The Proud Boys, The Protesters, and Penn State
Gavin McInnes prevented from speaking at Penn State after right wing extremists assault students
If you are not yet already familiar with Gavin McInnes and his planned appearance at Penn State you can find the background for this story in a previous post located here.
On October 24th, 2022 Penn State made the decision to cancel an on campus speaking event for Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes after student protestors were attacked by far right extremists. For weeks experts on extremism warned that allowing McInnes to speak on campus would end badly. The concern was motivated by his reputation for hate speech, the high potential for violence at his speaking engagements, and the violent actions of the Proud Boys on January 6th, 2021. Six members of the organization were indicted on seditious conspiracy charges related to those events, including the groups leader Enrique “Henry” Trarrio.
Prior to McInnes’ scheduled appearance, students at Penn State launched a petition in an attempt to get the administration to cancel the event in the name of student safety. