Students Blockade Athenaeum to Protest Conservative Speaker

Will Buckstaff CM '20 takes a selfie with protesters on Thursday. (Liam Brooks • The Student Life)

A crowd of approximately 300 protesters surrounded the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College in an attempt to block conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald from entering the building and delivering a talk on the evening of Thursday, April 6. 

Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal, is a vocal critic of the Black Lives Matter movement and its allegations of racial bias in policing. Her scheduled talk, entitled “The War on Police,” promised to “explore the data on policing, crime, and race and argue that policing today is driven by crime, not race," according to the Ath's website.

The protesters released an anonymous statement on Facebook the afternoon of the talk accusing Mac Donald of holding anti-black, Islamophobic, and xenophobic views.

“As a community, we CANNOT and WILL NOT allow fascism to have a platform,” they wrote. “To protect the current police and prison system means that you are maintaining the racist system which constantly murders and dehumanizes people of color.”

The protesters, most of whom wore all black, congregated outside Honnold/Mudd Library at 4 p.m. to stage the action.

“We are here to shut down the fucking fascist,” announced an organizer to a crowd of around 100 students.

The organizer also warned that “there is a potential for police to show up and there is a potential for arrest.”

The protesters subsequently marched to the Ath around 4:30 while chanting. An organizer shouted “How do you spell racist?” into a megaphone; the marchers responded “C-M-C.”

When they arrived, the protesters were greeted by around two dozen Campus Safety officers and Claremont police officers, stationed at various locations around the building. Protestors ignored the officers (who did not obstruct them) and the makeshift white fences sectioning off areas of Flamson Plaza, enveloping each of the Ath’s entrances with multiple rows of students linking arms. White students were encouraged to stand in front to form a barrier between students of color and the police.

Students block the entrance to the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum while shouting, "Black Lives Matter." (Liam Brooks • The Student Life)

The protesters continued their chants, including “hey hey, ho ho, Heather Mac has got to go,” “shut it down,” and — most frequent and sustained — “black lives matter.” Some of the officers appeared visibly uncomfortable during chants of “from Oakland to Greece, fuck the police.”

However, David DeMetz, a Sergeant for the Claremont Police Department, said, “We’re there to ensure everyone’s safety, even the people that may not be happy with the police’s presence. … We have to … remain neutral and objective.”

As the scheduled start of the dinner approached, prospective attendees with reservations were unable to enter. Most stood outside, waiting around in small groups, dressed in formal attire. However, others chose to argue with protesters in heated exchanges.

Keck Science professor Anthony Fucaloro pushed against and grappled with the crowd of protesters in an unsuccessful attempt to reach the door. He could not be reached for comment before press time.

Mac Donald succeeded in getting in, but she was greeted by a nearly empty room apart from some Ath employees, professors, law enforcement officials, and a camera livestreaming the talk to an audience of roughly 250 people.

“It’s very awkward to be speaking to an empty room, but nevertheless, the show will go on,” said Ath fellow Sarah Sanbar CM '17 while introducing her. Sanbar defended Mac Donald’s right to speak, attributing that attitude to her own upbringing in Saudi Arabia, “a country that does not protect free speech.”

Mac Donald’s talk lasted only half an hour. After defending her views, she answered a few questions submitted remotely.

Meanwhile, the protest continued outside.

Garrett Ryan CM '17 brought a large speaker to the Hub’s patio, blasting Sousa's patriotic march “The Stars and Stripes Forever” to provoke the protesters. A woman who ran up to him managed to steal his audio cable after a brief scuffle, cutting off the music and garnering cheers from the protesters when she returned to the crowd.

“It was not well-received,” Ryan told TSL.

Steven Glick PO '17, the co-Editor-in-Chief of the conservative Claremont Independent publication, attempted to livestream the protest, but he was swarmed by protesters who blocked his phone.

Several administrators attended the protest and stood to the side. They told TSL that they saw their role as ensuring student safety, but they also sympathized with the protesters’ views.

“Black Lives Matter is really at my heart,” said Pomona Associate Dean Jan Collins-Eaglin.

Demonstrators line the edges of Flamson Plaza. (Austin Huang • The Student Life)

CMC Dean of the Faculty Peter Uvin urged students to engage with Mac Donald’s views as a way to “deepen or challenge our pre-existing perspectives” in an all-campus email sent out the afternoon of the talk.

Afterwards, he expressed his disappointment with the turn of events.

“Precisely because these issues are so important, we must be able to debate them, to acknowledge that there exist different analyses and life experiences about these matters, and to listen carefully to each other,” he wrote in another all-campus email.

Andrew Busch, the director of the Rose Institute for State and Local Government, who invited Mac Donald, also defended the invitation in an email to Rose students.

“If someone calls us racists because they do not respect the importance of free debate, he or she should be reminded that the purpose of a college education is not indoctrination into a particular ideological dogma,” he wrote, adding that racism “should not be trivialized and turned into a bludgeon with which to shut up critics or keep friends in line.”

"We do not endorse our speakers’ views, only their qualifications to make informed commentary and their right to be heard," Busch wrote.

However, he also offered his own view that “one can believe strongly that black lives matter without agreeing with the tactics of Black Lives Matter. Critiquing the organization is not synonymous with racism. … The dispute is over means and methods, not aims.”

The incident comes on the heels of similar speaker controversies nationwide, including one at Middlebury College in which a professor was injured and one at UCLA in ​which Mac Donald was shouted down the previous day.