On Tuesday, a coalition of left-leaning organizations hosted a teach-in titled “Umich is Complicit in East Quad Residence Hall” to highlight what they called the University of Michigan’s history of inaction against white supremacy. The event was held in response to Young Americans for Freedom’s invitation to Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, to speak at the University. Shapiro addressed a crowd of more than 1,000 students at Rackham Auditorium on Tuesday.
According to LSA sophomore Mani Samei, a student organizer with the Michigan Student Power Network, one of the organizations co-hosting the event, the teach-in sought to tie Shapiro’s speech to a larger trend of white supremacy on campus and raise awareness about the #UMichisComplicit campaign.
“So we were like, okay, we can use this opportunity and the thing that’s happening on campus to galvanize some energy towards kicking off this campaign that folks have been talking about for a little while, the #UMichisComplicit campaign, to sort of bring more popular consciousness on campus just the fact that this University is founded on white supremacy and continues to further that,” Samei said.
LSA sophomore Maya Chamra told The Daily after the event she felt the teach-in, a form of alternative programming, was the appropriate response to Shapiro’s visit.
“I think that the idea of alternative programming is much more effective when responding to somebody like Ben Shapiro, because he thrives off of this perception that he is just presenting facts, and he’s presenting information, and he’s very logical and pragmatic, and that’s why a lot of people are attracted to him,” Chamra said. “And it’s not because they have very extreme views — they’re just intrigued by what he says.”
Chamra said the teach-in did not feed into Shapiro’s narrative. The teach-in itself was attended by more than 30 students and focused on providing a history of white supremacy at the University activists say is largely ignored.
“I think we can make change just starting by educating people, and I think a teach-in is much more effective in doing that, than say protesting, because Ben Shapiro and the organizers for that event can predict all the tactics for protesting or just buying tickets, and it feeds very well into their narrative, but a teach-in does not look good to them,” Chamra said. “It doesn’t work well with their narrative because all we’re just trying to do is educate people.”
Samei stressed that the goal of the event was to highlight the University’s role in allowing white supremacists to speak, including their decision to pay for Shapiro and other speakers’ security.
“This particular individual really likes to create intellectual debate around saying really harmful things to people,” Samei said. “So instead of allowing for a platform for that violence to occur, we were like okay, we’re not going to make this between organizers and the white supremacists. We’re gonna make this the elephant in the room, which is that the University is paying for his security, and the University has paid for the security of white supremacists, which is actually a lot of money.”
While the organizers of the event chose to utilize alternative programming for this particular speech, some maintained that direct action tactics are also successful.
Music, Theatre & Dance senior Isabelle Malnar’s organization, Radfun, a social justice organization, co-hosted the teach-in. Malnar said direct action, such as protests and marches, were effective in preventing white supremacist Richard Spencer from choosing to speak at the University, even if the University did not pursue legal action to prevent him from speaking. The University’s decision to allow Richard Spencer to speak last year caused controversy and spurred a protest movement dubbed #StopSpencer.
“I would like to add that things like that have been successful,” Malnar said. “Last year there was a lot of direct action work against Richard Spencer and he didn’t end up coming, so I think that it’s not good to say that it isn’t always successful, but in this instance we thought more of a teaching and healing and discussion space would be more effective for this particular event.”
Hoai An Pham, LSA senior, and Vidhya Aravind, a master’s student in the School of Information, led the teach-in. Pham and Aravind started their presentation by speaking to the power of student activism.
“Everything good at this University exists because of student activism,” Pham said. “That includes SAPAC (Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center), Spectrum Center, the Department of African American Studies, and others.”
The panel later addressed the ways they believe the University has been complicit in white supremacy, such as administration’s initial refusal to rename the building formerly known as C.C. Little, a eugenicist, and the decline of African-American enrollment rates at the University in response to affirmative action lawsuits.
Chamra said most members of the U-M community are unaware of the University’s history with white supremacy, something she claims the University has purposefully worked to hide.
“I don’t think it’s widely known at all and I think the University plays a part in making sure there’s not a lot of bad information spread about them and it’s really fallen on organizers and activists to make the information known not just to themselves, but to the broader public,” Chamra said. “That’s why an event like this is really important, because it’s really hard to get involved in activism if you’d like to get involved, but it’s also even harder to learn about the ways in which the University’s been resistant to activism. And it really isn’t widely known and it’s really a shame. Because we could make a lot of great changes if more people knew about this information.”