When conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak at DePaul University on May 24, tensions were already running high on the Chicago campus.
During the course of the year, DePaul’s Black Student Union had been repeatedly meeting and negotiating with the administration about ongoing hate at the university. DePaul College Republicans, who invited Yiannopoulos to speak, had just coordinated the chalking of phrases like “Blue Lives Matter” and “Trump Train 2016” on school grounds in April — an incident that led to the banning of chalk on sidewalks.
Things only got more heated when it was announced the school would host Yiannopoulos as part of his “Dangerous Faggot” college tour. A far-right incendiary speaker and journalist, Yiannopoulos first rose to fame by providing controversial coverage around the Gamergate controversy.
An online petition with over 400 signatures was submitted to the administration, asking them to respond more comprehensively to the chalkings and to cancel the Yiannopoulos event. Shortly thereafter, Strong DePaul, a student group for women of color, with the support of the Department of African and Black Diaspora Studies, also emailed the school’s administration begging them to stop Milo Yiannopoulos’ appearance — certain that it would only fuel more hatred.
“Queerphobia, xenophobia, racism against Muslims and other Brown people is just as disruptive and apparent on our campus,” said Victoria, a Women’s and Gender Studies major who works at DePaul’s Center for Identity, Inclusion and Social Change, and did not want her full name used. “A lot of organizing has been centered around trying to hear everyone.”
Students who were worried about being targeted after Yiannopoulos’ appearance weren’t wrong. The afternoon before he spoke, messages like “Trump 2016” and “Fuck Mexico” were found in the main quad — this time painted in black.
The racism was already very clear and we were all already very frightened.
“The racism was already very clear and we were all already very frightened,” said Victoria.
Yiannopoulos ultimately only got to speak for 15 minutes before student protesters burst into the room and occupied the stage. But he still managed to slip in a few jabs like “I’ve worked out why there are so many Black girls here…cause I fucked their brothers” and “I give it 20 minutes; the statistics of Black incarceration are about to go up.”
This was clearly exactly what his audience came to see and hear. Applause was abundant, people stood, and jeers and sneers got louder. Yiannopoulos then led his angry mob outside where they rioted for hours and intimidated student protesters.
Yiannopoulos’s “Dangerous Faggot” college tour has been deliberately inflammatory and left in its wake satisfied hordes of angry young right-wingers and a multitude of very shaken minority students and faculty. He was met with similar protests on other campuses, including American University in April, UCLA in May, and UC Irvine last week.
Victoria helped protest the DePaul University event from outside the building. She had not planned on protesting but changed her mind when she saw the hateful glares of people lining up for Yiannopoulos’ speech.
“The way that they were looking at us and…taking pictures of us, the way they had already taken over our campus before Milo even got there was so terrifying,” she said. “I felt like I had to protect my home, like we had no choice.”
Despite skewed media reports blaming violence on student protesters, Victoria alleges it was actually Yiannopoulos supporters who were violent. She witnessed student protesters pushed, shoved, hit, elbowed in the face, and called derogatory names by his supporters. She even saw some of them holding and swinging bats.
Rather than acknowledging the barrage of hate people of color on campus were being subjected to, DePaul’s school administration criticized the student protesters, making things far worse.
On Wednesday, May 25, DePaul University President Reverend Dennis Holtschneider, wrote an email to students and faculty saying the student protesters were “wrong” to interrupt Yiannopoulos. Referring to online videos of the event that show a protester grabbing a microphone from the event moderator, Father Holtschneider stated he was “ashamed for DePaul University” and apologized to the DePaul College Republicans for not getting the opportunity to hear their speaker.
Marginalized students and faculty did not react kindly to this dismissal by their President. Laura Kina, a professor of Art, Media, & Design at DePaul University, attempted to show support by tweeting “@DePaulU microaggressions do exist and our students are hurt today #blacklivesmatter.” Her tweet was both a reference to Yiannopoulos ridiculing the idea that racial microaggressions are real and a response to Father Holtschneider’s lack of support.
That tweet, said Kina, sent Yiannopoulos supporters over the edge, and she was instantly targeted by a rain of cyberhate. She received hundreds of spiteful tweets over a 24-hour period, forcing her to make her account private and block innumerable users.
“I’m a grownup but it doesn’t feel good to be called a cunt, a fascist marxist pig,” she stated. Kina said other faculty of color endured much worse, like widespread email harassment and racist phone calls.
On Thursday, a noose was found hanging from the entrance of a dorm building.
On Friday, former Associate Professor of Sociology Shu-Ju (Ada) Cheng published a letter online criticizing Father Holtschneider for his response and the school’s failure to take a stand against systemic oppression. Cheng had submitted her resignation for unrelated reasons in December, but the conservative site Daily Caller grabbed her letter off Facebook and misreported that Cheng was resigning because she was offended by Yiannopoulos. She received more than 30 negative comments on RateMyProfessor, more than 20 hateful emails targeting her gender, race, immigration status and sexuality, and countless more negative comments on Facebook.
Cheng eventually took down her letter. “I feel like I’ve been through hell,” she said.
The Far-Right Narrative
The stories of marginalized students and faculty stand in stark contrast to what is widely found in the media. Too often, the far-right narrative of such campus conflicts has dominated, mocking protesters and blaming them for escalating things while simultaneously accusing universities for failing at security and violating right to free speech. Other think pieces accuse the protesters of being young, over emotional, too reactionary, and inviting the controversy. In the case of Yiannopoulos, his position as a Tech Editor at the far-right Breitbart News has greatly influenced the stories of hate told about colleges on his tour.
It’s a kind of sadism where the more someone suffers the more they get off on it. It’s a really disturbing cultural moment that we’re living in.
