of what follows assumes the basic antifascist position of “no platform for fascists,” so I’m not going to rehearse that argument here. But make no mistake, that’s what this guy was. He talked about whites as the real persecuted class in America, the only group unable to express its identity. He claimed that people of color are failing to assimilate to “American” (i.e., white) norms. He flashed Pepe the Frog as part of his presentation, a white supremacist meme from the darkest corner of the internet — 4Chan – which he called “brilliant.” He drank milk throughout the presentation, a racist dog whistle symbolizing the immunity to lactose intolerance among whites, hence their genetic difference and superiority. He was guarded by Proud Boy Sal Cipolla, who was photographed at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville with David Duke, and who sports Mussolini’s fasces as his Facebook profile pic. Wintrich began his intellectually vacuous talk by referring to a “fat woman” he met in a bar and said that half the country was run by “tranny communists,” all the while hurling transphobic slurs at his audience. In short, he wasn’t a mere conservative who was here for civil dialogue and conversation.
Advertisements for Wintrich’s talk, titled “It’s OK to be White,” only hit the campus community 24-hours before the event, which sent all progressive forces here scrambling with very little prep time, and certainly no time for meetings to plan strategy. A variety of individuals and groups came out to protest the talk, including the Campus Antifascist Network. Our group, composed of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates, sent out an announcement calling allied groups in the campus community to come out and make sure Wintrich “did not have a friendly audience,” but we explicitly stated that we were not calling for actual disruptions (more on this in a moment). We certainly got bodies into that room, but we can’t claim credit for all of them, nor even a majority. Calls were going out left and right. Beyond going in with unfriendly intent, there was no coordinated game plan across the different groups – many of us were meeting each other for the first time that night.
So, what are some lessons from the experience?
It’s nerve-wracking, but confront the fascists.
There was some debate in our group about whether direct confrontation merely played into Wintrich’s provocateur game, but we decided to go ahead and do it, and we don’t regret it one bit. The day leading to the event was nerve-wracking for many of us, and because we come with different levels of vulnerability, it was far more unnerving for some than others. You never know the balance of forces until you get there. Will there be a shadow army of alt-righters from the campus we didn’t know about, and dozens of off-campus neo-Nazis too? Will there only be twenty dissenting voices? Will it be a 50-50 split? Will there be violence?
Once we got there, we quickly learned that we were in good company. But only after we arrived. There were only a few faculty members, and they were the least at risk. Many queer students, trans students, students of color, and undocumented students overcame their fears and showed up, not knowing what would await them once they got there. Everyone overcame their fears, and it paid off.
It helps to have the groundwork laid, even though nothing goes according to plan.
Like I said, UConn CAN cannot claim credit for the size of the crowd, and I cannot say for sure how many people were there because of our call. However, I’m very thankful for the groundwork we had laid, which helped spread the word and get feet on the ground very fast.
Our chapter here is mostly educational, with panels and talks on the history of fascist politics, white supremacy, and how they manifest themselves today. But we also have a rally preparation subcommittee that plans for precisely this kind of event, and a programming/outreach subcommittee that makes contact with allies. In a general meeting earlier this semester, we debated and ratified a protocol document, modified from the national organization, entitled “What to do when a white nationalist comes to campus.” I have to admit, none of us had time to look at it when the everything hit the fan.
Be that as it may, because we had an alert list of over 100 people with overlapping links to a variety of other organizations, we could get the alert out very fast and convey the message of concerted action. We were also able to produce and distribute satirical flyers at a moment’s notice (the flyers simply stated, “It’s not OK to act like a victim because you’re white” next to an image of a crying baby). We decided to post them right next to the pro-Wintrich flyers. Other groups came up with their own counter-flyers, many better designed than ours.
Actual “Antifa” Made a Difference
Our group doesn’t identify as “antifa” – we’re not street-brawlers. We identify as “antifascist” in the old sense of broad-based agitation and coalition-building aimed at halting the spread of right-wing extremism and building a more democratic world in its place. Yet New Haven Antifa showed up too, and they made a difference (I think they were from New Haven – we’re not 100% sure, as we didn’t know of their existence beforehand).
