Controversial right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos came to UNM Friday night, and along with over 200 demonstrators spurred into protesting his message.
The group of protesters started by chanting “Alt-right, that’s a lie, you a Nazi in disguise” as they set up shop in Cornell Mall not far from where Yiannopoulos attendees were lining up to enter the event. They carried signs saying “Immigrants in, racists out,” and “Nazis not welcome.”
The attendees and protesters were separated by a large contingent of police, but that didn’t stop the numerous, sometimes heated, interactions between those coming to “shut down” Yiannopoulos and those coming to hear him out.
Art, who declined to give his last name, was standing in line to hear Yiannopoulos speak. He said he showed up to support free speech on campus, among other things.
“I’m here to support asking questions, instead of shouting ‘racist,’ instead of pointing fingers and calling people Nazis when you don’t even know them,” Art said. “I’m here to support the political movement, that some would label ‘alt-right,’ when half of us are libertarian here.”
“Alt-right” is a label that’s been assigned by the Democrats, he said, calling the movement an “alternative viewpoint” of Republicans that supports capitalism, free market, free speech and the Second Amendment.
“We’re here to listen to a discussion, ask questions and keep an open mind,” Art said.
Art said misconceptions about what exactly the “alt-right” is have been perpetuated by the media and feminist campaigns, among other causes.
The protesters may think they are doing the right thing, he said, but they are really “virtue signaling,” to bring attention to themselves and their humanity.
He added that the best media comes from individuals, not whole organizations, who bring cameras to show what’s happening firsthand.
“They don’t add a spin to it, they just display what’s going on,” he said, adding that he believes “race-baiting” in the media is dividing the country.
As the sun set, tensions rose as the group of protesters pivoted around the SUB, at times confronting police and throwing smoke bombs.
At points, it was difficult to determine who was in line for the event and who was protesting, as the latter group would inch closer and closer to the SUB to make their message heard before police began to step between the two groups.
David Puthoff, a UNM graduate student and teaching assistant, said he came out to support his students’ right to free speech, or “counter free speech,” as he calls it.
As an English instructor, Puthoff said free speech is important to him, and he applauded University administration for recognizing the toxicity of the event.
“The atmosphere on campus has been really volatile; we don’t know what’s going to happen here today,” he said. “And that’s kind of scary.”
Puthoff said he understands the University’s actions by letting Yiannopoulos’ visit be a free speech event, but called him an “internet troll.”
“This is a University campus; Milo’s message really brings down our discourse,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it comes to this, but a lot of people are exercising their rights, and that’s pretty good.”
Puthoff said if there is a line for how far free speech can go, that line should exist for both sides and if Yiannopoulos has the right to free speech “without any constraint,” then the protesters share the same right.
“Unless the University is willing to draw that line in the sand, this is the kind of event you get. What disturbs me the most is that there is a lot of students who think that this kind of free speech is acceptable,” he said, calling it a “fundamental difference” in worldview.
Puthoff doesn’t think there is an easy compromise in this instance and also knows it’s not just going to “go away.”
“Hopefully there’s a little bit more coming together, but you know what? I don’t really see that right now,” he said. “Unless the right is willing to meet us halfway, I don’t think this is going to get resolved nicely.”
After some protesters rushed the SUB Ballroom windows and began banging on them, a large group of police outfitted in riot gear walled off the protesters from Zimmerman Plaza and the SUB.
Protesters lingered in the area for the entirety of the event, but they had to be pushed away by police before event organizers allowed Yiannopoulos attendees to leave, as a safety precaution.
Ex-City Councilman Rey Garduno called the Yiannopoulos event “hate speech,” and something we are protected from by the Constitution.
“What’s happening here is a way to allow people to denigrate others,” Garduno said. “It’s teaching these students, who say they’re campus Republicans...they’re not that, they’re fascists, they’re mean, mean people. If that’s the way we’re going to act, this place is going to go to hell.”
It’s a misnomer to call this “free speech,” he said.
“If you look around, there are hundreds of police here, helicopters flying above,” Garduno said. “That’s costing us money, nobody can get away with saying that this is ‘free.’”
Garduno said his presence at the protest was in solidarity to say “we can’t allow this to happen,” and acting UNM President Chaouki Abdallah’s rhetoric empowers the wrong sentiments.
“I myself, as a person of color, know that these things can get out of hand,” he said. “Right now, we’re in a situation federally where we have to be careful.”
Maria Covington, another protester, said she believed that, by welcoming Yiannopoulos, UNM is giving its stamp of approval for hate speech to be spread to the community.
While protests are effective, it’s bothersome when it results in unnecessary destruction of property, she said, and it destroys the intended message.
“The message to me, is that hate is not welcome on our campus,” Covington said. “It’s unacceptable for UNM to host someone like this on their campus.”
There is a line to be drawn with free speech, she said, and it comes down to damage.
“When your words are harming another person,” she said. “I think you should be empathetic and should take other people’s feelings into consideration.”
Matthew Reisen is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MReisen88.