Police break up West Bank protest of right-wing speaker

The Wednesday talk by “identitarian” Lauren Southern was organized by conservative student groups.

Members of the Anti-Fascist group speak out against right-wing commentator Lauren Southern outside of Anderson Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 25.

Ananya Mishra

Members of the Anti-Fascist group speak out against right-wing commentator Lauren Southern outside of Anderson Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 25.

Protest, an arrest and fights marked the campus’ reaction to right-wing commentator Lauren Southern’s talk at the University of Minnesota Wednesday night.

A group of nearly 200 demonstrators gathered outside Anderson Hall where around 80 listened to the Canadian YouTube personality give a talk on “the evils and inefficiencies of socialism and the necessity of free speech in political discourse.”

One person was arrested for disorderly conduct by the end of the event.

Southern is a self-proclaimed “identitarian” — a  movement associated with white nationalism —  and has become associated with alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer. Critics call her a white nationalist, a title she disavowed in her talk. 

Once announced, the event was met with backlash from left-leaning and far-left students and community members for its content and student service fee funding.

Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow President Michael Ziebarth said his group and Students for a Conservative Voice wanted the event to help raise awareness of conservatives on campus.

“We wanted a speaker who would provoke a real discussion on campus about conservatism,” he said. “I think campus got the idea that there are conservatives on campus. This opinion isn’t shared enough.” 

While event organizers said the event was at capacity, just over 80 people attended and there were several open seats in the hall. Still, the University of Minnesota Police Department turned those away not on a reserved ticket list.

This left some who hoped to attend the event outside with protesters.

Multiple scuffles broke out in the middle of the crowd between protesters and other attendees. Police officers sprayed a chemical irritant into the crowd and called for protesters to stop the fighting, at various points in the evening.

Following the conflict, police called for protesters to stop engaging in violence and later on to disperse. 

Organizers at the protests attempted to bring demonstrators back to order after the confrontations and mostly managed to regroup them.

“There’s hate in that building. I’m appalled at how the administration at the U allowed this to happen,” said John Thompson at the protest, a community activist who led chants throughout the protest. “They’ll say it’s freedom of speech… I would’ve said no to that. I wouldn’t have let them spew that hate.”

Demonstrators chanted phrases like, “any time, any place, punch a Nazi in the face” and “say it loud, say it clear, immigrant lives are welcome here” throughout the evening.

By around 7:45 p.m. police armed with batons and riot shields formed a line between the Washington Avenue Bridge and the West Bank courtyard where the protests were taking place.

Attendees discreetly left the building through a door away from the protesters. University police escorted Southern out of the building afterwards. 

“I don’t think we need to have this big protest for someone speaking their mind about something,” said Turning Point USA member and strategic communications sophomore Sam Bevacco. “I don’t think I’d get this upset over a leftist speaking. I don’t think anyone in this room is a Nazi.”

As event attendees lingered after the event, some disputes occurred between talk attendees and protesters.

University alumnus Gus Pollock, 32, instigated arguments with protesters. At one point police had to separate him from demonstrators and told him to leave. “I’m very disappointed by our lack of free speech in America,” he said.

Protester Max Franz said he was protesting because “Lauren Southern is an explicit white nationalist who’s worked with Neo Nazi groups across America.” Franz started protesting in high school. “I’m involved when Nazis are involved,” he said.

The lead-up to protests

University student groups Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow and Students for a Conservative Voice organized the visit of Lauren Southern, known for her harsh criticisms of immigration policy, feminism, the LGBT community and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Demonstrators began organizing several days before the event. A call to protest Southern’s speech was posted on far-left websites on Sunday.

Protesters were encouraged to bring friends and protect their identities from cameras.

Protest organizers also shared fliers noting the event’s funding on social media that read, “Shut down white supremacy paid for with your student service fees” while encouraging demonstrators to meet at the Washington Avenue Bridge prior to the event and bring signs.

On Facebook, the conservative student groups acknowledged the potential for demonstrations.

“We are well aware that there will be protestors [sic] at this event,” CFACT posted on the event’s Facebook page. “Do not engage with protestors. Respect their First Amendment rights as we ask them to respect our First Amendment right to host this event.”

In an emailed statement, University spokesperson Evan Lapiska said the University did not host, endorse or sponsor the event.

CFACT and SCV are both registered student organizations funded by the University’s student service fee process.

“We were allocated student services money to bring in a speaker,” said David Blondin, CFACT vice president. “I’m not validating saying her opinion is the correct opinion at all. I’m saying that if we want to find out what is the most accurate and the best solution, you have to explore all options.”