After Protesters Block Athenaeum, Students, Administrators Respond

Students protesting Heather Mac Donald's pro-police talk block the entrance to the Athenaeum April 6. (Alexander Landau • The Student Life)

A crowd of approximately 300 student protesters blocked students and faculty from viewing a talk by conservative political commentator and journalist Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna College's Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on the evening of Thursday, April 6.

"Giving this speaker a platform exemplifies the racist power structures of these colleges and how little they care about the safety and well-being of its students of color," wrote a student who helped organize the protest and wished to remain anonymous in an email to TSL.

Mac Donald said that she came to CMC because she respected the college.

"It seemed like they were very interested in my perspective and presenting a balanced set of speakers on the criminal justice system," Mac Donald said of the college.

Administrators knew of plans for the protest before the talk. CMC Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Peter Uvin said that the college put up some barricades to accommodate talk attendees while respecting the protesters right to protest.

“What we did not expect and what did happen was that a much larger group of students than we expected—far more organized than we expected—set out to shut the entire talk down, which is different from protesting,” he said.

The protesters marched from Honnold/Mudd Library to the Ath while chanting, “hey hey, ho ho, Heather Mac has got to go,” “shut it down,” and — most frequent and sustained — “black lives matter.”

Despite plans to block Mac Donald from entering the Ath, Mac Donald was able to deliver her talk via a live stream, which had been viewed about 2,500 times by press time. Protestors sat in front of each of the Ath's entrances, continuing their chants and preventing students and faculty from attending the talk.

Despite the fact that Mac Donald's live stream reached a wide audience, one student organizer called the protest a success. 

"The anti-BLM dinner was cancelled, the talk was shortened, and very few students, if any at all that weren’t workers at the Ath, were present for the talk. Students across the colleges joined in solidarity to send a message and we were able to shut it down," they wrote in an email to TSL. "Additionally, Claremont Mckenna College’s reputation was challenged. This is a success, because it affects the college in the one form that it responds to-- monetarily. Media coverage reveals to potential students that these colleges have failed to address the needs of all of their students."

Mac Donald described the protest was an attempt to silence her.

“They wanted to silence, they didn't quite succeed in doing that, but they did succeed in preventing my face-to-face encounter with students both before the speech, during it, and after it,” she said. She said that live interaction was why she was invited.

According to a statement from Rose Institute Director Andrew Busch posted on the Rose Institute website, the protest “aimed to violate the core mission of our college, which includes reasoned debate, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought.”

 A statement written by protestors and circulated on Facebook before the event said that Heather Mac Donald's speech was not an example of freedom of expression.

"The way fascism is masked as ‘free speech’ is not any ‘normal’ exercise of constitutional power. White supremacists such as Heather Mac Donald, claim protection from free speech as an exercise of constitutional rights forgetting that the constitution was created by slave owners," the statement reads.

Shawn McFall CM ’18 attempted to attend the talk but ended up filming the protest instead.

“I applaud the protest in the way that they were able to voice their first amendment rights and that they don't agree with Ms. Mac Donald, because a lot of people of color have had experiences with the police that were not positive,” he said. “I'm not very happy about the way they protested and their tactics of protesting the event.”

McFall recorded the protest for two reasons, the first being to record what may happen between the protesters and those trying to attend the event.

“The second, I wanted to document what I believe was a violation of people's rights to see a speaker. I always like to show what is happening between and the dynamics of between the protesters and what their message is going to be, and what the effect of it was,” he said.

Mac Donald said that the protesters engaged in practices that could lead to totalitarianism.

“This was an act of brute force. They were preventing their fellow students from engaging in intellectual discourse. That is not freedom of expression. That is proto-fascism,” Mac Donald said.

According to Uvin, the administration is currently carrying out an investigation of the protest.

“We will investigate and we are investigating what happened and we will try to hold accountable those who we believe have serious evidence that they are responsible for it,” he said.

In a statement to students, alumni and parents, CMC President Hiram Chodosh wrote that blocking access to buildings violates College policy.

According to the CMC Code of Conduct, the protester's blocking of the Ath doors violate d“the disorderly conduct clause”  Disorderly conduct means actions that “disturb or disrupt the personal safety, peace or well-being of the community or any community members, or which disturb or disrupt the normal functions of the College.”

According to CMC President Hiram Chodosh’s statement to students, alumni and parents, the administration will also give a full report to the other Claremont Colleges, “who have responsibility for their own students.”

Pomona College President David Oxtoby wrote in an email to the Pomona student body that the decision to protest would have been acceptable if protestors had not attempted to block entrances to the talk.

“The problem was the protest didn’t allow her to speak, so when I say I had no problem with the protesting, there’s a difference between protesting and a protest that prevents someone from speaking,” he said. “So that concerned me. I felt that was silencing of someone else’s right to free speech, so that’s why I released a statement.”

Oxtoby said that an investigation into Pomona College students who participated in the event would be initiated by Claremont McKenna College, but if they send Pomona information about violations of policy by Pomona students, Pomona would investigate the students.

A student organizer wrote in an email to TSL that they were unsurprised but unimpressed at Chodosh's decision.

"Implicating that students will be reprimanded for their dissent and their behavior because this protest was not ‘respectable’ plays into respectability politics speech. We cannot follow the guidelines set by the same institution that sanctions violent injustice," they wrote. "We cannot depend on empathy to save us and cannot give platforms to or engage in conversations with fascists."

The student organizer added in the email that the decision to bring Mac Donald to campus ultimately showed their failure to recognize students of color.

"The institution has bolstered the rationale and logic behind matrices of domination and the ongoing colonizing project. It matters which ideas and voices that CMC and these colleges choose to fund and allow space," they said.

Chodosh’s statement to students also highlighted the administration’s effort to prevent protests like this from reoccurring.

“The breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively,” he wrote. “Accordingly, we will be developing new strategies for how best to protect open, safe access to our events.”

Mac Donald hopes that this protest will be a wake-up-call to faculty across the country.

“They've been granted tenure to protect their own freedom of thought and expression and it's time that they step up to the plate and protect other people's freedom of thought and expression,” she said, “including their students' to hear views that challenge the dominant and repressive campus orthodox.”

Ultimately, however, Uvin said that protesters have a right to protest. At the same time, CMC does not endorse the speakers that come to speak at the Ath. He hopes that Ath talks with unpopular views will be a learning opportunity for students.

“The only way we learn is if we expose our ideas, our beliefs, our values, our goals to the critiques of others,” he said.