This past week, hundreds of Columbia University students gathered on campus to protest Tommy Robinson’s speaking event. Robinson is the former spokesman of the English Defense League, a group with the aim to “act, lead and inspire in the struggle against global Islamification.” He also founded the European Defense League, an offshoot of the English Defense League which holds the same ideals and goals. Robinson has consistently made Islamophobic statements, including calling the Quran “a violent and cursed book” and publishing many tweets that attack the faith.
Mr. Robinson was invited by the Columbia University College Republicans, who also invited Mike Cernovich, an alt-right leader, to speak later in the month. Because of the racist viewpoints expressed by both speakers, Columbia students organized to protest the club’s decision to invite these guests, as well as to pressure the university to cancel Cernovich’s later appearance.
The protest began as a march on 125th and Broadway which gathered in front of Alfred Lerner Hall, where Robinson’s speech was to take place. There, protestors assembled in front of the doors, discussed Robinson’s words and actions, and shouted anti-fascist and anti-racist chants.
Though the protest was primarily led and participated in by Columbia University students, other concerned members of the local community also showed up in opposition to white supremacy. The non-student population included media personnel, various activist groups and residents from the Morningside and Harlem communities.
When asked why she was protesting, one student stated, “we are really angry at the fact that Columbia has allowed a fascist to come speak at our campus. Although free speech is a right in this country, there’s a line between free speech and hate speech.”
After gathering in front of Alfred Lerner Hall, protesters eventually entered the building where the event was taking place. Some students were able to enter the room where Robinson was attempting to speak on video chat, and they proceeded to disrupt his speech, chant in opposition and ask him questions. Others waited outside of the room and voiced their support for the students inside. At one point, students inside Alfred Lerner Hall staged a sit-in to ensure that the students who interrupted Robinson’s speech would not face ramifications from the university administration and would be able to leave without relinquishing their ID cards.
Many of the leaders of the protest consider the night a success, given that Robinson's speech was disrupted, the event remained safe and peaceful and attention was brought to their message. Plans are currently in place for meetings which will strategize the next steps for Columbia University campus activism and resistance.
Though the university has yet to respond to the events of the night, the attitude from the protesters present remains optimistic.
Fainan Lakha, one of the organizers of the protest, stated on Facebook, "We managed to come together, build new relationships, and create space for a whole new generation of students to grow in confidence and militancy. Last night was a success. Last night built our capacity to fight for the future."
Lead Image Credit: Hannah Hornbuckle