Tom Tancredo broke his middle toe the last time he visited UNC-Chapel Hill. His now-infamous visit almost exactly a year ago erupted into a rowdy protest, and in the tussle a campus police officer trying to shield the former Republican congressman and presidential candidate from student activists accidentally stomped on Tancredo’s foot.
On Monday, April 26, Tancredo returned to campus for another shot at spreading his nativist message. This time, he finished the evening without a limp. And though he was more sedate and reasonable than in his previous, often inflammatory media appearances, there was ample controversy.
“Not all civilizations are morally equivalent,” Tancredo told the small crowd at the Graham Student Union. For example, he said, “socialism doesn’t tolerate the free marketplace of ideas.” After praising the Western world, Tancredo took a few swipes at the ivory tower. “Few societies … have such hatred of Western culture as academia.”
It was a far cry from last year’s aborted speech, when raucous student protesters shouted Tancredo down, broke a window, prompted campus police to discharge their pepper spray and chased the conservative speaker off campus.
Last year’s event was a public relations disaster for UNC. After the appearance, Tancredo rolled through conservative media outlets, excoriating the leftist students, faculty and institutional bias that he claimed led to the debacle. Chancellor Holden Thorp publicly apologized to the former Colorado congressman
This time attendees were greeted with a succession of security checkpoints before being ushered quietly into the student’s union’s dimly lit auditorium. They were also presented with a litany of rules set by university officials: no disruptive behavior. No wooden or metal signs. No bags. No food or drink. Questions posed during the Q-and-A session must be held to 60 seconds or less. Those found in violation of the rules would face possible arrest, and students would risk academic disciplinary action.
Tancredo began his prepared speech with a sober and philosophical defense of his political views. He holds that immigrants to the U.S. should “assimilate” into American culture, learning the English language and the basis of our political system.
A few minutes into the speech, Tancredo confronted the night’s only significant disruption. About two-thirds of the audience, most of whom appeared to be students, stood up and chanted “education, not deportation!” before filing out of the auditorium. “We aren’t afraid of you!” one student yelled as he headed for the door.
“There’s nothing democratic about this,” Tancredo said as the last students left. “The idea that there’s anything about what I say that is too frightening to be heard has no place in an institution of higher learning.”
Since his 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Tancredo has been central to immigration-oriented controversy. In the past, he has proposed a moratorium on all immigration, suggested bombing Mecca, called Miami a third-world country, asked a Tea Party crowd to help send President Obama “back to Kenya” and pitched the idea of a national literacy test for voting eligibility. That last point particularly rankled those who remember the notorious Alabama literacy tests designed to keep African-Americans from the polls.
During Monday’s speech, Tancredo repeatedly denied any racist inclination, insisting that his devotion is for Western society, not white people. His complete remarks suggested a more nuanced view than his sound bites generally indicate. In an interview with Denver’s KDVR-TV, Tancredo said he supports the recent immigration law passed in Arizona because it enforces laws that the federal government hasn’t. However, he said, he is concerned the law could lead to racial profiling.
“If I had anything to say about it, we’d be doing it in Colorado,” he said, cautioning, “I do not want people here … pulled over because you look like you should be pulled over.”
However, the “racist” label stuck. Starting a week before the event, anti-Tancredo groups distributed pamphlets across campus calling the speaker a white supremacist.
“If that stuff was true, I’d be mad at me, too,” Tancredo said after Monday’s event.
Outside the student union, the group of around 100 students gathered in the Pit to chant and listen to impassioned bullhorn speeches. The speakers in the Pit deplored everything from the Arizona law to the Wake County Board of Education’s recent moves to halt enforced busing and move toward a neighborhood school model.
UNC-CH sophomore Laurel Ashton played the role of informal moderator of the protest, introducing speakers and firing up the crowd.
“I believe what’s going on is parallel to what happened during the civil rights movement,” she said. “Tancredo, Youth for Western Civilization, the Tea Party … They’re the present-day KKK.”
Youth for Western Civilization (YWC) invited Tancredo to speak last year, and again this time, though under different leadership. Last year’s president, Riley Matheson, graduated, and his successor, Nikhil Patel, was forced out for being too liberal, according to The Daily Tar Heel.
“YWC hasn’t really done anything this semester,” Patel wrote in an e-mail to the Indy. “That, in conjunction with bringing Tancredo back, almost makes YWC look like a one-trick pony … I don’t think there’s gonna be much in the way of YWC leadership next year.”
YWC’s current president, UNC-CH senior Daryl Ann Dunigan, organized Monday’s event.
YWC has been criticized since its inception as a white supremacist organization. An alleged co-founder and former Tancredo staffer, Marcus Epstein, was charged in 2008 with a hate crime (the charges were dismissed). Current YWC National President Kevin DeAnna wore a pinstriped suit to Monday’s event at UNC-CH and prefaced his comments to the Indy with a disclaimer that DeAnna, not Epstein, was the sole founder of YWC.
“I thought the walkout was cute,” DeAnna said, fiddling with a thick cigar. “But was what he was saying that controversial? It’s incredible to see such violence dedicated to preventing a conversation.”
Correction (April 30, 2010): This article originally said the event was Monday, April 23; Monday’s date was April 26.