Students, faculty and staff gathered in the University Union (UU) Plaza Friday for “Cal Poly Rises Against Hate.” The intention of the event was to fight against hate, bigotry and white supremacy in response to the Free Speech Wall erected by the Cal Poly College Republicans=. The march was organized by more than 20 campus clubs, including Cal Poly Students for Quality Education, Cal Poly Democrats and Cal Poly Movimento Estudiantil Xicano de Aztlán (MEXA).
After hearing speakers like San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon in the UU Plaza, protesters marched to Dexter Lawn chanting and holding signs, posters and flags.
“Today is about refocusing the warped debate around free speech, back to the issues that are directly impacting so many of our communities. We hope this event is an inspiration and a call to action to get further involvement with social changes at Cal Poly and in the world,” political science senior Mick Bruckner said in a speech.
The Free Speech Wall was installed on Dexter Lawn Nov. 1 to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, civil engineering senior and College Republicans President Katherine Rueckert said.
The wall will be taken down Nov. 9, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Rueckert said the wall has been misinterpreted as a “hate speech wall,” but that is not the intention. She said the wall is meant to be an outlet for students to express whatever they want.
“What they’re doing right now is freedom of speech and what we’re doing right here is freedom of speech,” Rueckert said. “I wish there wasn’t a barrier. I think the ideological line is they think maybe some things written on here are hate speech and we just don’t think that this wall represents hate speech, that was never the intention. First and foremost, it’s a free speech wall.”
Rueckert recognizes that a there is a division, both physical and ideological, between students involved with the march and students involved with the free speech wall. College Republicans offered to adjoin the wall with the Cal Poly Democrat club, but they refused because of negative connotations associated with it, according to Rueckert.
“The only way you’re going to start breaking those connotations is if you start working together,” Rueckert said.
Ethnic studies sophomore Leilani Hemmings-Pallay, a “Rise Against Hate” organizer, said the march was not meant to directly oppose the Free Speech Wall. Pallay said marchers wanted to express that hateful comments harms the campus as a whole because it denies the experience of marginalized communities.
“Ultimately, the divide is that these people don’t understand that actions have consequences and by saying hateful things or supporting hateful things or supporting hateful people, it harms everyone,” Hemmings-Pallay said.
The Free Speech Wall has been open to anyone to write on; however the comments people are writing are not productive, according to Hemmings-Pallay. While everyone has a right to free speech, she said many people are writing things on the wall who have not experienced oppression first-hand.
“All of these comments are anonymous. Most of them are hateful. No one is held .accountable for it, no one does anything about it and they’re not really helping anyone,” Hemmings-Pallay said.
Comments on the wall have been tamer than those last year, when several transphobic, Islamophobic, racist and sexist comments were written on the wall. However, many politically-charged comments were scribbled on the wall this year, including a large spray-painted “Fuck Trump” turned “I Fucking Love Trump” by additional spray paint.
“Many of the people that are writing these hateful comments are white, cis-sexual, heterosexual men and so they’ve never experienced these types of oppressions that people who had to do with the Berlin Wall felt,” Hemmings-Pallay said.
Harmon commented on this in her speech and said people are misusing their rights to freedom of speech.
“It’s really too bad that when people feel a call to utilize their first amendment rights, when they are talking about free speech, they turn to hate. That is, to me, so cowardly. That takes really no courage whatsoever. What does take courage is love,” Harmon said.
Shortly after the wall was put up, it was torn down Wednesday night. Rueckert said it was put back up and will stay up until the College Republicans take it down.
“People don’t get that we’re going to take it down anyway. Just let it happen, it’s coming down,” Rueckert said.
Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey said he does not believe the wall is a problem. He said he hopes that people send a message that hate doesn’t belong at Cal Poly and that all identities are welcome.
“Students are using their free speech opportunities that they’re afforded under the law by putting up the wall and I think the students that are organizing today’s march are doing exactly what we hoped they would, which is counter speech with other forms of speech,” Humphrey said.