On Feb. 2, the NYU College Republicans hosted a talk with far-right pundit Gavin McInnes. In response, NYU Against Fascism — a loose organization of students and alumni concerned about the rise of racism, sexism and xenophobia on our campus — was born. After putting out a digital call to action to disrupt the event, over 100 protesters demonstrated outside of Kimmel — some more peacefully than others — and over two dozen student protesters attended the event. When McInnes made a joke about Islam, protesters chanted over his talk until he left in frustration. The action proved controversial, and a myriad of responses about the limits or permissions of free speech and civil disobedience ensued.
Why do we feel it was imperative to shut the Gavin McInnes talk down? We would allege that McInnes is not a garden-variety conservative, nor is he simply — in the words of Andrew Hamilton — controversial. He has gone on record to defend extreme transphobia, Islamophobia and racism and describes himself as an anti-feminist. He has written for the Peter Brimelow publication VDARE, which is designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group and has interviewed and promoted prominent white supremacist Jared Taylor. He founded the Proud Boys, a self-described Western chauvinist, anti-feminist group that has explicitly promoted violence. At President Donald Trump’s inauguration, McInnes was documented initiating violence against a protester. The realization of McInnes’s political goals would mean extreme violence against millions of marginalized people.
He is one figure in a growing global far-right movement seeking to backpedal the rights of women, implement strict anti-immigration reform and advocate for strong nationalist principles — that has gone mainstream in the United States with the election of Donald Trump. History has shown us it is necessary for people to actively fight back against these ideologies.
The question becomes: Should NYU allow a figure like McInnes to speak on campus? It’s certainly the university’s prerogative. But if our administration fails us, should students let it happen? We assert that the answer is no. Universities have been key sites for the promotion of social justice during the rise of nativism in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the civil rights struggle, the women’s liberation movement and the recent assertion of LGBTQ rights — no need to take our word for it, as these are often used in promotional materials and self-written histories. NYU touts its diversity, its amenities for LGBTQ students and its global campuses. We feel that the university should live up to its brand by doing a better job of protecting student safety and responding to community concerns. We’d like a university that is proactive rather than always in the mode of damage control.
Much attention has been paid to the scene outside of the Kimmel Center. It erupted into violence and 11 people were arrested — at least two them were Proud Boys and the rest were presumably protesters. We do not condone this and were not associated with it. Less attention was paid to the strident attempts of students, faculty and concerned community members to get the attention of an administration that was clearly not prepared for the events of Thursday evening. The proof is in the pudding: the talk was intended to be “open to the public,” with many Proud Boys pledging to attend and threatening violence on online forums and social media in the hours leading up. The McInnes talk was scheduled at the same time as a drag karaoke event, and in the same building as the Islamic Center. Students were not alerted to this massive safety concern or the police presence outside. Following the event, several female faculty members were harassed after being mistaken for protesters. Gavin McInnes and his followers unapologetically published information about an NYU student covering the event for the student paper and harassed her.
We hear a lot about free speech in the abstract. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws that would prohibit free speech. It does not prohibit privately held institutions from condemning speech or upholding its commitments to its members. NYU does this all the time. NYU Spokesperson John Beckman condemned the cyber-harassments of faculty members, noting that “threats and harassment have no place in public discourse.” Why, then, will NYU not take the next steps to condemn Gavin McInnes and his tactics? NYU cannot seriously decry the Muslim Ban while allowing McInnes into its student center, refusing to declare itself a sanctuary campus and failing to condemn threats on anti-Zionist, Arab and Muslim students.
We would like to go further still. We disagree with many commentators that dialogue is the only solution to these administrative contradictions. In fact, we feel that invocations of dialogue and free speech are often used as tools to maintain status quos and obstruct social change. We submit the history of global protest as exhibit A — in every struggle for social justice, institutions have repeatedly shown themselves to ignore verbal appeals submitted through proper channels, while responding to mobilization and disobedience. The NYU community needs to ask ourselves: do we, as students, faculty and staff, want to allow dangerous far-right figures on our campus? We maintain the answer is no, and recommend the exertion of student power as a means to assert this.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 13 print edition. Email NYU Against Fascism at [email protected]