More than thirty protesters interrupted a speech by white nationalist Tommy Robinson Tuesday night, holding signs that read “hate speech = violence” and “Muslims are welcome here,” while over 250 other protesters gathered outside of Lerner Hall, with some banging on the doors to the auditorium.
Robinson, the co-founder of the English Defence League, an organization that purports to oppose “global Islamification,” has called Islam a fascist and “violent” ideology that incites murder. He last spoke at Columbia in 2016 at an event that garnered little protest.
Activist student groups organized protests in advance of the event, condemning Columbia University College Republicans for inviting Robinson to speak as a part of their Free Speech Month. Because Robinson is barred from entering the United States, he spoke via a video call projected onto the screen in Roone Arledge Cinema.
Robinson was meant to give a speech denouncing mass immigration in Europe, but was unable to speak over the protesters in the room, who shouted questions and responses to his statements. Public Safety officers began demanding protesters turn over their student IDs and recorded UNIs when protesters refused to hand them over. Protesters could face disciplinary action for disrupting the speech, an act prohibited by the Rules of Conduct.
Officers also prevented more students from entering Roone Arledge Cinema—though the venue was only half full—leading students to bang on doors to the cinema throughout the speech.
In a tweet Wednesday morning, Robinson said that he was unable to finish his speech “due to Antifa hijacking it.“
Student activist groups began protesting in front of Lerner Hall hours before the event began, and were joined by members of the Southern Poverty Law Center chapter at Columbia, Refuse Fascism, and Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, who marched from the Grant Houses on 125th Street to campus, eventually surrounding entrances to Lerner.
“It’s our duty to denounce white supremacy on campus and in our community,” said Yosan Alemu, CC ’21, a student organizer with SPLC. “Their words threaten the lives of people that go to our school, and we shouldn’t be debating with individuals that deny us of our humanity. It’s crucial that we stand up and fight back.”
Inside the cinema, Robinson answered questions from protesters regarding the rise of neo-Nazism in the Western world, Islamophobia, and terrorism in the United Kingdom. Protesters interrupted him repeatedly, accusing him of spreading false information.
“Why are we talking in the U.K. about a rise in Nazism? There’s about 50 Nazis in the whole of Britain. There are 23,000 Muslims on the terror watchlist. To compare the two or even give them an equal platform is ridiculous,” Robinson said. While the U.K. has designated 23,000 people as “subjects of interest,” there is no evidence to support Robinson’s claim that all subjects are Muslim.
Outside Lerner, a diverse range of speakers from groups including the Muslim Students’ Association and International Socialist Organization criticized not only CUCR, but also the University for allowing Robinson’s speech.
“As a freshman on this campus I cannot believe that this university would allow such a hateful person to speak,” Maryam Elsayed, CC ’21, said. “It sends a message to the students that they do not care, that they do not stand for our rights and our voices. They are actively allowing someone to speak at this campus who spreads hate about us. I am here along with all these people to send a message to the administration that we will not allow this.”
In an email to the Columbia community Tuesday afternoon, Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg denounced white supremacism but emphasized the University’s commitment to allow student groups to invite speakers that express hateful views.
“It is foundational to Columbia’s learning and teaching missions that we allow for the contestation of ideas,” Goldberg wrote. “This includes expression of ideas that are deeply unpopular, offensive to many in our community, contrary to research-based understandings, and antagonistic to University tenets.”
Alumni also showed up to join the protest.
“I knew the only thing I should do after work was come here and stand up with the students,” Henry James, SSW ’14, said.
Some, like Durrell Washington, SSW ’18, saw Robinson’s invitation as indicative of larger issues on campus.
“Being a black body on this campus who looks the way I do—I don’t conform in the way I dress, I don’t conform in the way I talk—I get looks,” Washington said to the crowd. “We have to be made comfortable. I’m not comfortable when I walk through the halls of Columbia.”
After the event, protesters lingered in front of Lerner, chanting, “We’ll be back,” referring to CUCR’s future events with Mike Cernovich and Herman Cain. Student leaders encouraged protesters to protest all of CUCR’s planned events for Free Speech Month.