“Racist, sexist, anti-gay — Rick Santorum go away,” protesters shouted outside of Statler Hall as attendees lined up to attend the politician’s lecture, hosted by the Cornell Republicans, on Wednesday night.
Dozens of Cornell students and Ithaca community members gathered to oppose Santorum’s past comments about marginalized groups and Christian ideology, specifically as they affect in political decisions on issues such as contraception and abortion.
“Our statement is a very simple statement — we’re not looking at how the dynamics worked but we are baffled by the fact that such a platform was offered to [Santorum], especially with the kind of politics that this campus is proud to represent, like education for all and inclusion,” Valeria Dani grad said.
Several Ithaca and Cornell community members said they were shocked by what they referred to as the “normalizing” nature of the discourse surrounding Santorum’s invitation.
“I am disappointed Cornell Republicans invited Rick Santorum to speak at our university,” said Ashley Vincent ’17. “I do not understand why our institution would support someone who has continuously marginalized women, the LGBTQ community and Muslims.”
According to Olivia Corn ’19, chair of Cornell Republicans, Santorum was the “perfect person” to “return the club’s focus back to representing the Republican Party and conservative thought,” after the club broke party lines to endorse Libertarian Gary Johnson this fall, The Sun previously reported.
Prof. Barbara Regenspan, educational studies, Colgate University, said allowing him to lecture implies that Santorum is a “normal, intellectual, political thinker who was going to teach the students about conservatism.”
Passing out fliers calling Santorum’s policies “fascist” and plastering posters with the politician’s prior statements, Regenspan and other protesters said they hoped to show that Santorum does not represent conservatism, nor does he represent Cornell.
“The most important thing is we do not want to be normalizing extremism under the rubric of conservatism … [which] is not about hate,” Regenspan said. People here are unified in the position that they will not normalize extremism.”
While not all protesters were opposed to Santorum being invited to speak, all were united in their discord with his viewpoints.
Some protesters, like Rochenelle Coffy ’17, said they were pleased Santorum came to Cornell, because of the evocative protest that ensued.
While Coffy said she chose to protest because she “[doesn’t] believe bigotry should have any place on this campus,” she said she still thought Santorum’s invitation was important for the Cornell community.
“I am happy that he is here because people like us can come out to protest and say that we’re not okay with it,” Coffy said. “At the end of the day, had he not come we could have continued in a state of complacency … but this provokes action.”
Toby March, a protester and member of Showing Up for Racial Justice — a public organization and chapter in the national SURJ group created to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement — also said the event and protest incited discussion of varying viewpoints.
“For people who might be more ambivalent or not really knowing who he is or what he’s about, it’s important to have a protest voice here to make the opposition known publicly,” March said.
A protest occurred across the street, at a location designated for protesters by the police. While in line for the event, some students snapped pictures on their phones, while others shouted back in reply, both in agreement and disagreement with the protest.
“I appreciate the fact that they’re making it clear that Cornell students don’t stand for the hateful things that Rick Santorum stands for,” said Clara Ricketts ’20. “And I wish [the protest] were bigger.”
Several students in line were actually part of another protest, which started with a group of friends who spread the message on Facebook, according to Elise Czuchna ’18. These protesters passed around rainbow-colored ribbons, as a visual sign of students’ disagreement with Santorum’s opinions and as a display of their alliance with the LGBT community.
“We are here today in solidarity against him to show our support in numbers for those people who his comments and his stances attack, because a lot of his beliefs do attack the identities of individuals that are on campus,” said Czuchna
However, some students in line, like Nikhil Dhingra ’20, opposed the protesting chants that told Santorum to “go away.”
“If you’re encouraging conservative speakers to leave our campus, then you’re going to have one narrative for our entire four years here and I think that’s counterproductive,” Dhingra said. “I believe that protesting his stances and ideology is totally valid but telling him to leave is very counterproductive and doesn’t allow for a good discussion.”
Many organizers started planning the protest at a SURJ meeting in Ithaca Monday night, according to March. However, Regenspan explained that there was no single group that sponsored protest.
Rather, the protest was sparked by other groups, such as Ithaca Taking Action, Cornell Coalition for Inclusion and Diversity and a public Facebook event spread to Cornell students, according to March.
“It’s great to see democracy at work with these protests,” said Larry Zmoira ’20. “If you agree with him or not, I think anyone can appreciate that they’re fighting for what they believe in.”