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Campus responds to cancelled Erik Prince lecture

Editor’s note: The Round Table published an initial story covering the Wednesday night event early Thursday morning. This article takes a closer look at what has happened since then. 

Beloit College made national headlines last week after a scheduled speech from Erik Prince– former Blackwater CEO and younger brother of United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos–was canceled following student protests.

Prince had been invited to the college by Beloit College’s chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) organization. Prince was not the first of controversial conservative speakers YAF had extended an invitation to. The calls for protest, however, were much more prominent leading up to Prince’s visit.

In particular, members of the community were quick to recall Prince’s considerable controversial history. Prince, a former Navy SEAL, was still CEO of Blackwater, a private military security firm that is now named Academi, in 2007 when 17 unarmed civilians were murdered by Blackwater guards in Baghdad. Four of those guards were tried and convicted in the United States for their crimes.

More recently, in January the Frontier Services Group (FSG) which was co-founded by Prince agreed to build a training base in Xinjiang, China. It is where millions of members of the Muslim Uighur community have been detained leading to what many are calling cultural genocide. FSG would help train 8,000 people a year. The fear then is that those guards being trained would help the continued mass detention of the minority group. Prince insists he had no knowledge of FSG’s deal with Xinjiang.

Before the scheduled speech on March 27, several students had posted to the Beloit College Student Facebook group about their dismay and anger at Prince’s invitation to campus. There were also a number of op-eds submitted to The Round Table that took various stances on Prince’s impending visit.

Tensions rose even higher following the suspension of a Muslim student who had posted several controversial posts on social media, one of which had directly targeted Young Americans for Freedom (YAF)– the group that had invited Erik Prince–and their chairman, Andrew Collins’20.

Following campus protests of the suspension and increased scrutiny, Collins released a statement that assured students that YAF had nothing to do with the student’s suspension and that Prince had been invited “to bring an individual with extensive business and entrepreneurial experience to give a presentation on ways the free market may provide solutions to issues related to national security.”

Joining campus pushback, Students for an Inclusive Campus (SIC) released a statement March 24 where they outlined Prince’s controversial history and announced their plan to protest his visit. In the statement, SIC stated that “Beloit ignores its own 2018 Academic Priorities of ‘focusing on anti-racism, equity, and inclusive living and learning,’” by inviting Prince and added that, “we believe that Prince’s actions and the actions of his companies…does [sic] work against Beloit’s commitment to becoming an Anti-Racist institution.”

Because of this, SIC had planned and organized several counter events to protest the speech: “While we believe that direct confrontation has a place in activism, we are choosing to avoid any reason for YAF to target SIC as being exclusionary of conservative voices. Because of Prince’s history, we do not wish to ask for more emotional labor from marginalized bodies, and we hope these counter events allow you to celebrate your identity rather than listen to someone who, through his actions, has proven he has no regard for marginalized people, and the anti-racist work this college promotes.”

Those events included a drag show in Java Joint, free food in DKs and another event called “Baking with African Americans” also hosted in DKs.

Jasmine Rice performs onstage during the drag ball, organized by SIC (Gabe Gonzalez’20)

A walkout was also organized in which students would fill Moore Lounge 20 minutes before the event and promptly walk out a minute before the speech was meant to begin, providing a clear and visible message of disapproval.

Pearsons was indeed filled with students and college community members before Prince’s scheduled appearance and at 7:29 p.m. a signal was given and students poured out of the space. Vacant seats were quickly filled by others who had been waiting by the side and were not participating in the protest. SIC would later report that over a hundred students had participated.

Minutes before the walkout, however, students arrived carrying a dismantled drum kit. While security briefly spoke to them and asked the students to leave, they refused to and remained. Separately, two different members of SIC tried to speak to the drummers before. Tristan Vaca’19, one of the drummers, recalled assuring one SIC member that he would not drum before the walkout.

By 7:35 p.m. the drummers were playing loudly in the northwest corner of the room and there were still no signs of Prince, Collins or any of YAF’s leadership. It was here that a brief but tense interaction between one of the drummers and Kyle Ferrebee, program officer for the national YAF Chapter Services, occured. While originally reported that security helped break up the moment, the drummers would clarify to The Round Table that at no point did security help. Instead, they stated, security watched on. For one of the other drummers, Charlie Starenko’22, it was odd how little security appeared to intervene in that situation: “that made me feel weird that our security guard was just watching from super far away.”

But, their account of this interaction is refuted in the statement released by Cecil Youngblood, Beloit’s Interim Dean of Students, and Bruce Heine, Director of Safety and Security, where they shared additional details about the night. In the statement Bruce states that “security responded” when “an exchange between protesters and other attendees intensified.”

In all, Moore Lounge became a room full of laughter, clapping, and intermittent shouts of “Erik Prince where are you?” for 30 minutes.

At 8:00 p.m. some students began stacking chairs on stage, and audience members began to leave.

