On October 4, over 300 students at the University of Southern California along with members of the community assembled to express anger at Ben Shapiro’s speech on campus. He was invited by the rightwing student organization Young Americans for Freedom. USC administration provided the event with one of the largest halls on campus, heavy police protection, and opinion pieces in the campus newspaper asking students to respect speakers like Shapiro, even if they disagree with him.
Ben Shapiro, a 34 year-old syndicated columnist, television pundit, and former Breitbart News editor is often treated as a more moderate, “traditional conservative” voice amongst the other right-wing commentators he is associated with. He has gone on record opposing Donald Trump and has many detractors within the organized alt-right.
However, as speakers at the rally pointed out, this “reasonable” image couldn’t be further from the truth: Shapiro has labeled transgender people mentally ill, misgendering and humiliating them in front of live audiences. An outspoken supporter of the Israeli government and its decades-long regime of apartheid, military assault, blockade, occupation, and displacement against the Palestinian people, he has called for the mass expulsion of Palestinians to other parts of the Arab world, while characterizing Arabs in openly racist terms. He denies climate change, has gone on record demeaning the achievements of Native Americans and upholds the sorry trope of reverse racism.
Shapiro is not a moderate, acceptable voice, but rather a bigot who builds a marketable, monetizable media image off of the abuse, humiliation, and degradation of people of color, the disabled, women, LGBTQ people, Arabs, Black and Latino people, and the people of the Global South. In the classic fashion of a fascist movement, he blames the breakdown of economic and social integration in the modern world (which we can of course trace to the very dynamics of capitalism itself) on oppressed people, the Left and those who challenge patriarchy, racism, and colonialism.
Aubtin Heydari, an alumnus of the USC film school and participant in the Charlottesville anti-fascist mobilizations in 2017, spoke at the counter protest. Heydari explained that Shapiro exploits his cleaner image, and offers to discuss and debate issues with his opposers. In actuality, however, he uses these moments as opportunities to cut off, speak over and use his advantages as a rich conservative with generous financial and institutional support to discount them. For example, while some free tickets were set aside for USC students, many tickets in the large capacity hall ranged from $50 to $500. While he presents himself as a helpless victim of “leftwing aggression,” he is anything but that. He doesn’t stand for free speech or good faith dialogue, but for pushing the bar on limits to the abuse of oppressed people so that such insults can be more and more normalized over time, paving the way for attacks on their material well-being..
Hundreds of students, as well as community members and school staffers, attended a rally near the Tommy Trojan statue, which lasted from around 4 to 8 PM. Speakers addressed the need to defend vulnerable students and people in general from powerful figures who cloak their attacks on oppressed people in “respectable” rhetoric. Multiple speakers noted that this had been the biggest rally at USC in many years, showing the strength of concerned students and their allies at what is usually considered a conservative school.
Speakers pointed to the school administration’s complicity with the bigotry that they claim to be neutral towards in Shapiro’s case. They described the gentrification and policing of Black, working-class communities in the South Central neighborhood around USC, recent sexual assault scandals by USC staffers, and the presence of an outspoken white supremacist in the graduate school who was only belatedly expelled. As the long line outside Bovard Auditorium began to file in, surrounded by considerable police presence, organizers led a packed march to USC’s Village luxury apartment complex, which ended in calls to continue uniting, organizing and building solidarity and grassroots power against oppression and bigotry. Chanting “Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay, Ben Shapiro go away!” and holding banners that read “Our humanity is not debatable,” the crowd made a powerful impression and made plans to continue connecting and organizing together.
Coverage in the campus newspaper The Daily Trojan cynically dismissed the protest, underreporting the number of people there, generously quoting Shapiro supporters and neutral bystanders, misquoting speakers from the rally and publishing a lengthy podcast interview with Young Americans for Freedom members without consulting students from any of the protesting organizations. All the while stating their neutrality and calling for rational debate, their front page article on the event juxtaposed pictures of protesting Black students with calm young conservatives who attended the talk, drawing on racist stereotypes of “angry” people from marginalized groups who simply need to relax and respect Shapiro’s talking points.
On the other hand, an organizer of the rally, Kameron Hurt of Students for Justice in Palestine USC and the ANSWER Coalition, said: “My hope is that the USC students and the LA community continue this movement to drive fascism out of our schools and our cities. I hope that more people are aware now than before of USC and our student government’s role in helping popularize fascism, and that we will continue to organize to destroy it.”