More than 500 protesters shouted “Nazis, go home” and “F-ck the police” outside Richard Spencer’s speech on Michigan State University’s campus Monday. Their motivation is sound, but their method is faulty.
With faces covered by bandanas and combat boots on their feet, many of the protesters seemed primed for violence. Police in riot gear had to escort individual speech attendees into the building, crouched around them to protect them from the rowdy crowd. Every time a cluster of police would appear with an attendee nestled in the middle, a mass of screaming protesters would surge forward, only stopping at the line of riot officers. Some protesters would hurl rocks and other items at the groups as they hurried away. Occasionally protesters would confront the lines of police, spitting in their faces and asking who they served.
By the end of the protest, MSU Police had made 25 arrests, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. Some involved weapons.
Richard Spencer says terrible things, but people who want to hear him speak shouldn’t have to wade through a mob to do so. These protesters — in all their sign-wielding, “f-ck the police”-chanting, Nazi-chasing glory — have ultimately created a third group of people. They’re not with Spencer, but they’re not with the protesters, either.
One example is Daniel Bailo, 31, who stood alone about a block away from the protest by several police cars. Bailo, a self-declared libertarian, didn’t know it was necessary to have a ticket to attend the event and was unable to enter. He said he was standing by the police cars because he didn’t feel it was safe to stand by the protesters. Since he was dressed in khaki pants and had fair skin and cropped hair, he suspected the protesters mistook him for a follower of Spencer.
“I wanted to see who actually came to these events,” Bailo said. “I’d love to be in there to ask a legitimate question.”
Bailo had been standing outside for more than 40 minutes, waiting for his sister to come get him. Protesters passing by hurled insults at him, admonishing him for standing by the police.
“There’s swarms of people who hate anyone who looks like me,” Bailo said.
Bailo’s hesitation to even be near the protesters not only shows the breakdown in discourse, but is an indicator of a third group: The group that would possibly join the protesters if they curbed their violence and kept their anger directed at the actual subject.
This is the group that values hearing opposing ideas, even if only to understand how to better argue against them. This group understands that being willing to hear the other side does not necessarily mean they agree with it.
Encouraging conversation and exposure to opposing ideas is important to the university environment, and cussing someone out or calling them names is not an argument. Protesting a speaker shows dissatisfaction, but chasing attendees only bolsters their narrative by victimizing them. And screaming in the faces of police officers, who are there to protect both protesters and attendees, only isolates those who value that protection.
The protesters at MSU had momentum behind them. Some had even travelled from out of state. Their movement was well-organized and had a noble cause. But by creating a violent atmosphere, they exclude people from that cause, hinder actual conversation, and paint themselves as out-of-control children.
If these protesters want to be taken seriously by the third group, they must make more efforts to curb their violence, properly direct their anger, and fight with arguments, not screaming matches. It is not enough to just be angry or to wave signs. Protesters must be willing to engage in actual debate and to value those who believe in exposure to a variety of ideas.
Keep the motivation, change the method. Then we’ll talk.