Students stacked chairs on the stage 30 minutes after Prince was scheduled to speak. (Dianne Lugo/The Round Table)

Prince never made an appearance.

Beloit College released a statement shortly after the event was shut down:

Due to disruptive protests and safety concerns, the event hosted by the Young Americans for Freedom featuring speaker Erik Prince had to be cancelled [sic] to ensure the safety of all participants. As an institution of higher learning, open dialogue on all topics is one of our core principles. Tonight’s events fell unacceptably short of this core principle, and we condemn the behavior of those who disrupted the event. The college will begin an investigation immediately.

In an email to The Round Table, Chief Communications and Integrated Marketing Officer Tim Jones, clarified that “the college will investigate to see if policies were violated” noting, in particular, the “Demonstrations Policy” outlined in the student handbook.

Since March 27, campus has been divided in its opinion of the entire situation.

President Scott Bierman also released a statement on March 28 to the college community. In the statement, Bierman addressed the drummers and those that stacked the chairs: “Do you really want to learn at an institution where there are self-appointed editors who shut down free inquiry because they believe they know what others ought to be able to hear? I do not.”

Bierman also added “we need to make space for voices of dissent – that is an essential part of free inquiry. Indeed, there were students who protested last night in ways that are completely consistent with our principles. For example, plans for a protest that SIC shared with members of the community prior to the event were exactly in line with our principles. But, voices of dissent differ in fundamental ways from intentional disruption.”

He concluded by condemning the disruptions: “I do so because they are debilitating to the mission of this college, a mission I love. We need to be better than this.”

Collins replied to questions from The Round Table through email. In the email Collins stated that he disagreed with SIC’s “assertions about Erik Prince, but it looked like they did some research. Given that they did research, I would have suggested they engage with Prince during the Q&A as I believe there would have led to some fascinating exchanges. Nevertheless, their silent walk-out was dignified and I respect the effort they put into counter-programming even if I disagree with the spirit of it.”

The other protests, however, were much more disappointing to him. Collins believes that “the disruptions reflected poorly on Beloit College students, but I am confident that they did not represent the majority of the student body and remain optimistic that cooler heads will prevail.”

Both Collins’ statement and additional details make it clear that it was Beloit College that decided to cancel the event.

YAF and Prince had arrived with intentions of doing everything as scheduled but Collins and Prince “waited for the go-ahead from security to enter Moore Lounge and begin the lecture. We waited and waited in the second floor hallway for about 30 minutes until ultimately relocating to back of the building, whereupon we were notified that the event had been cancelled by the College.”

The cancellation was because of “the College’s refusal to control the situation” and because while “in principle, Beloit College supports free inquiry…the events on Wednesday showed a clear lack of leadership and backbone to stand by that commitment.”

Despite the campus response Collins said that YAF “will not be changing [their] plans to bring Heather Mac Donald on April 30.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Prince. In a statement published by the Beloit Daily News Prince said: “It’s sad the administration of this college lacked the moral courage to enforce speech and to defend free speech…Fortunately [President Donald Trump] will defend free speech and I think the college will be hearing from the court soon on this because enough is enough,” when he spoke to a crowd of about 50 people at Hotel Goodwin.

Collins confirmed Prince’s appearance at Hotel Goodwin:

“The lecture was to begin at 7:30 PM and end at 8:30 PM; Prince would speak for the first 20-30 minutes and use the remaining time to take audience questions. After the speech, we planned to leave for a meet and greet at the Goodwin set to begin at 8:45 PM. We did not anticipate that Prince would be unable to speak at all and he was not expected to give a speech at the meet and greet. But since the planned attendees of the meet and greet were interested in hearing what he had to say, Prince delivered approximately the same speech… I believe both the people who were skeptical of Prince and the protestors would have agreed with much of what he had to say if only they bothered to listen.”

Prince also stated that legal action may come against Beloit College, according to the Beloit Daily News.

Department Chair and Professor of Political Science John Rapp, who had been present at the Prince event, seconded Bierman’s and Collins’ condemnation of the disruptions. “It’s just morally wrong. Shutting down speech is morally wrong, in my point of view,” Rapp said. He added, “I’m very disappointed in students but students are learning. They’re young. They make mistakes. We all make mistakes. It’s not like it’s unforgivable. What I don’t like is the faculty and staff egging them on and supporting them.” While Rapp understood and was “sympathetic to them and how upsetting it is to have this bozo come here,” he believed there was no justification for the entire ordeal and instead wished he and other audience members had the chance to challenge Prince during the scheduled Q&A.

He believed SIC’s planned events and walkout were enough to send a statement. Now, however, he wanted students that stayed in the Lounge to recognize that “it’s going to backfire. We are going to be the first test case of President Trump’s new executive order… How is that going to help people?” Rapp is referencing the executive order President Donald Trump issued March 21 that mandated colleges and universities “support free speech” or risk losing federal funding.  

