The ideological voices from the Cal Poly student body loudly clashed at the corner of Grand Avenue and South Perimeter Road in anticipation of the most controversial speaker the university has hosted in recent history.
In line, someone passed out water bottles labeled “liberal tears.”
Anticipation of Yiannopoulos’ arrival became the proxy for political and philosophical debate across campus. Yiannopoulos, the technology editor of right-wing news outlet Breitbart News, is known as a conservative who perpetuates the provocative. In the weeks leading up to his Tuesday event, critics called Yiannopoulos an espouser of hate speech and asked administration to cancel his appearance. Others applauded the administration’s broad interpretation of freedom of speech.
At the literal center of chaos, Gina Welisch was soft-spoken with a big sign. Between the megaphone and car beeps and provocations, she stood in the procession lining the makeshift fence that defined the lawn of Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center. The perimeter probably wasn’t given much consideration before Tuesday.
Welisch stood innocuously in the shadow of someone tall with a “Make America Great” hat behind her. She held a sign, “@CPRepublicans: Cash Me Ousside! How Bow Dah?”
Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech at Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre was one of the many stops of his “Dangerous F*ggot” tour to different universities around the country. Cal Poly’s installment was hosted by Cal Poly’s Republican Club, and didn’t start until 6 p.m. But protesters were megaphone-ready more than two hours earlier.
Welisch, a Cal Poly philosophy sophomore, stood in line in hopes of filling a spot that would represent that protests were going on outside Spanos Theatre.
“That’s one less person who follows his hateful rhetoric who will be listening to him,” Welisch said.
Brian Kennelly, a Cal Poly French professor and the adviser for the Cal Poly College Republicans, applauded the administration’s decision as a litmus test for its commitment to free speech.
“I’m extremely proud of the administration that so far has not backed down, and that they are supporting this event,” Kennelly said.
Kennelly added that while some of the substance of Yiannopoulos’ words may be hateful, what’s really important is that he may be heard.
Ultimately the protests, while tense, remained non-violent. However, law enforcement took no chances.
Students walked to class past SWAT vehicles, parked outside before noon. Law enforcement from across the county assembled on Tahoe Road, between the Davidson Music Center and Mott Gym. Vehicles with insignias from the California State Parks, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Arroyo Grande Police Department and others lined the lane.
By 2 p.m., dozens of law enforcement officers stood, prepared for the anti-Yiannopoulos, anti-fascist protests that were scheduled to begin.
Around 3:40 p.m., about a dozen masked protesters, part of the San Luis Obispo Anti-Racist Action, began to gather in front of Spanos Theatre outside the fenced area near the bus stop.
By 4 p.m., a line of about 60 people ran the length of the fence. Event staff started letting people who were attending the Yiannopoulos speech into the fenced area on the lawn in front of Spanos Theatre for a bag check. Attendees were then moved into a separate fenced area waiting for the doors to open to the theater.
Protesters shouted, “This is what democracy looks like.” Supporters shouted, “U.S.A, U.S.A.”
By 5 p.m., around 300 supporters and attendees to the Yiannopoulos event were herded onto the lawn in front of Spanos Theatre, fenced in by police barriers. The crowd, peppered with American flag apparel and showered in “Make America Great” headwear, taunted protesters. Approximately 50 protesters stood on the other side of the fence, armed with picket signs and a megaphone. At the heart of the dissenters, black-masked protesters burned Confederate and Nazi flags.
Onlookers across the street lounged on the low brick wall foreground of Sequoia Hall and jeered. Commuters tried to slip by the dramatics unnoticed.
Protesters and attendees stood facing each other with the temporary chain-link fence with law enforcement in riot gear acting as a buffer to their clashing ideologies. After a half hour, the attendees were ushered into Spanos Theatre followed by a cacophony of chants and the clinking of picket signs against the fence.
Listen to the chants below:
Inside Spanos Theatre
Inside, audience seats filled up by tens and fifteens of attendees. As the filled rows replaced empty ones, Yiannopoulos representatives handed out laminated posters of fetuses. Later, Yiannopoulos made it a point to mention that each poster was “signed and numbered.”
An image of a large, white, Romanesque building appeared on the stage projector, surrounded in a lava swamp hellscape. In the foreground, a robed figure with a shield and pike looked into a space occupied by monolithic letters: MILO.
At about 6 p.m., with only a dozen open spaces left in the 498-seat theater, the show began.
After a few words from Cal Poly College Republicans President Katherine Rueckert, the most fabulous supervillain of the internet — a term he used for himself — walked on stage.
Yiannopoulos wore sunglasses, a fitted gray suit, pink dress shirt and red tie – the sleek cross between game show host and politician. Though previous Yiannopoulos appearances on campus were climactic, he enjoyed a warm audience without many theatrics.
