Barred from entry, about 15 students gathered outside Rockefeller Hall on Tuesday to protest a private lecture by Tea Party leader and former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, Michael Johns.
Cornell Political Union announced on Monday that the event — titled “Trumpism Can Make America Great Again” — would be closed to the public after Cornell Police told the union it either had to pay $2,000 in security fees, cancel the event or make it private because of security concerns, according to Troy LeCaire ’17, the group’s president.
Hours before the event, with its location still unknown, Johns said in a Twitter post, “‘The forgotten man and woman will be forgotten no longer,” adding, “I’ll explain tonight, 7:30pm.”
As Johns spoke to the political union about “ominous forces” penetrating U.S. borders, student protesters outside chanted “open that door,” at times drowning out the Tea Party leader as at least one Cornell Police officer stood at the building’s entrance. A Student Assembly representative and at least two other students stirred up controversy by recording several protesters and asking them for their names.
The lecture began with eight minutes of Johns speaking uninterrupted, after which the protesters’ chants could be heard from within Rockefeller Hall, prompting acknowledgement from the former speechwriter.
“The University’s mission to challenge conventional norms is not being fulfilled if certain people on campus can cause a change in location or can shut down debate,” Johns told the crowd.
Protesters said the private event — which ultimately had 75 participants in attendance — excluded dissenting voices and gave Johns a platform for “hate speech” and a “safe space for white supremacy.”
“The conservative Tea Party speaker and CPU ultimately decided to create a safe space … where Johns could have an echo-chamber of saying what he wants while knowing he wouldn’t be held accountable,” said Allison Lapehn ’17.
Toting handmade signs with slogans like “Hate speech behind closed doors is still hate speech” and “This is a safe space for white supremacy,” protesters said they wanted to keep CPU from legitimizing Johns’ rhetoric.
“By giving these people a voice, you’re justifying them, you’re saying this is a legitimate perspective and it’s not,” said Xavier Eddy ’19. “Speakers like this and people with these beliefs should not feel comfortable sharing these beliefs.”
CPU President LeCaire told The Sun he appreciated “the enthusiasm and passion of the protestors” and regretted that CPU was not able to let more people in because of the security concerns.
“The behavior exhibited by the protesters tonight at times made it difficult for the audience to hear Mr. Johns,” LeCaire said. “We hope that the next time we host a conservative speaker, we will be able to accommodate all who wish to attend, and those who feel strongly about the issues discussed will make their views clear during the student-led debate, and not in a disruptive manner.”
At several points, students not involved in the protest videotaped the protesters and demanded their names. Mitch McBride ’17, who is also the S.A. vice president of internal operations, recorded students with his cellphone and told them that protesting could result in judicial action by the University.
“As the chair of the University Assembly Codes and Judicial Committee, I believe it is my duty to assist in making sure all members of the community properly adhere to the Code of Conduct,” McBride said in an email after the event. “I took video from inside the event and outside the event, including the protestors. I believe this is the best manner to collect evidence so the Code of Conduct is properly enforced.”
The assemblyman’s threat of campus judicial action made several students hesitant about providing their last names to The Sun, and Eddy said McBride’s recording of protesters was “horrifying.”
“As much as Cornell likes to say that they’re a progressive and active and liberal university, they consistently side with the side of the oppressor,” he said.
Inside the event, Johns falsely claimed the economy had worsened “by every metric” during President Barack Obama’s two terms. The unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 and was just under 5 percent in January of this year.
“Even with the introduction of Obamacare, there were tens of millions for whom the plan was not sufficient,” Johns said. “For the forgotten man and woman, it did not address the issues of uninsurance and it did not address the spiraling healthcare costs.”
After the event, the attendees voted on a resolution concerning the statement, “Trumpism can make America great again.” The final tally showed that 14 of the attendees supported the statement while 40 disagreed.