WORDS + PHOTOS BY CARINA IMBORNONE
Not everyone was forced indoors by frozen temperature last week.
After the sun fell on Wednesday, in front of Boston University’s Track and Tennis Center, a crowd of protesters, mainly comprised of BU students, stood for hours in solidarity. Their stance marked their position against the speaker inside the building, far-right barker Ben Shapiro, who addressed a sold-out crowd for a talk billed “America Wasn’t Built on Slavery, It Was Built on Freedom.”
Attendees came from both the college and general populations, with plenty of MAGA hats and Trump jerseys on display in the pre-show line. Matthew Reiad and David Coelho, two young fans of Ben Shapiro, were at the front, with the former eager to talk about his interest in the event.
“The title is pretty eye-catching,” Reiad said. “Obviously we both can’t agree with that statement until we find out the backing of it. It’s almost like clickbait. If it was, like, a conversation about slavery in the United States, then that’s kind of boring and historical.”
Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the conservative Daily Wire, host of the Ben Shapiro Show podcast, and former Breitbart editor, centered his speech on decrying the idea that the legacy of slavery has an affect on the current state of racial and economic affairs in the United States. Protest organizer Simeon Webb, a Boston University junior in the College of Communication, was glad that the school community came together, unafraid, to clap back with a collective voice.
“I don’t have an issue with Ben Shapiro being on campus,” Webb said. “I can’t take away his right to be here, but I felt the title of his speech was upsetting. I felt disrespected.”
Two main protest groups, Black BU and BU Students Against Hate Speech, organized the spectacle against Shapiro. On the left side of the tennis center, Black BU hosted a protest of total silence while wearing all black, followed by a statement, excerpted:
BU is not designed for us, and this BU does not belong to us just as our bodies and our minds do not and have not belonged to us since our rights as human beings were stripped away in the wake of slavery. … This school constantly boasts about their most famous alumni, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but by endorsing a conversation titled “America Was Not Built on Slavery, It Was Built on Freedom,” this instituiton is ostracizing the very comminity that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for.
On the right side of the building, No Hate Speech at BU broke out a series of chants. Their petition, which gained 2,220 signatures online, called for the university to remove Ben Shapiro’s speech from campus altogether:
“We Demand that Boston University refuse to allow Ben Shapiro to speak on campus, and we call on all progressive students and community members to take a stand against BU’s decision to provide a platform [for] Ben Shapiro and his hate speech.”
An extensive police force of 40 officers and additional personnel watched over the event. At one point, a cop who appeared to be in a leadership role aggressively confronted this reporter upon seeing my camera, stating that I might not be allowed to take photographs, since it was a “private event.” The protest occurred on a public street.
The event cost approximately $12,700 in security costs, which Boston University covered without consulting the student body at large. After facing pressure from Young Americans for Freedom, the student group that invited Ben Shapiro to campus, school administrators reverted upon their initial stance of requiring YAF to pay on its own. This was the result, in part, of a successful online campaign railing against the security fee, publicized with blog posts on the web site for the YAF’s national affiliate organization.
With controversy swirling, BU acknowledged the event through its official information channel, the online newspaper BU Today. In three email newsletters, the university published reactions to Shapiro’s planned appearance. In one piece that ran on Oct 24, Dean of Students and Associate Provost Kenneth Elmore said:
I certainly understand that there is a view that this guy denigrates people … But I also hope what we can do is to let the program happen, and to let people who are against it challenge these ideas, and to have good and real conversation about this. That’s what a good university is about. It’s a noisy place. It’s noisy and complicated and messy. How wonderful that we can still have these kind of conversations.
Amidst so much commotion, and as BU claims to work on a university-wide free speech policy, organizers of the Boston Anarchist Bookfair, which was held annually at BU from 2014 through 2018, were told there would be new security costs and that the institution would not foot the bill. The sudden change caused planners to move the event, held last week, to the Democracy Center in Cambridge.
Faith Puleikis, director of Boston University’s Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism, has hosted the Anarchist Bookfair on BU’s campus since 2014 and said administrators claimed they didn’t realize the event was set to occur until two days prior to the scheduled date. Because of Nazi protestors at last year’s event, extra security was required for this year’s book fair, Puleikis said, but despite the lack of clarity over whether procedures were followed correctly between the organizers and BU, Puleikis said the school’s stance on security fees placed an unfair burden on organizers.
“The guesstimate was $4,000 or less, but in the thousands regardless. They did not offer to pay the costs, and we tried to negotiate on behalf of the Anarchist Bookfair. … While I understand the procedures that they must go through, I hope in the future they consider the ability of groups to pay for security in their policy of free speech, since groups backed by institutional wealth will have the opportunity to speak more often if this policy is continued.”
Puleikis said she was meeting with university administration soon to identify what qualifies certain events to have their security fees covered.