From behind the podium, he promoted his new Yiannopoulous Privilege Grant, a college scholarship exclusively for white men. Then, he thanked Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong with mostly high praise.
“You have a freedom of [a] speech-loving president, which you should be very happy about. Now I can’t applaud his shit taste in neck ties,” he said. Yiannopoulos gestured to the image of Cal Poly’s president behind him.
After a few shots at Islam, Yiannopoulos affirmed his Catholic faith to the audience. Then, he began the primary focus of his presentation, an anti-abortion speech titled, “No More Dead Babies.”
“We’re here to talk about why America should stop killing babies,” he said.
According to Yiannopoulos, the rate of birth in the western world is “drying up” — but the birth rates in the Islamic World are still high.
With anecdote, Yiannopoulos classified social justice warriors as evil. Under a red sepia slide of a brain, apparent fetus and surgical scissors with white text in capital letters that spelled #SHOUTYOURABORTION, Yiannopoulos told the story of a woman who apparently felt joy from her abortion, paraphrasing her story.
“One #shoutyourabortion participant who said that her vacuum aspiration made her happy, that name just tickles her, you’re vacuuming out the unwanted detritus threatening your aspirations,” he said. “That’s what killing a baby is to these people.”
Ultimately, he placed the blame on Planned Parenthood. Soon, Yiannopoulos had his audience laughing again.
After several questions from the audience, two of which were dissenting and quickly extinguished, Yiannopoulos left the stage. His visit to Cal Poly, at least during his speech, lacked the dramatics of his visits to other universities.
Outside Spanos Theatre
Outside, the protest continued.
Protesters stood on the crowded sidewalk, corralled by law enforcement and waiting for the attendees of the Yiannopoulos event to exit Spanos Theatre. A tense calm hung over the crowd in anticipation of the impending confrontation.
Video by Chloe Carlson, Gina Randazzo and Naba Ahmed
In the midst of the crowd, heated discussions broke out between protesters and bystanders. Atascadero High School student Caden Stober got involved in a discussion with a protester and was eventually drove out.
“You really see how misinformed some people can be and how radicalized people can be without knowing anything,” Stober said.
All the while, the protesters kept chanting, bystanders continued to watch and behind the fence law enforcement stood facing the crowd — unresponsive, batons in hand.
At approximately 7:45 p.m., the doors of Spanos Theatre were opened and the attendees began filing out, met by protesters at each exit. Masked protesters and Yiannopoulos attendees met in a short-lived climax of arguments and mixed chanting, but most of the crowds had dispersed within an hour.
The announcement of the Yiannopoulos event — as well as incidents such as the Cal Poly Republican Free Speech Wall and the #RealSLOSolidarity posters — contributed to the ongoing and evolving campus dialogue of diversity and inclusivity. Though the protests have come to a close, students like College of Liberal Arts Board Representative Chase Dean hope that the conversation continues.
“I don’t think campus climate is at its best,” Dean said. “I’m really hoping we have more events like Unite and different things like that that really address and have productive dialogue on diversity and inclusion at Cal Poly.”
Timeline of the day:
Milo Yiannopoulos has left the stage.
Protesters banging against the chain linked fence outside of Spanos Theater and people leave the venue at 7:34 p.m.
Post from RICOH THETA. #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
SLO Transit shuts down Performing Arts Center bus stop as a result of crowds and protests for routes 4A, 4B and 6B.
“I believe in free speech and he makes me laugh harder than anyone else” Angelique A #MNatMilo
— Mustang News (@CPMustangNews) February 1, 2017
No Ban No Wall participants marched through Cal Poly, beginning and ending at Mott Lawn.
Protesters chanting during the Shut Down Milo protest in front of Spanos Theater.
Protesters chanting during the No Bans No Walls walkout at Mott Lawn.
Protesters gathered in front of Spanos Theatre, banging on drums and yelling from megaphones. One protester yelled “Fuck the Cal Poly College of Republicans.”
Approximately 60 people are in line for the event.
12 protesters gathered in front of Spanos Theatre around 3:00 pic.twitter.com/tgRbZPooVP
— Mustang News (@CPMustangNews) January 31, 2017
Fences have been put up on the lawn surrounding Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre and Phillips Hall.
The fences have been put up as part of security measures for tonight, university spokesperson Matt Lazier said. Additionally, the SWAT team has arrived at Cal Poly and are stationed around Spanos Theatre, setting up for the event.
Correction: An update under 5:23 p.m. said an audio clip was from the Shut it Down Milo protest. It has been corrected to say it was from the No Bans No Walls walkout on Mott Lawn.
It has been clarified that the map depicting a marching route under the 6:20 p.m. update is of the No Ban No Wall walkout.