When Charles Murray, the controversial writer who believes that intelligence (and therefore inequality) is based on genetics, spoke at Vermont's Middlebury College years ago, it wasn't that big a deal. Professors organized students of color to sit in the middle of the stage and look Murray, whose work cited racist pseudoscience, in the eye, but he was allowed to speak. In December 2013, when a similarly controversial (albeit less famous) professor named Amy Wax came to town, students protested by asking her tough questions in a question-and-answer session while holding signs that said "racist."
But the tenor of political debate on college campuses is much different than it was even a handful of years ago, and what ended up happening when Murray came back to Middlebury on March 2 made national headlines. Students turned their backs on him and shut down his talk by chanting. Then, when the shunned speaker and some school administrators attempted to leave the building, full-blown chaos ensued, with protesters (not all of whom were students, apparently) pushing and shoving and jumping on a car Murray got into. Predictably, the combined reaction to Murray and to professional right-wing troll Milo Yiannopolous––who kept getting shut out of campus speeches before his career imploded on its own––has conservatives serving up takes on "who the real fascists are." Liberal and centrist publications, like the Atlantic and the New York Times, have wagged fingers at students who would shut down Murray's abhorrent speech with violence.
But what typically gets lost in the discussion of free speech, campus radicals, and safe spaces is the voice of actual protestors. I called up three of them to ask why they felt like Charles Murray couldn't just be ignored and what they felt the media has gotten wrong about the story so far.
"We were painted as rioters and thugs, which is all racially coded language," Arianna Reyes, a junior who helped organize the shutdown, told me. "And a lot of the organizers are people of color. It was definitely something that the media really latched onto, and it's a really dangerous thread."
Below is a transcript of my conversations with the activists, lightly condensed for clarity.
VICE: First of all, I'm interested to know how this was organized. The College Democrats at Middlebury and Black Lives Matter in Vermont both told me they had nothing to do with it.
Hana Gebremariam: The organizing for the protest began a week ago, a week before the event on Thursday. The organization started when there was an offset introducing that Charles Murray was going to speak at Middlebury, and students started meeting and talking about how to respond. We had several meetings, some that were organized by staff or faculty, but others that were organized by students only. And at those meetings there were different actions that students, faculty, and staff wanted to take. So some wanted to focus on a rally that was going to take place before the event outside of the venue, and some focused on writing a pamphlet talking about the policy of his work and the flaws in his argument. Others wrote up petitions asking our [college] president Laurie Patton not to provide introductory remarks for his talk. There was a third group of students who were working to shut down the event.
Arianna Reyes: I was one of the organizers of the protest part. A Facebook group was created for people trying to figure out exactly what to do, and I had an idea of reading something, like a prepared speech or statement, so I shared that to the group, and then we had a bunch of people latch onto that. Then we had some organizing meetings from there hashing out the specifics of what we were going to do, what we were going to say. We also pointed to the history of Vermont, and their history with eugenics, and we talked about how it wasn't civil discourse to have to have this conversation with this man, and be forced to talk with him cordially, I guess, in a conversation, because we feel like it wasn't level. So we kind of coordinated this standing up. Ideologically and physically, turning our backs on a lot of the ideology that he promotes, and taking back the platform that Middlebury has provided him. So that was the concept of the protest that we were working with.
"I actually think the point of shutting it down is saying, 'These ideas aren't what we're engaging with, they're discredited.'"
I'm curious as to whether or not you think more people might know who Charles Murray is as a result of your protest and all of the national coverage that it's gotten, and whether or not that's a winning trade-off in your eyes.
Arianna: Many people knew who he was before then, before now. And maybe now more people know how abhorrent his writings are. And honestly, like, we came out to voice our dissent, and that was what was important to us.
Aliza Cohen: I would just add that I don't think his ideas are that far from some of the dominant narratives that we see. Like, all of these attacks on affirmative action are rooted in his ideas––that racism is connected with IQ, and that students of color don't belong in institutions of higher learning. So I actually think the point of shutting it down is saying, "These ideas aren't what we're engaging with, they're discredited." And it's important for us to stand up against that, and not give them more of a platform that they already have, and to not allow that platform to be at our school, [all of] which we have the right to say.
"A lot of professors on our campus are conservative, and we engage with them, we take classes with them. It's not that we're not willing to engage with conservative ideas."
I'm curious what you think might have happened had you just ignored the speech.
Hana: I think, again, we didn't want to be in a place where we did ignore him, because he was here ten years ago, and we've had very similar types of people come and give lectures. And we wanted to assert ourselves and say, "This is not the type of institution that we want Middlebury to be." You can't just allow anyone to come under the guise of freedom of speech and literally pose a danger to the student body and make students feel unsafe.
Arianna: It's not about safety, but I think it's dangerous that we allow speakers like this to become the dominant narrative and make it seem like they're conservative or arguable, because that's not what's happening. That's not what happened here. And in other schools, such as Skidmore, where he has spoken recently, there was a walkout, and all that he really said was that they were irritable. And I think that people who feel upset about this are more than irritable, and that our ideology should be taken seriously. And we deserve to be taken seriously.
I'm curious as to where you'd draw the line for a conservative speaker you'd allow to speak on campus. Charles Murray is obviously uniquely awful, but there are gradations to awful. Like, would you bar Woodrow Wilson from speaking at your school?
Aliza: I think it's hard to speculate, but I'll just say that a lot of conservatives have come to campus. A lot of professors on our campus are conservative, and we engage with them, we take classes with them. It's not that we're not willing to engage with conservative ideas. Of course we are. We want to. But there's a difference between engaging with conservative ideas, and difference, and engaging with someone who values these white nationalist eugenicist ideas, and who questions people's rights to be at this school, and their right to exist here.
I'm assuming you guys followed what happened with the Milo protest at Berkeley? If he, for instance, came to Middlebury, you guys would have engaged in a shutdown?
Hana: Students would have protested his talk. But again, we condemn any sort of violence, especially against Professor [Allison] Stanger [who was injured during the protest], which we have come out apologizing for, even though none of us were present at the [events that took place outside the speech venue.]
Aliza: I don't know if he's in the exact same category as Charles Murray, they're different people, they say different things. But I would happily engage and protest and also try to shut him down.
Hana: Another part of the frustration for students is that Charles Murray is painted as a scholar, even though his work has been refuted many times, and we know that his work cannot stand any kind of criticism for any kind of academic standards. And so therefore Milo and him don't really have the same equal footing for us, but again, I think students would have protested both similarly. But there's a danger for the reach that Charles Murray has. He works at [the American Enterprise Institute], he has impact on a lot of policies that have been dangerous to a lot of marginalized communities. And we really wanted to emphasize that in protesting his speech here at Middlebury.
You bring up an interesting point about how at least Charles Murray has the veneer of scientific legitimacy. Meanwhile, people like Milo rely on protesters for their existence, since they don't really have any actual ideas that they're trying to promote. But given that Murray purports to be an academic, wouldn't it make sense to have him at least speak and kind of tear him down using facts at the Q&A?
Aliza: People have done this. In Q&As that we've watched from other schools, and in his speeches we watched from other schools, people have tried to engage with him, and he's pretty unresponsive and kind of evades people's questions. His ideas have been discredited for years and years, and so there's no argument to be had.
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