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Jan 5, 17

Let’s Shut Down the Alt-Right College Tour Circuit

Submitted to It’s Going Down

Professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos is touring colleges across the US as a front-man for white nationalist media outlet Breitbart. “Alt-right” front man Richard Spencer has also been making speeches at universities. Turning Point USA has created a national professor watch list. The extreme right seems to believe that colleges are still hotbeds of radical activity, or at least bastions of liberalism, or maybe they can’t tell the difference, regardless, they’re clearly putting a lot of resources into making headway on campuses.

When Yiannopoulos came to Milwaukee in December, local anti-fascists and organizers turned out against him. We mounted a multi-pronged approach to opposing Milo and all he stands for. We mobilized a couple hundred people to demonstrate against Milo, scuffled with and belittled his entourage in the hallways of the student union, interrupted his speech repeatedly, pressured and shamed the UWM Administration for allowing the event to occur, helped gain local, national and international media attention and used the event as a spark to build a stronger anti-racist coalition and culture of resistance in our town. We’re hoping to share what we learned (and how we fell short) so that communities Yiannopoulos, Spencer or their friends visit in the future can put up more effective resistance.

Milo has a large echo chamber and (compared with other Nazis and far-Right media stars) a sophisticated media strategy that often successfully navigates the landscape of liberalism to turn shallow understandings of free speech and civil rights into a platform for hate. There is no clean and clear victory, they specialize in mocking and creating negative spin around their opponents. Having this guy visit your town forces you to choose between engaging with the worst kind of internet trolls or letting Nazis recruit unopposed. You kind of have to hold your nose and do the former, to prevent the latter from occurring. It sucks, but we’re offer the following lessons learned to anyone in the unfortunate position in hopes that you’ll be more successful.

What we did, how it worked

We formed a broad coalition of anti-racist groups, spanning from campus activists to wobblies to SURJ members, radical socialists and more to take a three pronged approach. 1. pressure the admin to shut the event down. 2. organize a counter demo 3. directly disrupt the speech itself. Each method backed up and provided context for the others. None were completely successful, but each made certain gains or obstructions for our opponents.

