[Marxism] How a polarizing election, a free-speech fight, and a real-life internet troll made the U. of Washington turn on itself
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Feb 10 06:35:38 MST 2017
Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 10 2017
Fear and Loathing in the Campaign’s Wake
How a polarizing election, a free-speech fight, and a real-life internet
troll made the U. of Washington turn on itself
By Steve Kolowich
On the day Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as president of the United
States, Jessica Gamble, the head of her university’s chapter of the
College Republicans, stood on an auditorium stage and addressed her
"The University of Washington is a bastion of academic excellence," she
said. "You got into this school for a reason. When your voice and your
ideas are not heard, discourse suffers."
The day was a victory for Ms. Gamble, too. She had arrived at the
Seattle campus four years earlier from a town whose total population
would fit in this auditorium. She loved the university but had grown
frustrated by a liberal atmosphere that she found stifling.
After Mr. Trump’s election, in November, it had felt openly hostile.
Somebody had made a flier calling Ms. Gamble a racist. It listed her
cellphone number along with her father’s. But things were changing.
Republicans were back on top. The new president had promised to crack
down on political correctness on college campuses. Ms. Gamble’s liberal
classmates hated the Republicans more than ever, but they had been
powerless to stop her from inviting an ally of the new president to
speak on campus. And for every creepy message left on her cellphone as a
result of the flier, there were dozens of notes from conservatives
around the world lauding her for her courage.
"Thank you for those messages," she said now, standing at the corner of
the stage and reading from her notes in a crisp monotone, "because you
kept me going."
She then introduced the Republicans’ guest of honor. A man wearing
oversized sunglasses, copious jewelry, and a puffy green shawl strode
theatrically across the stage. The crowd cheered.
"Hello, faggots," said Milo Yiannopoulos.
That was in January. In the weeks since, Mr. Yiannopoulos, an editor at
the pro-Trump media outlet Breitbart, has seen his star rise as a
free-speech martyr after a violent protest at the University of
California at Berkeley — instigated not by students but outside groups,
according to officials — prompted the police to cancel his scheduled
talk. The protest drew condemnation from many corners, including the
West Wing, where President Trump fired off a tweet threatening to
withhold Berkeley’s federal funding.
But it was his appearance at the University of Washington, a week and a
half earlier, that revealed how the incursion of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s
brand of politics can leave a public university smoldering even if no
campus property is set to flame. Whether it exposed existing fault lines
or created new ones, Mr. Yiannopoulos’s tour forced administrators and
students to confront the fact that campus culture is now bitterly
contested territory — a space in which free speech and safety can seem
like conflicting values.
Mr. Trump’s election has been deeply discomfiting to colleges, not only
because of the president but because of the various figures who have
risen to power on his coattails. Among them is Mr. Yiannopoulos, the
Breitbart editor famous for encouraging online abuse campaigns against
people, usually women, whom he has deemed worthy of scorn.
The 33-year-old provocateur began taking his act to college campuses in
2015, hoping to cut into the young, conservative body politic and
connect its brain to its spleen. In regularly protested (and
occasionally canceled) talks, he denied the existence of campus rape
culture and the gender wage gap, mocked feminists and transgender
people, highlighted cases in which hate crimes had been exposed as
hoaxes, and explained that the biggest threat to black lives in America
is other black people.
"I have never been offended," he told Bloomberg Businessweek. "I don’t
know what it means."
Mr. Yiannopoulos, who is gay, branded his string of campus appearances
the "Dangerous Faggot Tour," and took to calling Mr. Trump "daddy." Mr.
Yiannopoulos speaks in the vexing dialect of online imageboard sites, a
patois of pseudo-ironic viciousness and inside jokes that the so-called
alt-right has used to wage an asymmetrical war against respectability
politics. But he is also capable of sounding erudite, which, combined
with a suit and tie and his British accent, can make him appear at home
on a university stage.
