Robbing the Empty Stage

How CUCR lost control of its own event

In an apparent move of transparency, Columbia University College Republicans (CUCR) offered a livestream of Tommy Robinson on its Facebook page. Timewise, this video started around 8:28 PM local time, 1:28 AM London time, with protesters rushing the front of Roone Arledge Cinema to protest Robinson’s appearance. What followed was a little back and forth to be expected between a British provocateur and his various detractors, but the video itself is a little misleading.

For one, the event was supposed to start at 8:00 PM.

Columbia University Public Safety had allowed people in at 7:30 PM. Going off of the advertised time, this gave CUCR thirty minutes between the opening of the doors and the start of the event to get things together. Meanwhile, the protesters who got into the Cinema distributed a flyer throughout the audience with their initial plan: to turn their backs to Robinson and, if considered by Public Safety to be disruptive, to walk out with as many like-minded people as possible. Aristotle Boosalis, president of CUCR, delivered his introduction at 8:11 PM, after which the doors were closed to the chagrin of protesters outside. However, the event didn’t start at 8:11 PM, not because protesters disrupted or hacked the wifi, but because Robinson was nowhere to be found. This gave the protesters enough time to realize that the side wings of the Cinema had been taped off, and thus were empty, from which the protesters inside started to match the calls coming from outside to let more people in, and the energy generated for the 16 minutes of radio silence from London transformed a muted protest into a raucous frenzy.

To the extent Boosalis is the president of his delegation, he seemed to have little control over the event. Public Safety forced CUCR into Lerner from Schermerhorn in the first place. Robinson would not get on Skype for 15 minutes. And in the immediate aftermath, even the narrative is getting away from CUCR. Advertising for the event focused on Robinson’s “expertise” on mass immigration, and Boosalis said at the beginning that the event was only 45 minutes of Q&A. Over Skype, Robinson confessed he had no speech prepared for what he believed to be a Q&A. When Robinson made a video for Rebel Media, however, not only had a speech, but said speech was to be an hour long, and about the state of American and British universities. At best, the lack of communication on all levels reveals a CUCR unprepared for the challenges of presenting controversial events.

Not to say that CUCR’s opponents were tightly organized either. It was the first time since the rally for undocumented students last semester that so many protesters were in one spot. Members of Antifa were few and far-inbetween. The mass that initially gathered in front of Lerner lacked energy, its leaders unsure in their tactical abilities, and its members divided over the manifest destiny aspects of “This Land is Your Land.” Had CUCR run a smoother event, it’s conceivable the protest wouldn’t have been as intense.

If anyone turned out to win October 10th, it would have to be the “Tommy Robinson Exposed” event organized by the Muslim Students’ Association and the Barnard-Columbia Solidarity Network (BCSN) While divisions between the peaceful, interfaith speakers and more activist, combative speakers were inherent, the flyer from the event became instrumental in some of the questioning Robinson did receive. The Columbia University College Democrats also hosted a counter-programming event during CUCR’s event, but while it had many interesting critiques of the disruptive protest approach preferred by members of the Barnard Columbia Solidarity Network, its event was also fifteen hundred feet away from Lerner, ceding the debate to other voices.

Were the Democrats present, there were many notions that they could have challenged Robinson on, like the idea that Islam is an inherently violent religion, that the Qur’an, a Contemporary Civilization book, is an inherently violent text, that Islam is being pushed on America and we would be rational to fear that. One imagines when CUCR writes that they “denounce racism, xenophobia, and bigotry,” that this is what they’re talking about, though this would amount to CUCR’s entire denunciation of Islamophobia, a phenomenon they don’t name in their many statements post-mortem.

Looking forward, the BCSN has leveraged its successful night into a call to organize. It remains unclear if leaders within the movement can unite left-leaning forces into a movement that can successfully challenge CUCR’s speakers, but undoubtedly, this will be a question about tactics on the ground. CUCR, meanwhile, will have to prepare for the real test of Free Speech Month, justifying Mike Cernovich. And in the long run, the campus community will have to develop a way to display its Voltairian defense of freedom of speech, amply defined by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

 

Correction: The article originally implied that Tommy Robinson had a speech prepared. Tommy Robinson over Skype stated that he understood the event to be a Q&A only and had no prepared speech. The article also failed to note BCSN’s involvement in the Tommy Robinson event. Both points have been corrected.

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