  1. Pressure the administration to cancel the event before it happens.
  • We formed a coalition of student / faculty / community organizations and used it as a platform to anonymously organize opposition. We called it the Coalition Against the Ultra-Right, created an anonymous email address and public facebook group so we could organize without putting ourselves completely out there.
  • We crafted an open letter and a call-in campaign targeting multiple administration members (Chancellor, Alumni-Affairs, Student Orgs, Event Planners) and an online petition.
  • This pressure did not lead to the event’s cancellation, the following factors contributed to its failure:
    • Milo did not receive any student segregated fees to cover the costs of him coming to UWM, so we could not cancel it by pushing to defund.
    • Someone paid for extra security. At other schools, like Iowa and North Dakota, Milo events were canceled when the school refused to pay for additional security expenses. In Milwaukee, this wasn’t possible because someone (either the hosting organization, or Breitbart themselves) paid for the extra security.
    • The UWM administration is weak and unwilling to fight. The UW system has been facing budget cuts and Governor Walker has criticized UWM for left-leaning bias, so the admin was unwilling to put up a fight or hear arguments that Yiannopoulos’s use of threats and harassment are not legally protected speech. A stronger or more principled administration might be willing to stand up against him.
  • Early on in the pressure campaign, Young Americans for Liberty withdrew from the event, but a newly formed student organization Turning Point USA took it over. This created or reinforced division between moderate and extreme right communities on campus, and reduced the legitimacy of the event.
  • The pressure campaign did gather attention, including some media, a couple of lukewarm hypocritical public statements from the chancellor about tolerance, inclusiveness and the event itself. This supported and created a framework for our other efforts.
  • We successfully got a sit down meeting with the Chancellor and other admins, where we were able to ask questions they couldn’t answer and otherwise make them uncomfortable. They promised that, if Milo did the kind of thing we were warning he would do, they would respond quickly. During Milo’s speech, he made many ignorant and mocking statements, the most egregious of which was naming and insulting a transgender student. The Chancellor responded with another lukewarm statement (expressing “disappointment” about the “controversial” speaker’s “choices”) almost immediately. The transgender student then wrote an epic open “fuck off” letter to the Chancellor in response, which was published in full by student mediaCAUR member orgs, and picked up by national and international media. Even Teen Vouge weighed in.
  • Our pressure campaign pushed the chancellor to take action and when he tried to stay on the fence, it exposed him to greater embarrassment. We hope our presence helped make these things happen, and that they encourage other administrations to see that there’s political costs to endangering their students by hosting people like Yiannopoulos.
  • We estimate that Milo, Breitbart or the national Turning Point USA organization spent upwards of $4,000 to make this event happen. Without our pressure and opposition, they might have made money instead.
  1. Counter demo protest.
  • We created a facebook event, posters and mass emails announcing a counter demonstration.
  • We got over a hundred people out, despite frigid cold and Trump also having a victory lap event on the other side of town, which pulled some protesters away.
  • Fear of our demo led UWM to locking down the entire floor of the union where the event was happening, which made Milo’s event a visible inconvenience to many.
  • We also secured a space for a counter gathering, (thanks in part to the pressure campaign) one CAUR member organization bought pizza, another had hot drinks, and a third organized an open mic / soapbox event in the space. People hung out, networked and supported each other in this space.
  • When the demonstrators moved into this space, one of Milo’s staff videographers tried to shove his way in, too. He was roughly handled and removed. He hid behind police lines and led to a tense standoff in the union hallway, with the alt right hiding behind the police and everyone aggressively mispronouncing Milo’s name.
  • During this stand off, multiple video people, both Milo’s staff and local trolls were identified and ridiculed by the crowd.
  1. Interrupting the speech
  • Milo’s speech (which was not only completely awful, but also idiotic) was interrupted repeatedly by hecklers who were then kicked out.
  • 300+ supporters attended the event. It felt like a Hitler youth rally in there. Gross and frightening.
  • Milo’s staff were walking the aisles with cameras and headsets taking photos and video for their “trigger cam” a feature of Breitbart’s site where they post pictures of people who are disgusted by Milo’s statements with cross hairs over their faces.
  • Milo canceled the “meet and greet” he was supposed to do, probably because he expected our opposition to continue through it.

Things we need to do better

  1. Controlling the narrative around freedom of speech.
  • Both the student org who brought him here and the administration referred to Yiannopoulos’ freedom of speech continuously in response to criticisms. They were eager to frame us as authoritarian opponents of free speech. We could have countered this narrative more effectively.
  • It would help to emphasize that Milo is not only offensive and controversial, he also targets individual people for threats and harassment. We need to focus on the part of what he says and does that are not protected by the first amendment.
  • It helps to understand and frame this college tour as an authoritarian project. Yiannopoulos is travelling like this to draw out political opponents and gain intelligence on us. He is making lists and identifying targets. His camera crew, and even his own speech focused primarily on his opponents. Turning Point USA is also compiling a “professor watch list.” This is McCarthyism for the 21st century. If we had described it this way from the start, we may have gained more leverage toward canceling the event, or at least more effectively attacked their legitimacy.
  • When we focused on how offensive Milo is, and let the administration talk about him in terms of “controversy” we hit at a dead end. Most people we talked to said they thought Yiannopoulos was disgusting and horrible, but has a right to be that way.
  • Here are some resources that help with this framing:
    – “You ask why we call you fascists?” a zine we wrote about the visit.
    – this more successful opposition action at DePaul University
    – the story from UWM (see more links above)
    – the story from Richmond, where the tour targeted gay professor Daniel Brewster
    – professor George Ciccariello-Maher story about being targeted for online harassment for mocking the concept of “white genocide”
    – Yiannolpoulos’ role in a viscous racist attack campaign against Leslie Jones,
    – this biopic on Yiannopoulos and gamergate

Bringing these things to a University Admin’s attention might convince them that Yiannopoulos is there to endanger and threaten their students, not to exercise protected speech. It might help them realize that there are political consequences to protecting and enabling the ultra right’s harassment campaigns, and that these consequences are graver than having a bunch of neo-fascist cry babies play censorship victim.

