Over 100 students turned out to the event sponsored by AU College Republicans. Brewer opened her speech with thanks to AUCR, the audience, and the AU community for inviting her, calling AU the “best university in the country.” From the outset the room felt emotionally charged, both with excitement and displeasure.
Brewer signed the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070), the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act into law on April 23, 2010. The law requires aliens to carry documentation of their immigration status and encourages law enforcement officers to ask for individuals’ immigration status when they are stopped, detained or arrested.
Opponents of the law argue that it sanctions racial profiling and treats those of Latin American descent as second class citizens. Protests also directed their attacks on a later law banning ethnic studies on the grounds that they would incite hatred in schools.
Brewer’s speech certainly played to a conservative audience, with jokes about both parties and casual mentions of issues and policies. Brewer was engaged and conversational. She gave students advice, such as “What’s right won’t be easy” and “Never abandon the dreams that inspire you.” Unfortunately, Brewer was unaware that conservatives made up the minority of the audience.
The speech portion ended and the event quickly moved into a question and answer session. Nick Linsmayer asked the first question, but before Brewer could answer almost 30 people were on their feet and yelling “mic check,” calling for a disruption of the event.
“A surreal scene ensued when near pandemonium took over after Jan Brewer started to address my question,” Linsmayer said. Protesters yelled, “The people, united, will never be defeated,” and carried signs with messages such as “My history is NOT inferior.” Supporters in the room reacted quickly with rallied responses of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” One protestor was removed from the room by Public Safety, while other officers, as well as Brewer’s personal security, escorted her from the room, with several members of AUCR trailing behind.
The AUCR apologized to Brewer as she left the building while the protest moved to the steps of MGC. Chanting and further mic checking continued outside while other protesters lowered a banner over MGC denouncing SB1070.
Other attendants of the event sat in shock and anger in MGC. The protest started in the blink of an eye, catching most people off guard. By 6:25 the group was back inside the doors of MGC and still chanting. Chants ranged from “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racism has got to go,” to “Jan Brewer, escucha, estamos en la lucha,” (Jan Brewer, listen, we are in the fight), to “Jan Brewer, go away, racist, fascist, anti-gay.”
Onlookers’ feelings seemed mixed, most silently watching events unfold or taking cell phone pictures. One student shouted at the protesters, “No hablais English?” in reference to Spanish chants. The protest inspired several waves of controversy on campus, which spread from print publications like The Eagle to individual students’ Facebook profiles, and culminating in the resignation of College Democrats President Chris Litchfield.
The Eagle published 10 opinion pieces in the weeks following, covering both sides of the argument and publishing a response from the Executive Board of AUCR. In a Facebook poll with 273 voters, nearly 64 percent of people believed it to be an unacceptable form of protest, while 30 percent approved of the action.
In Defense of College Republicans
Most of the backlash centered on the timing and nature of the protest. The protest started while Brewer was still speaking, even though the event had moved to the question section. Nick Linsmayer and others had genuine questions they were not able to ask.
Some students say free speech was squelched because participants could not engage in dialogue with Brewer. The AUCRs had a right to engage with a speaker they brought on campus. Brewer was on campus for less than half an hour, from her energetic entrance to her untimely exit.
“The AUCR’s will never end our commitment to bringing high-profile conservative speakers to campus, simply because a handful of students decided to disrupt one of our high-profile events,” said Chandler Thornton, a freshman representative for AUCR.
In Defense of the Loudest Voices
Others find the action fairly reasonable. “SB 1070 degrades an entire group of people and codifies white privilege,” Matthew Metcalf wrote in a contribution to The Eagle. Protestors say they allowed Brewer time to speak, only interrupting the questions, not the speech. They felt compelled to draw attention to the controversial policies in Arizona.
One protester said he was amazed she was even allowed on a campus that prides itself on social justice. In fact, the Community Action and Social Justice Coalition publicly supported the protesters. The protesters, who were of many racial and ethnic backgrounds, cite ongoing discriminatory and racist laws in Arizona, many of which were signed by Brewer, as grounds for the protest.
“We do not want a racist bigot speaking on campus,” said Andrea Gonzalez, a freshman who protested the event.
On both sides of the issue, people got hurt. Latin Americans in Arizona are hurt by the targeted policies of the state and AU students were hurt because their event was disrupted. Regrettably, Jan Brewer was hurt, and, equally regrettably, her policies hurt people.
Unfortunately it’s a lose-lose situation. We need to move away from examining the action on an esoteric, moral level and realize that people were passionate enough to stand up and others were passionate enough to be upset about it. However, the Student Code of Conduct does define “intentionally or recklessly interfering with normal university or university sponsored activities” a prohibited activity.
A group of students protested AUCR’s more recent event with Texas Governor Rick Perry, but these protesters chose to stand outside the building rather than mic check from the audience. There was little-to-no backlash from that action, but it also garnered less attention on campus. A protester who attended both events said that reasonably, they could only stand up in the audience a few times before it would lose its effect.
Perhaps, pushing the limits is the price you must pay to get your voice heard in AU’s highly charged political environment.
Illustration by Carolyn Becker.