Yet he is just as likely to arrive wearing a hot-cop outfit,
border-patrol gear, or gold chains and black lipstick. At Louisiana
State University, he appeared onstage wearing a giant blonde wig, a
full-length white dress, and heels and calling himself "Ivana Wall."
"The only natural response to outrage culture," he told students at the
University of Pittsburgh, "is to be outrageous."
Among young conservatives it would be hard to find a less-likely ally of
Mr. Yiannopoulos than the student who championed his appearance at
Ms. Gamble, who is 22, grew up in Carbonado, a former coal-mining town
near Mt. Rainier with 600 residents and no traffic lights. Her parents
were fiscal conservatives who did not have college degrees. Her father
built and installed cabinets before the recession forced him to take a
job as a purchasing manager for a company that sold machine parts. Her
mother kept the books for a local chain of tire retailers. Their
daughter cultivated solitary hobbies like hunting and fishing.
At age 10, Ms. Gamble was transfixed by a televised debate in which Dino
Rossi, the Republican candidate for governor, parried questions from the
moderator and his Democratic opponent with charm and precision. "He
didn’t mumble over his words, he didn’t think about it too long," she
remembers, "He just knew the answer." Mr. Rossi went on to lose his
election by 133 votes, the narrowest gubernatorial margin in the history
of modern elections.
It was proof that every single vote mattered, even in a smudge of a town
like Carbonado. Maybe Ms. Gamble could make a difference. She became
hooked on politics, confounding her parents by keeping the family
television perpetually tuned to C-Span. She resolved to enroll at the
University of Washington’s flagship campus, in Seattle, which sat just
across Lake Washington from Bellevue, home of the state Republican Party
Coming to Seattle gave Ms. Gamble culture shock. She had to get used to
falling asleep to the sound of traffic and the glow of streetlights
outside her window. And the political environment was just as disorienting.
She began to glimpse the uncharted depths of liberal politics. She had
never considered transgender people and the battle for more inclusive
personal pronouns. Racial politics were practically brand new to her,
and much thornier than they had seemed from afar.
Ms. Gamble now saw textures in the political landscape that didn’t exist
in Carbonado. She couldn’t pretend to know the answer to everyone’s
problems. So she began to drift on the ideological spectrum — not from
right to left, but from authoritarian to libertarian. If you don’t
understand someone else’s life, she figured, better just to stay out of it.
Alan-Michael Weatherford also came to the University of Washington from
rural America. His hometown was not a town but a "census-designated
place" in Virginia with fewer than 200 residents. He grew up on a farm
there with his mother and stepfather, who worked at a factory that made
furniture. At age 10, after a custody battle, he went to live with his
biological father in a suburb of Richmond. Near the end of high school
he came out as gay, and was kicked out of the house.
He enrolled at Christopher Newport University, becoming the first in his
family to go to college, and eventually went to Washington as a doctoral
student. He teaches a class, called "Queerin’ the Americas," where he
uses novels, films, and poetry to "deconstruct people’s commonsensical
understandings about minoritized people" — those whose narratives have
been turned away by mainstream culture.
Mr. Weatherford has cultivated a keen sensitivity to the social dynamics
that make others even more vulnerable than him. Yes, he is gay, but he
is also white, cis, and able-bodied. "I have a lot of privilege," he says.
Mr. Weatherford belongs to a caucus within his academic labor union that
focuses on accounting for the specific needs of its most vulnerable
members. He volunteers at a local prison, teaching Spanish to inmates.
His syllabus includes a trigger warning.
He sees his work, inside the classroom and out, as part of a corrective
to the biases against "minoritized" people that persist on campus,
despite what Mr. Trump and his conservative allies say about higher
education’s liberal hegemony. Mr. Weatherford had watched warily as Mr.
Yiannopoulos’s college tour snaked its way around the country.
The doctoral student had a term for Mr. Yiannopoulos’s flamboyant
embrace of Mr. Trump’s politics: "White homonationalism."
The Breitbart editor had a term for Mr. Weatherford’s vigilant embrace
of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and microaggressions: "Horseshit."
