Cal Poly braced for a major incident Tuesday afternoon, with officers in riot gear on the rooftops surveying those milling around the Performing Arts Center, a building that was itself surrounded by fences, floodlights and at least one SWAT vehicle.
The battle never arrived.
Despite worries that demonstrations outside of controversial British conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos’ talk at the college could escalate into violence, the actual scene was much more placid, with no serious altercations stemming from what turned out to be a relatively small protest.
At its height, about 150 people came to protest the show, carrying signs proclaiming “No Trump, No Milo,” and “Good Night, Alt-Right.”
Never miss a local story.
“I hate Nazis,” said Tom Coletti, a fifth-year IT student, when asked why he was there. Coletti contributed nine elaborately drawn signs complete with images of Nazis and American soldiers revealing a Nazi wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Coletti went on to say he was protesting the “alt-right” movement.
“The ‘alt-right,’ it goes under a lot of different guises,” Coletti said. “It’s made up of a bunch of different people. But it’s a combination of white nationalism, white supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, you name it. And when you combine all those together, especially the white nationalism, authoritarianism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism, it’s the recipe for Nazism.”
Yiannopoulos, an editor of the right-wing Breitbart website, was at Cal Poly for a stop on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour of college campuses. His caustic approach lambasting Muslims, feminists, overweight people and liberals has drawn criticism and protests at each stop on the college tour, as well as several instances of violence. At the University of Washington, a man sustained a gunshot wound in the stomach after a scuffle during Yiannopoulos’ appearance there.
In the past week, Yiannopoulos has stopped at the University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Colorado, Colorado Springs; and the University of New Mexico. Each event reportedly had a heavy police presence to monitor large protests. Three people were arrested in Boulder, including two for misdemeanor assault.
At Cal Poly on Tuesday, authorities didn’t appear to be taking any chances, as officers in riot gear assembled around the PAC. Police agencies included the campus police, San Luis Obispo police, State Parks, California State University police and California Department of Corrections.
Several groups had announced plans for protests prior to Tuesday, including one calling itself San Luis Obispo Anti-Racist Action, which called for demonstrators to wear masks and attempt to shut down Yiannopoulos’ talk.
A group wearing black masks did attempt to burn a Confederate flag outside of the event, while a quiet crowd looked on.
Maddie Jackson, a first-year biomedical engineering student, came down to check out the protest with a couple of friends.
“I definitely expected something bigger, but I’m not surprised,” she said. “Cal Poly talks big sometimes.”
Meanwhile, a separate, larger protest against President Donald Trump worked its way across the campus, briefly passing the Yiannopoulos protests without much interaction between. One protester said the demonstration was in solidarity with other demonstrations around the country in reaction to the executive orders Trump has issued in the past week.
The “internet super villain” speaks
Yiannopoulos took the stage nearly an hour early at the 496-seat Spanos Theatre, launching into his “No More Dead Babies” talk in front of a full house.
He started with a quick plug for his much-discussed “Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant” that is available exclusively to white men to encourage them to pursue higher education. The grant website went live during his talk, and he encouraged all in the audience who fit the description to apply.
Yiannopoulos also lauded Cal Poly’s majority male population — 53 percent — and its past as a male-only college.
“It’s a veritable sausage fest,” he said. “Possibly because you study real subjects (like engineering and math).”
This was met with a thunderous round of applause throughout the theater.
Yiannopoulos faced a friendly audience, with no hecklers or protesters. A number of people in the audience sported “Make America Great Again” hats from the Donald Trump campaign and one man wore a large American flag draped around his shoulders.
The main subject of Yiannopoulos’ talk was abortion with pictures of aborted fetuses displayed on a large screen behind him.
Among his assertions was that the pro-choice movement has been pushed by third-wave feminists who “don’t like science — they prefer feelings.”
“How can feminists be pro-women and not pro-motherhood?” he asked. “There is nothing more unique about being a woman ... than the gift of motherhood.”
He wrapped up his speech with a call to action among the audience members, urging them to continue to push back against “the social justice warriors” and liberal left.
“This is a moment in culture where you can stand up and say enough, no more,” he said. “You are uniquely situated now in a presidency that is making the left’s heads explode.”
At the end, Yiannopoulos took questions from the audience.
Notably among the attendees was a man who said he and friends had driven four hours to be at the talk, after a previous speech was canceled in Los Angeles.
Another man asked about job discrimination among minorities, but then said something out of earshot of the microphone that was greeted with gasps from the surrounding audience. In response, the man was told by Yiannopoulos that he was “about to give you a serious answer, but you can go f--- yourself.”
Audience members Ethan Thompson and Kyle Sjoblom, both Cal Poly students from Kansas, said they came to hear the conservative speaker to learn from him and for entertainment, although they don’t agree with all of his views.
“It’s nice to hear both sides of political debates,” Thompson said.
Katherine Rueckert, Cal Poly College Republicans president — who in the past said Yiannopoulos’ coming to campus was an example of freedom of speech — said the speaker’s energy resonates among his audience.
“Basically, we brought him here because of the desires of the club to have him here,” she said. “Not everyone within the club agrees with him 110 percent, but he’s entertaining, energetic and flamboyant. The leadership followed the flow of the club to bring him here.”
She said it’s refreshing that the “internet super villain” offered dissent.
But Heather McCoy, a San Luis Obispo resident, called Yiannopoulos “a Nazi.”
“He believes in white power, so it’s not a stretch to call him a Nazi in my opinion,” she said. “Genocide isn’t too far down the road.”
Yiannopoulos has denied he’s a white supremacist and he has denounced those who call him one.
“Unite Cal Poly”
While right-wing pundit Yiannopoulos promoted his white men’s-only grant program and railed against abortion in one campus theater, comedian W. Kamau Bell entertained his audience in another theater with his “The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in about an Hour” show.
The Cal Poly Office of University Diversity and Inclusivity and the student government hosted Bell’s free show in response to outcries against Yiannopoulos’ appearance sponsored by the Cal Poly College Republicans.
The 1,289-seat Christopher Cohan Center was nearly full for Bell’s performance, with the crowd laughing repeatedly as the comedian discussed race in a variety of contexts, including sports, politics and identity.
Bell told jokes with an accompanying power point, talking about everything from inappropriate questions about African-Americans’ hair to racist mascots.
“I can prove racism and distill it down into two words: Cleveland Indians,” Bell said.
To audience applause, Bell said race is “not a real thing,” but a social construct.
When talking about racial categories, Bell showed a picture of Trump on the screen: “Which brings me to the need for a new category: orange Americans.”
Mikayla Kunesh, a second-year sociology major, and her roommate, Sara Lesher, a second-year English major, both attended Bell’s performance. Both also said they knew people who planned to protest Yiannopoulos’ performance.
Kunesh said she doesn’t support Yiannopoulos but would’ve been interested in attending his talk from a sociology perspective. She said she appreciated Bell’s ability to tackle tough racial topics, such as when he asked white members of the audience to say “I’m white and I’m proud.”
“It’s important he made us feel uncomfortable,” Kunesh said.
Lesher said going to Bell’s performance earned her extra credit for a class, but she probably would have been interested in the show anyway.
“It’s a group of people coming together in a positive way,” Lesher said.