Managing Professor of International Relations and Professor of Political Science Beth K. Dougherty circulated a message to staff and faculty that criticized the students who disrupted the event and encouraged SIC’s efforts to rebuke Prince.

As Rapp mentioned, not all faculty are expressing anger with the students. A group of faculty calling themselves “Faculty Who Care” have released an opinion piece in The Round Table in support of every student protestor.

SIC would later release a statement on March 29 that expressed the organization’s disappointment, not support. In the statement, SIC thanked those who participated in the counter protests of the lecture and reiterated that “our intent was for marginalized bodies to express their condemnation of the lecture in an accessible form. It was a way to uplift and celebrate marginalized identities, all the while denouncing white supremacy” in a way that did not “[compromise] the safety and energy of our members.”

It was because of this that SIC was “disappointed with the white demonstrators who took action on Wednesday night by drumming and blockading Erik Prince from the stage.” SIC urged them to “thoroughly assess their privilege” and recognize that “the occupation of the space by white bodies overshadowed the counter-protest that had already been planned… [and] the disorganized actions of those students only served to undermine our weeks of work and embolden YAF to continue bringing figures such as Prince.”

SIC added that the criticism was not meant to be taken as SIC discouraging action taken outside of the organization. SIC was further frustrated that Bierman’s demands to “be better” was a “deflection of any responsibility administration has on the decision to support the Erik Prince lecture.”

When The Round Table spoke to the drummers they expanded more on their motivations. It was Vaca that reached out to the other three to participate: “I don’t think somebody like that deserves a platform on our campus. I understand the concept of people with opposing viewpoints being able to have speakers and whatnot but this is not just an opposing viewpoint. It’s a war criminal and somebody that makes marginalized groups on our campus feel unsafe.”

Jason Lansing’19 thought it was important to note that he “wanted to make noise… because we’ve seen this pattern with this group before of not taking questions, of not letting any opposition speak and of just crusading these horrible people in the name of free speech… We had to be loud… because no one will listen.”

Lansing added the group had not restricted Prince’s freedom of speech. They argued that he had been able to come out to Moore Lounge at any point.

For the group, they believed that marginalized students could not as easily participate in disruptive protest and so, they saw it as their responsibility to do so. “Nothing about anything we did was violent or hostile. Or aggressive. It’s all in the name of love and love for our community and love for the people that were scared by this,” Vaca said.

This point was echoed by SIC when, in an email statement, they explained that the walkout originated after “a concerned general member reached out to us, sharing their safety and emotional labor concerns connected with asking our POC members to be in the room with Erik Prince.”

Starenko made it clear that he “wasn’t trying to clash [with SIC] but…was trying to be louder than a walkout,” in hopes of emphasizing how upset he was about Prince’s visit.

Seeing administration’s response was frustrating for all of them. “I think it’s interesting that the administration is willing to comment that we made Erik and YAF feel unsafe but they’re not willing to make a comment that” Prince and YAF had made many students feel unsafe, too, added Lansing.

After the release of SIC’s statement that expressed disappointment in them, the group wished to directly reach out to SIC instead of further conversation with The Round Table.

Much of the focus remains on the collapse of the Prince lecture, a point that perhaps proves SIC’s statement that the actions of other students overshadowed their efforts. Despite the commotion that was growing upstairs, many of those participating in counter events remained unaware of the situation.

Instead, they remained happy with the success of the events. Downstairs in Java Joint, organizers had to repeatedly try to squeeze people past the doors as students flocked to see other students perform in drag.

A student performer unveils a fan that states “Fuck Erik Prince” (Gabe Gonzalez’20)

(Gabe Gonzalez’20)

Beloit College also released a “YAF Erik Prince Event FAQ” on the Beloit College website that “compiled answers to several questions in response to the recent YAF-hosted Erik Prince event.”

One of the responses expands even further on the “investigation” that the college now assures will not involve “investigating any specific individuals.” Instead, the college is “looking into the event and gathering facts. As we clarify the situation, we’ll evaluate policy violations and determine the best course of action consistent with our policies and procedures.”

The statement also claims that the college does not view the protests as peaceful and directs readers to read Heine’s and Youngblood’s write up of the incident.

In response to many of the claims that the college’s actions displayed another example of how Beloit College is not anti-racist, the statement adds that “Beloit College does not claim to be an anti-racist institution—it aspires to be one. Our current academic priorities identify this work.” It also added that “It is difficult, messy, uncomfortable, challenging, emotional, demanding, and all manner of hard work—and we love it. Beloit College aspires to be an anti-racist institution, and the multitude of views and opinions we see and hear around the free inquiry debate lie at the center of the dialogue that will, we hope, push us closer toward this realization. What better place for this work than at Beloit College?”

It remains to be seen what will become of Prince’s threat of a lawsuit against Beloit College. It is also unclear if any changes in policy will be implemented as a result of the protests.

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