The Milo Yiannopoulos show made a stop at the University of Washington in Seattle Friday night, the night of Minority-President Trump’s inauguration. And what a s#!t show it was.
The venue was a large auditorium, and the free tickets were all taken. So, if you are one of the many people wondering if Milo is really all that much of a big deal, take note that on one of America’s most liberal campuses, in one of America’s most liberal cities, Breitbart News-affiliated Milo Yiannopoulos packs auditoriums and leaves others wishing they had tickets.
When I arrive at 6 p.m., an hour before the scheduled start time, there are already lines of of hundreds of people waiting to get in, some of whom have been waiting for some time.
Between the lines of people and the entrance to the auditorium is a group of, say, 100-150 young adults clad entirely in black: black jeans, black coats, black hats, black boots, black backpacks, and black masks or scarves covering their faces. The large sign they hold announces “No More Presidents.” A smaller sign declares “We Are Ungovernable.”
Known as the “black block,” or “anarchists,” or as some of their critics call them, “man-archists,” they were the plague of the occupy movement and have now moved on to become the plague of campus protests. Their role in political protest, as they see it, is to show up as often as possible in places where nobody likes them, and fuck shit up. Break windows, light fires, trash newspaper kiosks, stuff like that. The more everyone around them tells them to go away, the more certain they are that they are right where they should be. The particulars of any given street protest is of no concern: no matter the issue, no matter who called the protest or what the organizers hope will happen, no matter the place or time, they fuck shit up.
Milo is not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he did figure out that the man-archists are an always-available cast of unpaid extras he can count on to show up on cue and perform exactly the script he has written for them in his traveling alt-right reality show. Imagine the expense of hiring a hundred extras at each of the twenty-three college campuses Milo will visit on his tour, outfitting them in black, and training them in the caricatured posturing of man-archists. Milo gets all that for free.
To be sure, not all the blockaders are man-archists. There are other militant left groups present from a range of ideologies. But with everyone gathered around “No More Presidents” sign, with faces covered and in no mood to answer even the most polite questions, it is a man-archist contingent.
But tonight is not just any night. This is Minority-President Trump’s inauguration day, and anyone with a political nose can smell that the man-archists, all dressed up in their ridiculous black, have decided that tonight is the night to start fighting fascism in earnest.
This is a widespread notion among college students who are freaked out and scared and overwhelmed by Minority-President Trump: the time has come to fight fascism. A few days ago on the campus of the University of California at Davis where I teach, I ran into one of my favorite students who excitedly told me that she and her peers “have learned that in Germany the Communists formed street fighting gangs to fight the fascists.”
“That’s true,” I replied, “and look where it got them.”
“Wow, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that.”
Love this kid. Open mind. Big brain. Big heart. We need more of that. We don’t have nearly enough.
Beyond the man-archists are the campus police, standing impassively, all dressed up in the standard robocop riot gear we have all come to know and love.
Off to the sides are pockets of rather forlorn looking students who have come to peacefully protest against the Milo show without attempting to shut it down. In today’s vernacular they are “peaceful protestors.” They carry signs that say stuff like “Love Trumps Hate.” A few intrepid teams of people are using battery packs in shopping carts to project slogans of similar sentiment on the surrounding buildings. Towards the far end of the plaza someone has laid out giants scrolls of paper for students to write on. The scrolls are full of the hopes and fears of college students on Minority-President Trump’s inauguration day. Up near the man-archists, a woman holds a piece of cardboard on which she has written “Milo, Let’s Talk.” But no one is going to be talking tonight, at least in the sense this woman hopes for. She and the other peaceful protestors look forlorn because it is clear to everyone on the plaza that love will not be trumping hate tonight.
Andre, a smallish twenty-one-year old pre-med student, wears a white t-shirt with the words QUEER IMMIGRANT FEMINIST OF COLOR scrawled in magic marker. He appears to the be only happy person in the plaza. I figure I could use some of that on this dark and ominous night. We chat. I ask what he thinks of the man-archists blocking the entrance. He is torn about it. On the one hand, he believes in free speech. On the other hand, well, this is Milo. I ask if he is aware that queers were not able to advocate for their rights in written materials in this country until 1958, when the Supreme Court effectively ruled that even though this was offensive to many it was protected free speech. He had not known. He says he has a lot to learn and wants to give me a hug.
So here we all are: a lovely university campus plaza, a beautiful lecture hall, robocops in front, unpaid Milo man-archist extras next, a smattering of “peaceful protestors” off to the sides, and long lines waiting to see Milo. The latter outnumber all of the former added together.
I am curious who these hundreds of people are, braving the cold and the insults and the insanity of it all to hear a ridiculous man make a ridiculous speech. And the blockaders don’t want to chat. So I spend the next couple of hours talking to the people in line.
There are two lines, one for students and one for everyone else. The everyone-else line is much shorter, and is mostly composed of the people you might imagine: hard right adults with Trump t-shirts or Make America Great Again hats. The student line is altogether different. Maybe 5-10 percent are conservatives who voted for Trump. Maybe another 30-40 percent are actual Milo fans: they have been following Milo since long before his appearance on this campus was announced; they watch his YouTube videos; they like what they see. The Milo fans run the political spectrum. Some “lean right” or “lean left.” Some think of themselves as libertarian and voted for Gary Johnson. Many describe themselves in some way or another as occupying the political center. Still others describe themselves as off the political spectrum. Nearly all the Milo fans tell me they “don’t agree with everything he says,” but this does not trouble them in the least, because they see him as a comedian. They think he is funny. They watch his YouTube videos because they laugh. They point out how many of the current crop of pop culture comedians that populate late-night cable TV put offensive speech at the center of their act, and they see Milo as part of that cohort. They have come out tonight for a comedy show.
Many in the student line, perhaps the majority even, say they are here primarily because they are fed up to here with political correctness on campus. They crave actual political debate which they think the campus left – both faculty and students – have made impossible. They are angry about this. They think that political correctness has made their education not as deep as it should be. They are tired of having to watch what they say. They want free speech. They are curious about who this Milo guy is who is so outspoken about free speech, and who seems to be completely unafraid to say stuff that will start all the usual folks screaming. Many of them, perhaps even the majority, voted for Clinton. One student explains:
Even though I don’t agree with a lot of the stuff he says, I like that he is really confident and unabashed in his opinions, and that he is really open about what he believes. I wish everyone would kinda take note of that and be more willing to speak about what they believe. So even though I don’t agree with what he is saying all the time, I still support his right to say it. And I want to support him. He is one of the few people who is willing to go out of his way to speak his mind.
I find only one gay student in line. He lost two friends in the Orlando night club massacre. Milo went straight to Orlando and gave an impassioned speech against the totality of Islam, and in favor of gays arming themselves and, as he put it, “firing back.” This student heard this on YouTube and was immediately converted. If you want to see Milo at his non-comedy hard-right, progressive-nightmare, way-gay best, watch that speech.
Nearly all the students in line are majoring in the sciences. When I mention this they are not surprised. “Of course!,” they laugh. “Everyone in the humanities is brainwashed.” The fact that it is the students in the sciences, not the humanities, who think free speech is a big deal – is just one more upside down piece of this upside down world.
I had seen and heard nearly the exact same sights and sentiments the week before when Milo visited the University of California at Davis, where I teach. The same man-archist-dominated phalanx blocking the entrance to the hall. The same outnumbered peaceful protestors off to the side. The same lines of people waiting to get in, outnumbering everyone else on the scene. The same mix of opinions among those in line. The same complaints, again and again, about the lack of actual political debate on campus.
One particularly thoughtful student, one of the few African Americans waiting in line, told me:
The solution to freezing to death isn’t to light yourself on fire. The things people get upset about on Twitter, people take anything you say literally, it’s very – not unnerving but annoying. You hear something someone says on the far left and you say, “This is absurd.” And then they say, “Oh so you are on the far right.” And I’m like, “No, not at all.” Everybody has lost track of balance. Nobody wants to be a reasonable person. I am not a Milo supporter. I find him very interesting. I don’t know if admire is the right word, but I would very much like to have a conversation with him. I would be friends with Milo. There are people who hate the people who are here just because they are here. Like, I am from the South, from Mobile, Alabama. I have friends who are white males who I have known since I was five. Just because I disagree with them politically doesn’t mean I now hate them. That’s absurd. People exaggerate what Milo says. Even if it is in some ways problematic, they exaggerate it and make it even more hyperbolic than it already was. Milo has a lot of character. He’s interesting. Of course he says blatantly absurd things so you listen to him. He makes you want to listen to him.
Here in Seattle, around 7 p.m., the advertised start time for the Milo show, things on the plaza turn from testy to ugly. The people waiting in line are cold and tired and fed up. The man-archists are ready to fight fascism. The peaceful protestors are looking more forlorn than ever. The man-archists chant “No Milo, No KKK, No Fascist USA.” The Trumpists at the front of the non-student line chant back “USA, USA.” The students in line don’t chant anything. They just want to get into the warm building, and they are a bit frightened by the macho posturing of both man-archists and Trumpists. Fights break out. The robocops manage to open enough of path to get a couple of hundred of people from the line through the door. The man-archists throw bricks and paint bombs. Some are lobbed at the cops, others at those in line. Most of those remaining in line decide they have had enough and depart. Andre moves to the middle of the chaos and stands serenely still, as a sort of one-person barrier of peaceful protest between the sides. Brave guy.
