Jesse James DeConto, News & Observer (Raleigh), April 14, 2009
UNC-CH police released pepper spray and threatened to use a Taser on student protesters Tuesday evening when a crowd disrupted a speech by former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo opposing in-state tuition benefits to unauthorized immigrants.
Hundreds of protesters converged on Bingham Hall, shouting profanities and accusations of racism while Tancredo and the student who introduced him tried to speak. Minutes into the speech, a protester pounded a window of the classroom until the glass shattered, prompting Tancredo to flee and campus police to shut down the event.
Inside the classroom, several student protesters screamed curses at Tancredo and Riley Matheson, president of the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter of Youth for Western Civilization.
“This is the free speech crowd, right?” Tancredo joked.
The protesters relented, and Tancredo began to speak, describing failed state and federal legislation aimed at providing in-state tuition benefits for undocumented immigrants.
Two women stretched out another banner, first along one of the aisles and then right in front of Tancredo. Tancredo grabbed the middle of the banner and tried to pull it away from one of the girls. “You don’t want to hear what I have to say because you don’t agree with me,” he said.
The sound of breaking glass from behind a window shade interrupted the tug-of-war.
Tancredo was escorted from the room by campus police.
About 200 protesters reconvened outside the building. “We shut him down; no racists in our town,” they shouted. “Yes, racists, we will fight, we know where you sleep at night!”
“We’re very sorry that former Congressman Tancredo wasn’t able to speak,” Chancellor Holden Thorp said in a prepared statement. “We pride ourselves on being a place where all points of view can be expressed and heard, so I’m disappointed that didn’t happen tonight. I think our Public Safety officers appropriately handled a difficult situation.”
Police spokesman Randy Young said he couldn’t recall student protesters shutting down another campus event.
“Fascists are fascists,” Tancredo said. “Their actions were probably the best speech I could ever give. They are what’s wrong with America today. . . . When all you can do is yell epithets, that means you are intellectually bankrupt.”
UNC graduate student Tyler Oakley, who had organized the protest, said he regretted the broken window but not silencing Tancredo. “He was not able to practice his hate speech,” said Oakley. “You have to respect the right of people to assemble and collectively speak.”
Police used pepper spray to disperse crowds of protestors in Bingham Hall on Tuesday outside the room where former congressman Tom Tancredo was scheduled to speak on immigration but was forced to leave.
Tancredo, a former Republican U.S. Representative from Colorado, a former presidential candidate and an outspoken critic of immigration, was brought to UNC by the new student organization Youth for Western Civilization.
About 150 people gathered in Bingham Hall auditorium, and many more protestors gathered in the hallway after police declared the room full and blocked the doorway.
“I’m here because I represent UNC-Chapel Hill and I don’t support racism or fascism in the institution in which I am an educator,” graduate student Jason Bowers said.
Riley Matheson, president of Youth for Western Civilization, introduced Tancredo amid hissing, booing and shouts of “racist” and “white supremacist.”
After Tancredo entered the room, protesters kept him from speaking by shouting insults and holding a sign declaring “no dialogue with hate” in front of his face. Tancredo waited calmly while protestors held the sign and chanted.
Two protestors holding the sign in front of Tancredo were escorted into the hallway by police, where the Taser and pepper spray were used.
After protestors exited the hallway, Tancredo spoke for about two minutes before a protestor outside the building banged on a window, shattering the glass.
Tancredo was escorted out of the room by police after he deemed the situation too volatile, Young said.
Protestors then exited the building and gathered outside.
“Free speech was destroyed today at Chapel Hill by the breaking of glass and violence,” said William Gheen, a former UNC student and president of Americans for Legal Immigration.
Sophomore Adrian Lopez, a member of the Carolina Hispanic Organization, attended the speech to protest Tancredo’s view, but said he did not agree with how the protest was handled.
“I feel very embarrassed about how the student body went about doing this,” Lopez said. “It got completely out of control.”
No arrests were made, but there will be an investigation into criminal activity by protestors and the use of force by officers.