In July, Mr. Trump accepted the Republican nomination. The political
battle lines were drawn.
Around the same time, Mr. Weatherford learned that the Republicans at
Washington had invited Mr. Yiannopoulos to speak on campus.
He hadn’t been Ms. Gamble’s first choice as a guest speaker. She had
supported Rand Paul in the primaries. Very few of the Republican club
members were fans of Mr. Trump.
But it was an election year, and most of the club members had watched a
favorite candidate endure what they considered to be hyperbolic
criticism from the left. They wanted a speaker who would embody a
The university’s student government held its own presidential election
in the spring, and Ms. Gamble and her conservative friends were
irritated by the candidates’ attempts to "out-progressive one another."
Ms. Gamble rarely faced outward hostility toward her political views in
the classroom, but speaking up for moderate conservatism felt like
whispering in a loud room.
The university then was considering the creation of a temporary "tent
city" on campus where up to 100 homeless people could live and govern
themselves. Ms. Gamble and her fellow conservatives thought it was a bad
idea, but every student-government candidate supported it.
Ms. Gamble says she rarely faced outward hostility toward her political
views in the classroom, but the small moments in which she felt
unwelcome or invisible had added up over the years. Speaking up for
moderate conservatism felt like whispering in a loud room. The
frustration is hard to convey to an outsider, she says, but her fellow
Republicans seemed to understand intuitively.
"You’re put into that position where either you’re quiet, or you fight
back," she says. And when you fight back, "It’s a bit more conservative
than you intend to, and it’s a bit more rash than you intend to."
Ann Coulter would have been a bold choice for a speaker, but nobody in
the club liked her. There was a lot of support for Ben Shapiro, a young
conservative pundit known, in part, for opposing Mr. Trump and telling
Mr. Yiannopoulos to "grow up" — moves that had earned him a rolling wave
of anti-Semitic messages online. But Mr. Shapiro came with a $10,000
price tag. Mr. Yiannopoulos, whose college tour was being subsidized by
Breitbart, did not charge a fee.
Mr. Yiannopoulos, says Ms. Gamble, was the fiscally conservative choice.
Dino Rossi would be proud.
Not long after Mr. Yiannopoulos accepted Ms. Gamble’s invitation, a
petition circulated online asking Ana Mari Cauce, the president, to
"stand up for student safety and tolerance" and ban him from campus.
Ms. Cauce was sympathetic. The president was a former professor of
psychology and American ethnic studies who had dedicated her own
research to illuminating the unique risks facing women, gays,
immigrants, and people of color.
She was an immigrant herself, having fled Cuba with her family when she
was 3 years old. Her brother, Cesar, a North Carolina union organizer,
was shot and killed while protesting a rally of the Ku Klux Klan and the
American Nazi Party in what came to be known as the "Greensboro
Massacre." Later, when Ms. Cauce came out as gay, her mother told her,
"Now both my children are dead." (She eventually came to accept her
daughter’s sexual orientation.)
Political tensions on campus reached a new pitch after Mr. Trump’s
election. In mid-November students from LGBT and women-of-color advocacy
groups led a walkout to protest Mr. Trump’s policy proposals. People
waved signs that denounced the president-elect in blunt, vulgar terms.
The next day, somebody hit a Muslim student in the face with a bottle,
giving her a concussion.
Ms. Cauce reassured undocumented students that university police
officers would not ask about their immigration status.
But she could not reassure them about Mr. Yiannopoulos.
In December the president released a statement expressing disgust for
Mr. Yiannopoulos’s tactics. Without naming him, she addressed the
Breitbart editor directly.
"If all you can do is attack and tear down those you disagree with, then
I encourage you to level your attacks at me," she wrote. "While some of
the points you claim to be trying to make are worthy of discussion, I am
proud to stand in opposition to those who are not only willing, but
actively looking to stir up hate and fear, especially when it is
targeted at those who are already the most vulnerable."
