Students stood united in protest against a white supremacist's campus speech that ended in a short confrontation between police and Marxist anarchists. Go back a month and ask any Aggie to pick a school where this happened and he'd point priggishly towards Austin.
Tuesday night, Richard Spencer, a White Supremacist that self-identifies as a White Nationalist, was met by protests from Texas A&M students and non-student activists during his visit to speak at the Memorial Student Center on the Texas A&M campus. Spencer, who was invited by a former student that wears the skinhead moniker as a badge of honor, was joined by members of the Neo-Nazi online community, Stormfront, in promoting his message. Predominantly peaceful protests were marred by Marxist Anarchist activists late in the evening, clashing with police as they tried to force their way into Spencer's speaking room.
Texas A&M made it clear they would not violate Spencer's first amendment rights by shutting down his speech, and the campus attempted to distance itself by hosting a unity festival. Aggies United, which was attended by a few thousand students including the full rosters of various athletic teams, was set up to provide students and visitors with an alternative event promoting a message of inclusivity.
University President Michael Young has received a mixture of praise and criticism for his handling of the event, as some feel Aggies United only inflamed an otherwise non-event. Maybe they're right, but it's unreasonable to assume this evening happened in a vacuum.
Was "Aggies United" the right response?
Before last night, Richard Spencer was already garnering national attention after his Pro-Trump rally ended in Nazi salutes and cheers of "Heil Trump!" from some in the crowd. By this time, he'd already been booked for his speech at A&M. Spencer has been the most prominently portrayed member of the "Alt-Right" - a leaderless subculture that was brought to the attention of the national media during the election, due in part to Hillary Clinton herself addressing them in a speech and calling them deplorable, as well as their harassment of journalists and use of racist memes.
To say that the media wasn't interested in coming to College Station to cover him until the Aggies United event was announced is disingenuous. In the end, why does it really matter whether or not the attention came here?
Texas A&M has professed a vested interest in promoting diversity on campus, most notably with the Vision 2020 plan established in 1999. Completely ignoring Spencer's speech may have hurt the pro-diversity brand they've tried to cultivate, especially if the media coverage and off-campus protest violence came in anyway.
These two Reddit posts from two different Aggies sum up the range of feelings on the event:
Aggie 1: The thing that benefits him is that an entire university stages multiple protests, campus wide warnings just because he has a private speaking. If anything TAMU students made him more popular, gave him free media, energize his supporters and the Alt-right movement. Great job everyone!
Aggie 2: It's important to show marginalized groups on campus and around the country that this kind of talk is not accepted in our society. White supremacy is undergoing a rebranding to try and normalize their ideas. They've taken off their hoods and robes and donned suits and ties, and changed their name to "alt-right" in an effort to make their opinion seem like it has equal weight to the traditional right. We should call them out.
Texas A&M was caught between a rock and hard place here. They needed to sufficiently distance themselves from Spencer, and perhaps this was a case of taking control of the variables instead of being caught by surprise. The Marxist activist protesters showing up without adequate police protection in place could have certainly gotten messy, for example. Students without any direction on where to protest or without an event to funnel them away from the protesting could've just added more strain to the police as well.
Instead of the event being remembered for property damage and violent fights on campus, the headlines are about thousands of Aggies protesting Nazis, the KKK and white supremacy, while respecting the first amendment. It is hard to see how that isn't a win.
Should A&M have given Spencer a platform?
Many have also unfairly criticized A&M for giving a platform to Richard Spencer. Texas A&M has designated facilities for public use, and this longstanding policy means that Texas A&M cannot refuse access based solely on objectionable content. The Supreme Court has long-held that even this type of hate speech is protected by the first amendment.
If A&M blocked Spencer and Spencer/Wiginton took them to court, they'd have a pretty rock-solid case: Their speech was denied based solely on content that is protected by the first amendment in a government owned facility designated for use by the public, and they've hosted similar objectionable content in the past without issue.
A&M unquestionably did the right thing yesterday from a legal view, but whether or not A&M should continue this practice of offering publicly available facilities is something that can be debated.
Should A&M continue offering a publicly accessible platform?
Unquestionably the answer is yes, in our view. Universities are meant to be a marketplace of ideas where everything thought to be known should be challenged, where new ideas should be welcomed, and having a serious commitment to this principle means accepting that some ideas are going to be truly awful.
The platform Texas A&M gave to Spencer is the same one it will give willingly to the New Black Panther Party, a Holocaust denier, a Communist Freedom Fighter, or a Justin Tucker Appreciation Club. In this forum you're given the freedom to challenge the status quo and the freedom to choose how you respond.
Ignore it, hear it, protest it, challenge it, be challenged by it; all choices that we have to make every day even when we step off the campus. Besides, if these speakers weren't allowed, how could we get great moments like this?
Spencer: "Don't tell me that like, you've studied this..."— Telco (@TelcoAg) December 7, 2016
Student: "I have studied this. I have a PhD in genetics."https://t.co/0mSyzDoHfW
Where do we go from here?
Texas A&M has had mostly unspoken about racial issues on campus for a long time. Whether or not people will take this event as a call to start actually discussing these issues, we'll see. Regardless, this event should prove that talking about race, political correctness, and minority experiences is something that should happen more often, because what happened on the A&M campus is the result of bottling it all up. Instead of yelling at people or silently stewing about double-standards, get out of your bubble and discuss it all out in the open.
Do you think Texas A&M handled the speech well yesterday? Grab someone who doesn't look like you, or doesn't think Iike you, and ask them what they think, all while fully understanding that sometimes there is no right answer.
It won't fix every problem, but a little discussion and a little empathy is a hell of a good start.