  1. Cameras, doxing, etc
  • Footage of the demonstration was actually used by Milo during his speech. Disabling or blocking the staff videographer’s cameras would have prevented this. Contact CoalitionAgai[email protected] or for help identifying which camera people are part of Milo’s staff.
  • Many of his supporters squawked endlessly about credibility. By roughly handling / threatening their videographer we “lost all credibility” according to these people. We cajoled to take off our masks repeatedly. Every thing we did, Milo’s people knew how to spin it to make us look like hysterical social justice warriors or authoritarian opponents of free speech.
  • We knew this was going to happen early on and decided it is better to let them play some bullshit victim card than to let them have a victory, but it was still uncomfortable to endure and we could have had better responses, and pro-active messaging to avoid it. This is a challenge, because it is impossible (and undesirable) to coordinate all the responses of all protest participants to prevent the rally from turning into trading insults.
  • Those who didn’t wear masks were risking doxing or blacklisting by Breitbart, an organization with hordes of online followers known to flood people with graphic rape threats, and a leader who is about to become chief strategist of the most authoritarian president of the most powerful police state in the world. This is anxiety inducing and disempowering to say the least.
  1. The Disruption
  • The disruption of the speech itself could have been planned and coordinated better. There was a lot of discussion about this, but that evening, people failed to come together on tactics before hand, so it was pretty much improvised.
  • The tour uses a sketchy ticketing system. The event was free, but people were only allowed in if they had acquired a ticket from an eventrbrite site the tour set up. This is a way they can build a mailing list and also collect email addresses of critics. We acquired tickets using fake / anonymous email addresses, shared the links for how to do so around. This made the event appear “sold out” well in advance, which upset the administration, and may have deterred some from attending.
  • We found the most effective method for disrupting (If you do not have the numbers to take the stage and mic like people did at DePaul):
    • spread out among the audience in pairs or small groups
    • rather than heckling Milo himself, talk to each other / people seated nearby about how dumb and ignorant what he’s saying is. His supporters will argue with you, getting loud and reactionary, which effectively interrupts his speech, undermines his narcissism, and pisses him off.
    • Disruptors then began shushing the reactionaries, and facilities staff weren’t sure who to kick out.
    • Facilities staff were also fairly slow to kick people out, giving many warnings and second chances, probably because they also found Milo’s statements completely disgusting.
    • If everyone who went to the event had used this method in waves, it would have created a continuous disruption without actually engaging Milo’s ego and creating footage for Breitbart to post of him “destroying communist hecklers”.

Things we’re working on to follow up

  • Continuous pressure / shaming of the admin. They knew this would happen, we warned them, and they allowed it. We’ve already shown up at faculty senate meetings and other places to shame Chancellor Mone for his failure to protect targeted students.
  • Countering the spin. We’re putting out a news release, and a zine, both online and around campus.
  • We’ve talked about suing the administration. Their failure to protect students by allowing this event could make them liable in a defamation or harassment lawsuit. This might be a long shot, and Milwaukee doesn’t have enough radical lawyers to pull it off, but the reason UWM didn’t cancel the event is that they don’t want to have to pay to prove in court that his speech is threats and not protected by the first amendment. If we can create the expectation that they’re getting sued either way, that might help them choose to take on the disgusting provocateurs, instead of their own students.
  • This reportback and other intelligence. We’re sending this to every community Milo is planning to go to. There’s also more info we’re able and willing to share with anyone who is organizing against the tour or other “alt-right” speakers on campus or in your community. Email [email protected] or contact us via for more.
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