By then, Ms. Cauce had consulted with the Washington attorney general’s
office, which advises the university on legal matters, and decided not
to intervene. She instead encouraged students to steer clear of the
event and deny Mr. Yiannopoulos the attention he sought.
If the president had tried to block Mr. Yiannopoulos’s talk, the
university would have faced a lawsuit that it would have lost, according
to Ronald K.L. Collins, a professor at the law school who specializes in
the First Amendment. Norman Arkans, a university spokesman, said the Ms.
Cauce’s decision was based not just on the legal ramifications but also
on the principle of free speech.
The power to revoke Mr. Yiannopoulos’s invitation rested in the hands of
the students who had extended it — in particular, a stiff-lipped
libertarian from Carbonado who was eager to make her voice count.
The flier arrived in Ms. Gamble’s inbox from an anonymous email address
just after New Year’s. "The Racist in Your Class," read the header.
Below: two pictures of her from her Facebook profile, followed by a note
about the scheduled talk by Mr. Yiannopoulos.
"Let Jessie know what you think about her close friendships with
Neo-Nazis and white supremacists," it suggested. "Why don’t you tell her
father too while you’re at it."
The flier directed readers to Ms. Gamble’s email address and
social-media accounts, and listed both her phone number and her father’s.
The students began to thrill to the notion of defying the campus forces
that were so determined to stymie their speaker and brand them as bigots
It took a friend only a few hours of sleuthing to trace the flier to the
person Ms. Gamble believes to be its author, a graduate student at the
university whom she says she has never met. The flier soon disappeared
from where it had been posted online, but its claims about the
Republican club’s president were echoed on anarchist websites.
Maj. Steve Rittereiser, spokesman for the university police, said the
flier did not constitute harassment because it was not a threat. "To
some degree," he told the student newspaper, "there’s a free-speech
piece to this thing."
Changing her cellphone number turned out to be relatively easy, and Ms.
Gamble kept a cool demeanor about the flier, but it frightened her. It
also deepened her resolve.
"To be honest," she says, "we were more committed to Milo as more and
more obstacles were thrown our way."
The university did not try to persuade the Republican club to disinvite
Mr. Yiannopoulos, but it did make the club pay for extra security during
his visit. After all, the Breitbart editor would not be the only
outsider able to claim free-speech rights on the Washington campus.
Protesters would be allowed to assemble outside. And Mr. Yiannopoulos’s
college tour was designed to attract attention well beyond the borders
The Republicans set up a page on the fund-raising website GoFundMe.
Their campaign brought in more than $12,000, enough to pay all the costs
of the event, which sold out.
In the weeks leading up to Inauguration Day the students began to thrill
to the notion of defying the campus forces that were so determined to
stymie their speaker and brand them as bigots by association. "Even
people that were more moderate got sick of being treated that way," says
Ms. Gamble, "and they wanted to come out and hear someone stick it to
that kind of culture on campus."
On the day Mr. Yiannopoulos arrived, Mr. Weatherford helped coordinate a
peaceful takeover of the library adjacent to the building where the
Breitbart editor was scheduled to speak. Uniting under the name "UW
Resist," the leaders of several student-advocacy groups held a teach-in,
leading sessions on how to effectively organize and take political action.
Some people roamed around the library with phones. Mr. Weatherford knew
some of Mr. Yiannopoulos’s admirers were fond of "doxxing" — posting
personal information about their opponents online and encouraging the
internet trolls to swarm. It was hard to know the intentions of the
camera-wielding strangers, but he suspected they might be trying to out
He and the other student advocates had come prepared. "We had a whole
safety team dedicated to making sure they were OK," he says. "We
escorted them in and out of the building, making sure they were covered up."
Mr. Weatherford wanted to get off campus before Mr. Yiannopoulos
arrived. After the teach-in, he walked with a group to join a protest in
a different part of the city.
They carried anti-Trump signs. A few of them chanted, "No justice, no
peace!" When a man walking in the other direction stopped and started
filming them, they used the signs to cover their faces.