Inside, Milo’s stage entrance is preceded by an utterly bizarre video of a student from another campus who occasionally comments on how much he likes Milo and hates protestors, but mostly brags about how drunk he is. He has to lie down before the video ends. He appears on the verge of barfing. Weird.
Then Milo appears and things go from weird to weirder. He sashays onto the stage is his contrived uber-gay style. He appears to be nearly as drunk as the idiot in the video. He teeters over to the microphone and leers at the crowd. “Hello Faggots!”
Huh? A smattering of nervous laughter from the Milo fans in the crowd, but nothing from the Trumpists who came expecting to hear an alt-right firebrand. But Milo laughs long and loud. Milo certainly thinks of his performance tonight as comedy. Maybe there is some good comedy among all his YouTube videos which I have not watched, but tonight he is an extraordinarily bad comedian. When a comedian laughs longer and louder at each of his jokes than anyone in the audience, the comedian is failing. Milo is failing spectacularly. But he does get laughs, with a sort of hard-right gay-sissy-frat-boy kind of potty-mouth humor that appeals to certain sort of college-aged male who make up most of the audience.
“Are there any other faggots here?” he asks. Did the student who lost friends at Orlando raise his hand? I can’t tell. “One? ... Two?”
No Milo, you seem to be just about the only faggot in your strange world.
But Milo is not deterred. He tells any faggots who might be hiding in the audience that he has brought something special for them. He pulls out a pair of jumper cables, and launches into a truly mental bit about how they should get Mike Pence to use the jumper cables to connect their nipples to a car battery just to see if “electro-shock conversion therapy really works.” Or something like that. I didn’t really get it. No one else did either. Maybe he blew the joke. Maybe there wasn’t a joke. Maybe it was just Milo thinking jumper cables would be fun to have onstage. Weird.
And so it went, Milo stumbling from one blown joke to another, until a student in the audience who was watching the news on his smartphone shouted out that someone in the plaza had been shot.
Milo isn’t sure what to do. The unpaid extras outside must be veering off script. He asks the audience to sit tight and disappears backstage. He returns to announce that yes, someone has actually been shot. Based on no information whatsoever, he assumes the shooter was one of the “leftists” outside. He is uncertain how to proceed. He wonders aloud if humor is appropriate. Then he answers himself, declaring that humor is always appropriate. And, he adds, “If I stopped my event now, we are sending a clear message that they can stop our events by killing people. I am not prepared to do that.” He gets a standing ovation and lurches onwards.
When he is finished, police tell the audience to remove their Donald Trump hats and escort them out through an underground parking garage.
Outside all is confusion. The victim, bleeding profusely from the abdomen, is being extracted from the scene by medics. A large crowd of marchers arrives from a different rally. The last of the Trump supporters flee, the entire square is held by protestors, and the atmosphere begins to lose its dangerous edge. Leaving the plaza I see the massive law enforcement response which has been mobilized: many blocks of ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, and more. An older man with the look of a professor and blood all over his face is being attended by medics.
For several days, the only word from the police is that the shooting victim is in critical condition in an intensive care unit, and that someone turned themselves in as the shooter, claiming they shot in self-defense. After four days, The Seattle Times reports that the shooter, whose name has not been released, sent a social-media message from out on the plaza to Milo not long before the shooting:
Hey Milo, im outside in line to your UW event. I got sucker punched (he was a bit limp wristed) and someone jacked my #MAGA [Make America Great Again] hat. Anyway for me to get a replacement signed by you?
The newspaper also reports the man’s Facebook page indicates he is a member of the National Rifle Association.
The shooting victim is identified as James Dukes, described by friends as an activist and “longtime anti-fascist.”
The victim’s lawyer says:
My client wishes to express his empathy for the person who shot him. He hopes to engage in constructive dialogue with that person, in order to de-escalate and provide a community-based response to this violence.
Next week Milo goes to the University of California at Berkeley, which promises the mother of all Milo wars. Already, over one hundred Berkeley professors have added their names to the ranks of those trying to prove Milo’s point that political speech is overly regulated on college campuses. They have signed a series of letters to the chancellor demanding the event be cancelled.
These letters, and other developments surrounding Milo’s visit be Berkeley next week, will be the subject of my next post.