The scheduled talk by former Republican Congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Tuesday night was cut very short by raucous, angry student protesters.
Tancredo entered a large classroom in Bingham Hall shortly after 6:30 p.m. to jeers, boos and profanity from a largely hostile crowd. More than 100 students packed the lecture hall, many of them holding banners and signs in protest of Tancredo’s anti-illegal immigration stance, and hundreds more waited outside, shaking the building with chants and stomping feet.
After a few attempts to calm the crowd, Tancredo leaned against the podium at the front of the class, crossed his arms and waited.
“They’re fascists,” he said. “These kids have been radicalized. That’s what our institutions have created.”
Seconds later, there was a loud scuffle in the hallway as campus police attempted to clear the building of protesters, using pepper spray and waving Tasers. Two students crouched on the ground outside the door, crying.
Inside, a student from the Carolina Hispanic Association admonished the crowd to be quiet. “We’d like to hear what he has to say,” she said.
The night’s only moment of calm followed. Tancredo offered to listen to students’ protests, if they would listen to him, and then began to discuss his views on higher education and illegal immigrants. Tancredo said he had been invited to speak in opposition to the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, proposed federal legislation that would allow the children of illegal immigrants to gain citizenship through college education or military service.
A student group Youth for Western Civilization (YWC) invited Tancredo to speak at UNC-CH. Riley Matheson, the senior who started the Chapel Hill chapter of YWC, attempted to introduce Tancredo, but was largely drowned out by the crowd.
“You believe in white people’s superiority, you fuck!” one student shouted, to cheers.
Tancredo ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 on an admittedly single-issue platform: Stopping illegal immigration. While in Congress, Tancredothe grandson of Italian immigrantsintroduced the Mass Immigration Reduction Act, which would have placed a moratorium on all immigration, legal or otherwise, into the U.S., except for family members of current citizens.
For days before Tancredo’s appearance, flyers dotted elevator walls and utility poles around campus, calling the YWCand its invited guestracist, a charge both Matheson and Tancredo emphatically denied. A host of left-leaning groups banded together to protest the event, starting with a dance party in the Pit and a banner-making session.
The protest worked in disrupting his speech. Seconds after Tancredo started discussing his opposition to the DREAM Act, a classroom window shattered, broken by a rock-throwing protester outside.
“That’s it,” he said, walking briskly into the hallway with Matheson, through the the acrid scent of pepper spray that still hung in the air, and out Bingham Hall’s back door. A student, carrying a cardboard sign that read “NO HATE SPEECH AT UNC,” bolted after Tancredo and Matheson, screaming profanity and insults.
The protesters stayed long after Tancredo’s departure, giving speeches through a bullhorn, chanting and berating campus police for using force on them. One student complained, to cacophonous cheers, that safety officers were protecting “racists,” while those that really needed protectionthe studentswere being zapped and sprayed.
UNC-CH junior Rupert Campbell, one of the protest’s organizers, walked through the crowd, handing out anti-YWC flyers.
“Free speech is laudable to the extent that hate speech isn’t part of it,” he said. Campbell, who compared YWC to the Hitler Youth movement in pre-World War II Germany, said the protest wasn’t necessarily organized to drown Tancredo out. “We just wanted to make our voices heard. We wanted to raise awareness of equality.”
Tyler Oakley, a UNC-CH graduate student in Romance languages, also helped organize the protest.
“Youth for Western Civilization attacks multiculturalism itself, which, to our minds, is an attack on liberty,” he said.
Others were not so enthusiastic about the protesters’ methods. Alicia Soto, a member of the Carolina Hispanic Association, said she opposed Tancredo’s nativist policies, but wanted the chance to debate him.
“We wanted to hear him out,” she said. “Unfortunately, some other groups here have protested to the point where we couldn’t. He at least had the right to speak, to say what he had to say.”
During Tancredo’s brief talk, UNC-CH senior Pier Duncan tried, without success, to quiet the crowd. After Tancredo left, she expressed her frustration.
“I think the protest was counterproductive to supposedly promoting a democratic society, and I think it makes Carolina look bad as a liberal university,” she said. “I actually agree with the protesters, but I don’t agree with the way they went about it.”
In a prepared statement, UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp said he was “disappointed” that Tancredo did not have the opportunity to speak. Thorp also defended the use of pepper spray by campus police, saying they “appropriately handled a difficult situation.”