The man with the camera walked alongside the group. He continued to
film. "You’re invading my safe space," he deadpanned when someone held a
sign up to his lens.
Mr. Weatherford, dressed in black and carrying a bullhorn, walked over
to the man. "Just cut it out," said the doctoral student. "You’re trying
to doxx people."
The man argued that recording people in public was not the same as
"doxxing" them. "You guys have doxxed the organizer of this event
already," he said, referring to Ms. Gamble.
He kept trying to follow the protesters, and Mr. Weatherford kept
getting in his way. "You wanna get away from me dude?" the man said,
raising his voice.
Mr. Weatherford’s reply was matter-of-fact: "I don’t have to."
As Mr. Yiannopoulos and protesters from around Seattle converged on
campus, the peaceful protests of the afternoon gave way to a rowdy scene.
A human wall jammed in front of the building where Mr. Yiannopoulos’s
talk was going to be held. Protesters tried to block ticket holders from
entering the venue, while police officers tried to keep protesters from
rushing the entrance. Bricks and other foreign objects flew through the
air. "Who’s the real fascists?" someone yelled.
Inside the auditorium, Ms. Gamble stood onstage and thanked her parents,
who were in the audience. "I promise all the stress and worrying I put
you through will one day be worth it."
When Mr. Yiannopoulos appeared, just after 8 p.m., the sparse crowd rose
to its feet and cheered. "The monsters, the unpleasant monsters of the
progressive left, I’m sorry to tell you, have left us half-full this
evening," he said.
"There are apparently, I’m told, 1,500 more people with weapons on their
way over here," he said. "God, it’s so, so sexually exciting!"
The first half-hour of the talk played like a stand-up routine, as the
Breitbart editor tested his audience’s appetite for jokes about how
women and gender-studies students are ugly, how protesters are
unemployed losers, and how those upset by Mr. Trump’s election should
simply kill themselves.
Ms. Gamble sat in the front row. She would never say some of the things
Mr. Yiannopoulos was saying, even if she supported his right to say
them. He seemed more angry at campus political correctness than she was.
At heart she was a wonk, not a culture warrior. "It was very
hit-and-miss with me," she says. But the Breitbart editor was nothing if
Mr. Yiannopoulos had just delivered a punchline about "Latinx," the
gender-neutral pronoun for people of Latin-American descent, when
somebody in the audience stood up and told him that somebody outside the
venue had been shot.
It took a few moments for Mr. Yiannopoulos to realize he was not being
heckled. The playfulness drained from his voice.
"Is that real?" he said.
The 34-year-old victim was not a student. According to news reports, he
is a computer-security engineer and a member of the Industrial Workers
of the World, a socialist labor group, who was there to protest Mr.
Around 8:30 p.m., the man lay bleeding in the middle of the public
square, shot in the abdomen.
Days after the incident, The Seattle Times reported that the shooter was
a former student at the university who had expressed support on Facebook
for Mr. Yiannopoulos and the National Rifle Association, and had sent
the Breitbart editor a message earlier in the evening seeking an
autograph. (The campus police said this has not been confirmed, and the
investigation remains open.)
“If you don't like words, you don't reach for a pistol. You reach for an
The victim remains in the hospital. Sarah Lippek, his lawyer, asked that
The Chronicle not print her client’s name because his family is worried
She added that her client does not want the person who shot him to go to
prison. He instead wants to sit down with the shooter and seek justice
Inside the auditorium, nobody knew anything. Mr. Yiannopoulos excused
himself from the stage. The audience members murmured and took out their
phones, trying to glean information from the initial news reports.
After a minute, Mr. Yiannopoulos returned and suggested that the show go on.
"If you think that is insensitive or inappropriate I completely
understand, and please make yourself heard now," he said in a sober
tone. "But my view is that if we don’t continue, they have won."
The crowd stood and applauded, then chanted his name.
When he resumed, Mr. Yiannopoulos started into the core theme of his
talk: "Cyberbullying isn’t real."
