The normally quiet hallways of UB’s North Campus were transformed into a battleground of competing ideologies on Thursday, as students attended and protested Lt. Col. Allen West’s speech in the Student Union.
West, a former congressman from Florida and candidate for governor of Texas, delivered a speech titled “America Isn’t Racist” at Student Union 145 at 7 p.m. Thursday. The speech, which was organized by the UB chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, sparked controversy and heated discussion – both inside and outside the room.
The tension could be felt inside the venue even before West took the stage. The room was filled with an ominous hum, as if the attendees were expecting something bad to happen.
In a nod to the firestorm surrounding his speech, West centered his speech on American exceptionalism and self-reliance through the lens of his own personal experiences.
“I know there’s been a little mess on this campus, but you’re looking at a young man who, in 1961, was born in an all-blacks hospital in Atlanta. Look at it,” West said.
Drawing on his family history in the segregated South, West crafted a narrative extolling the importance of the “golden ring” of exception that the United States offers its citizens. He highlighted the military accomplishments of black men like James Armistead Lafayette and pulled quotes from Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery” to encourage audiences to read deeper into US history.
“If you fail to learn from history, you end up being like a dumb lemming,” West said of the country’s history. “I’m not sitting here and trying to apologize for America’s past. But I’ll tell you this – if you sit down and believe that America was founded in 1619” – the year where the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia – “so you take away the story of a man who was the first person killed in the struggle for liberty and freedom in the United States”
West also flaunted his political connections, which included events at Mar-a-Lago with future President Donald Trump and three one-on-one dinners with the late conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh.
His speech lasted about 35 minutes and was followed by an increasingly chaotic question-and-answer session.
Some students have complained that West’s speech fails to acknowledge key issues facing the black community.
“We should have a more open dialogue,” said one student. “We should stop talking about exceptions because then we cannot be criticized. That’s the whole point, right? »
Another student spoke about his personal experiences navigating the education system as a person of color.
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“It’s really embarrassing that you [Allen West] had the audacity to come here, validate the opinions of all these people and ignore the fact that there are literally black students here who have to fight every day for their right to be on this campus – c is embarrassing,” said this student.
After multiple contentious exchanges, event organizers decided to limit each person to one question and asked moderators to hold the microphone, not attendees. West says he’s had this experience at each of his previous 15 stops on his YAF lecture tour.
Connor Ogrydziak, vice president of UB’s YAF chapter, said he wanted students to be more respectful during the question-and-answer session.
“I felt like instead of letting him answer questions, people just chose to talk over them and that’s not how we make progress,” Ogrydziak said. “You have to be open to discourse, not let crowds talk over each other.”
West himself encourages open discourse on college campuses across the country.
“The reason I come to colleges is because we have to have diversity of thought,” West said. Spectrum after the event. “It can’t be just one message, because when college becomes a one-way street, that’s when we get lost.”
Prior to the event, Dean of Students Barbara Ricotta spoke to the audience about showing respect for the speaker.
“Before we begin tonight’s program, the university would like to share a brief video on free speech here at UB,” Ricotta said before West’s speech.
The video included statements from Vice Provost for Academic Affairs A. Scott Weber and a number of students, all of whom encouraged attendees to “allow diverse viewpoints to be expressed and heard.”
After the video was completed, Ricotta said, “As you saw in the video, the university places great importance on freedom of expression. We expect you to respect tonight’s speaker. If you disrupt tonight’s schedule, you will be approached by a member of staff. If you continue to disturb, you will be asked to leave.
But the controversy began even before the event, when students waiting to enter complained of discriminatory treatment.
Smitty Smith, a young history student, says priority for entry was given to some students over others.
“I’ve been in line since 6:11 p.m. and when I got here there were about six people in front of me,” Smith said. “The lady who was in charge of the event addressed the three Caucasians in front of all the African Americans and then jumped all the African Americans…she fired [people] behind the line in front of us.
Therese Purcell, president of YAF’s UB chapter, called the description “grossly inaccurate”.
“I have many sources to prove that he [that account] was not true,” said Purcell, who says she “feared for her life” when she was chased by protesters. “It had absolutely nothing to do with the race when we were admitting people to the event: we had a ticketed queue and a queue.”
Students protested West’s speech throughout the day Thursday. At 2 p.m., the students organized a walkout in support of anti-racist measures. At least 100 students attended the protests, which crossed the academic spine and spilled into classrooms and libraries.
Dozens of copycat posters protesting the speech lined the campus in the days leading up to the event. Purcell says “at least” 500 YAF posters promoting West’s speech were taken down.
“We see them in trash cans all over campus, which we find really unfortunate because college campuses are meant to be a place of dialogue and free speech,” Purcell said. “I think the student body seems to be much more left-leaning, as you can see, by the lack of tolerance towards our event.”
Ogrydziak says he thinks the speech was important because it brought a different perspective to campus.
“I think everything was pretty well communicated,” Ogrydziak said. “I thought the message was mostly received, whether everyone wanted to accept it or not.”
Jack Porcari is a news and features editor and can be contacted at [email protected]
Jack Porcari is News and Features Editor at Spectrum. He graduated in political science with a minor in journalism. In addition to writing and editing, he enjoys playing piano, fluid arts, reptiles, and activism.