Our group is mostly graduate employees with some faculty and undergraduates. For many of us, this event was happening at our workplace. Its rules hang over us, including an explicit injunction against heckling in the University Bylaws. With cops and cameras everywhere, we weren’t about to risk our jobs over a two-bit Milo wannabe. Students were also beholden to the institution’s rules through the threat of expulsion, and for undocumented students, much worse.
But as a friend of mine observed, New Haven Antifa (?) came from outside and weren’t accountable to the institution’s rules to the same degree. They set the tone by meeting provocation with provocation and by acting relentlessly obnoxious, creating an atmosphere of mayhem that didn’t allow Wintrich to get much traction. Some anti-Wintrich students were annoyed by the outsiders and thought that they took up too much space. Others took their cue. Whatever the case, once enough people start heckling, even when ringed by police, the police know there’s not a lot they can do, bylaws or no. The cops in the room were very disciplined, and seemed to make a strategic decision not to start a riot by plucking people out of the crowd. I’m glad they refrained, since such action would have made the situation much, much worse, even though it would have also effectively shut down the event.
Would the students have mass heckled on their own without the antifa there? Probably so. But the antifa certainly gave the room an added edge.
If enough people are in the room, a well-timed walkout shuts it down. Peacefully.
The event was billed from 8-9pm. The speaker started at about 8:10, and the provocations went back and forth with little intellectual content for about 30 minutes. It was a sickening carnival. After Wintrich flashed his Pepe the Frog meme and started denigrating undocumented immigrants around 8:40, a number us got up and simply shouted “Walk Out!” It wasn’t planned, mind you. It was a spontaneous and heart-felt expression of “we’re done with this clown.” The vast majority of the room got up and the same time, and with only a few exits, it takes at a long time for a crowd of 200 to leave, running down the shot-clock for the speaker. It also meant tons of people milling around, some about the podium, arguing with him individually as if the presentation was already over (which it pretty much was). In this environment, one person grabbed Wintrich’s speech from the table, and he tackled her from behind. At that point, the event was done (he was apparently far more rattled than he let on).
Even if Wintrich had not lost his cool, the walkout visibly demonstrated a community rejection of his message, and did so peacefully and legally, within the realm of free speech, without breaking any rules that anyone could be charged for. Would the police have stayed on for an extra inning so that he could talk to his 30+ member fan base? Maybe. But given how much their security detail costs, and the fact that they wanted to get home too, I’m not so sure.
Make no mistake: it was ugly, but it was a victory.
Thankfully, most people oppose Wintrich’s message, even many Republicans. But there are those who will say that what happened at UConn made Wintrich a free speech martyr. No doubt, he has whined about his persecution, even though he clearly came here to start a verbal fight. He’s also taken legal action against the police.
So what? Let him complain to his Breitbart base about his martyrdom. Yes, there are many folks outside the Breitbart base that reject Wintrich’s opponents as uncivil. But ultimately there are as many questions around here about why the College Republicans – ostensibly representatives of a mainstream political party — invited such an extremist in the first place. The event exposed the campus alt-right as tiny and vastly outnumbered, and it showed the students – many of them overtly dehumanized by Wintrich – that they weren’t alone, and that if they came out and faced their fears, they could make a difference. I was struck by the atmosphere outside the speaking hall after we all left, which was still a bit tense but generally relieved, even festive. Wintrich flipped out, and now that he’s on record as assaulting a student, his campus speaking days are done (one would hope).
The First Amendment protects the speech of individuals from government repression. State institutions fully performed their due diligence according to this mandate: the police were there in force to protect Wintrich, and the University allowed him a platform (even though the latter decision is hotly contested here. There was a student demonstration this Friday about our President’s decision to allow him onto campus, and the protest is ongoing).
The rest of us have free speech rights as well, and that night, we used ours to oppose him, demonstrating to the country the unpopularity of re-branded, hipster, white supremacy amongst a younger, more tolerant generation who came out to resist its normalization. Wintrich got publicity, sure, but as a widely despised, racist clown, and now one with a criminal record to boot.
We’ve learned from this experience that there are a lot more of us than we realized, and we’re certain that alliances will be broadened and deepened as we go forward.
We played his game, made it blow up in his face, and sent the fascist packing. I’m glad we did.