He explained that the goal of campus liberals was to blur the
distinction between words and actions, so that they would be justified
in retaliating against offensive humor and microaggressions with actual
violence. He encouraged the audience to picture hordes of armed
"social-justice warriors" enraged by mere words, exacting vigilante justice.
"Now, we’ve just heard of something awful happen outside, and it strikes
me that this is the perfect illustration of what I’m talking about,"
said Mr. Yiannopoulos.
A stranger saying vicious things on the internet, he said, is different
than a stranger attacking you on the street. Only the latter does real harm.
"If you don’t like words, you don’t reach for a pistol," he said. "You
reach for an off switch."
At 4 in the morning, Mr. Weatherford’s phone started to buzz.
Strangers were sending him messages on Twitter.
"We fouuuund youuuu."
"Bend over they are coming."
"You are done."
A person whose Twitter avatar featured an illustration of Pepe the Frog
— a popular "alt-right" mascot — dressed as Mr. Trump sent the graduate
student a still image of himself from a video shot the previous afternoon.
"Btw, this is a doxxing," the person wrote.
The man Mr. Weatherford had confronted on the sidewalk films protests as
a hobby. He had posted the video of their argument on YouTube.
One commenter had identified Mr. Weatherford as a university employee,
Another pointed users to his RateMyProfessors.com page. New reviews soon
appeared, claiming that Mr. Weatherford traded good grades for sexual
favors and had once beaten a student with a baseball bat while
screaming, "I hate white people!" (He reported the postings to the site,
which has since removed them.)
On 4chan, the online imageboard site, anonymous commenters mused about
getting him fired and splitting his head open. One user mentioned seeing
him around campus and name-checked his Spanish class number and section.
"im gonna beat yout faggot ass bitch," said an email sent to his
university address. "youre done for."
Frightened, Mr. Weatherford wrote to Ms. Cauce. He knew the president
sometimes responded directly to students who came to her with problems.
"I recognize that I carry a lot of privilege, but provided that this
extent of harassment is happening to me, I can’t even fathom what others
that are more vulnerable are experiencing," he told her. "We are not all
equal; some of us need to be protected in an environment that actively
seeks to destroy us. You can help to prevent that."
"Doxxing" threats were new territory for Ms. Cauce. She forwarded his
note to the campus police and the student-life office.
Mr. Weatherford felt that she had brushed him off. He later filed a
report with the university police. A detective is investigating one
particular threat against him. An officer now escorts him to class.
Through his union he has filed a grievance with the university, arguing
that by allowing Mr. Yiannopoulos to speak on campus it had created a
hostile work environment.
Free speech sounds simple in theory, says Mr. Weatherford. Legally
speaking, it is an equalizer: everybody has the right. In practice,
though, the benefits of free speech tend to accrue to the powerful, he
says. And in this case, the university should have used its own power to
stand up for its most vulnerable constituents, even if it meant risking
"This is what happens to minoritized people," he says. "We don’t get
Ms. Gamble says she has no regrets. She feels bad that someone was shot,
but she blames outside agitators and ineffective crowd control, not Mr.
She liked what the Breitbart editor said about cyberbullying not being
real. After the hell she caught for inviting him to campus, Ms. Gamble
found it comforting to think that she didn’t have to let other people’s
angry words change how she felt about herself.
"If you don’t dwell on it," she says, "and you know who you are and
where you stand in life and you know what your end goal is, it’s not
something that’s meant to hurt you."
Ms. Gamble, who expects to land a job with the King County Republican
Party, knows what her end goal is.
It is the same goal she had in mind when she invited Mr. Yiannopoulos to
embolden the conservatives on her liberal campus to speak their minds.
It is the same goal she has had ever since Mr. Rossi’s articulate case
for conservatism inspired her to go into politics.
She wants to amplify red voices in a blue state.
What will those voices be saying? That, she doesn’t know.
"‘Conservative’ is definitely a term that’s changing post-Trump," she says.
"It’s kind of like, ‘Conserving what?’"
Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the
same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write
to him at steve.kolowich at chronicle.com.
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