“That kind of viciousness is characteristic of the alt-right movement,” said Jessie Daniels, author of Cyber-Racism and Professor of Sociology at Hunter College. “It’s a kind of sadism where the more someone suffers the more they get off on it. It’s a really disturbing cultural moment that we’re living in.”
Yiannopoulos’ speech and its after-effects are an obvious sign of the growing hate throughout the nation. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the number of U.S. hate groups on the right spiked 14 percent in 2015, rising for the first time in a half decade. A recent analysis by the think tank Demos found that on average, 10,000 racial slurs are tweeted per day. America, argues SPLC, is as angry as it’s ever been and seeing levels of polarization that may be unmatched since 1968.
Yiannopoulos and Breitbart’s strategy, which New York Magazine dubbed the “Campus-Outrage Outrage Cycle,” is then par for course. And it is very effective. Yiannopoulos visits a campus, spouts off a platitude of outrageous rhetoric about “feminazi lesbians,” “social justice warriors,” and “diversity mongers” being outrageous, and gets everyone outraged from the right to the left. Then Breitbart and other right-wing outlets scrape campus literature and social media for reactions and cover them as “proof” that Yiannopoulos was correct about the left being outrageous in the first place. It is a boomerang method that effortlessly rides the wave of an internet age, omnipresent smartphones, viral sensationalism, and cyberbullying.
But what may be more important about the instigator — who is openly gay and relies on mocking marginalized people when he himself is marginalized — is that he profits because he is something of a puppet.
“Milo is very typical of a whole set of people that white dominant culture is always willing to hear from,” explained Jessie Daniels, “People from an oppressed group who are willing to parrot the party line of white hegemonic society.”
Daniels has been studying racism and digital sociologies for over two decades and is currently working on a forthcoming memoir, No Daughter of Mine, which discusses her father’s attempt to have her committed for declaring herself queer and for changing her name because of family Ku Klux Klan connections. The conservative right, she said, is often eager to promote people like Yiannopoulos, Clarence Thomas, Michelle Malkin and Dinesh D’Souza, because it rationalizes oppression of the groups those people represent.
She noted the sea of red Trump-supporting baseball caps perched on the heads of Yiannopoulos’s audience at DePaul (which can be seen in a viral video of the event by Breitbart). “It’s not surprising,” Daniels remarked simply. “[Yiannopoulos] is sending a similar message to the same people Trump targets.”
Indeed Yiannopoulos is an ardent fan and fervent supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and has taken to calling the likely Republican candidate “Daddy.” Wherever Yiannopolous travels on his campus tour, he fills some of the largest indoor auditoriums, not necessarily because of his own name, but because he draws Trump followers out in droves — followers who are often white, male, and not affiliated with that campus at all.
Trump Supporter Milo Yiannopoulos, Of Gamergate Fame, Sparks Student Backlash At American…LGBT CREDIT: Bryan Park, The Eagle Around 150 students gathered last Thursday on the steps of the Mary Graydon Center…thinkprogress.orgVictoria said of the over 500 people who showed up to attend the event at DePaul, the majority had nothing to do with her university. She shook remembering the hundreds of unrecognizable angry Milo rioters who poured out of the building that night.
“We knew they didn’t go here,” she began to cry, and yet they “were so happy taking over our campus…because they felt the hate so strongly.”
Which means at the end of the day Yiannopoulos himself “is really less important in this whole thing,” emphasized Ada Cheng. She pointed out for instance that the hate emails she received related to Yiannopoulos’s tour were actually very similar to normal day-to-day discriminations she hears all the time. For Cheng, the far more important point is that people in power, gatekeepers, and systems perpetuate oppression, hate and violence to begin with. She is infuriated that Father Holtschneider’s first response to the volatile events on campus was to offer an apology to the College Republicans.
“My critique was of the President not taking a stand against hate speech,” she emphasized, “For intellectuals at this time how can we not take a stand?”
“The President telling us we were wrong to stop this ‘free speech’ event was really hard to hear,” Victoria agreed, adding the entire incident has “brought to light a lot of the problems with administration with our campus.”
The Call For Change On College Campuses
Of course, it is not just at DePaul that minority students feel this way. As hate has spread like wildfire across the nation, so have campus protests at schools like University of Missouri, Brown, Princeton, Harvard, Occidental, Georgetown, Yale, John Hopkins, Vanderbilt, and many others. Student organizers everywhere are criticizing the lack of diversity in leadership and calling for resignations saying top administrators haven’t done enough to respond to oppression and discrimination on campus. Their point may be inarguable. According to the American Council on Education the typical college president is a white male in his fifties and that profile has not changed since 1986. The National Center for Education Statistics reports 79 percent of full-time faculty in the United States are white.
A lot of the protests have seen results. University of Missouri’s president and chancellor resigned in November, Claremont McKenna Dean of Students resigned days later, a Yale lecturer who wrote a racially charged email resigned the following month, and in January, Ithaca College’s president announced he would resign in 2017.
At DePaul, the administration at last is starting to take some steps after Yiannopoulos’ speech. In a follow-up email on June 2, Father Holtschneider said he regretted his initial insensitivity. The next day, he held a Town Hall meeting for the school community to discuss increased racial and oppressive tensions.
But ultimately where change will come from, Victoria believes, is from marginalized students at DePaul who had been asking for change long before Yiannopoulos arrived and will continue to determinedly do so. Classes just ended but Victoria said student protesters are planning to stand their ground through the summer.
“The only reason things have gotten better,” she said firmly, “is because student protesters are serious.”
Sharon H. Chang is an author, scholar, sociologist, and activist focusing on racism and social justice with a feminist lens. Her work has been featured in Racism Review, The Seattle Globalist, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, AAPI Voices and is the author of an upcoming book, Raising Mixed Race.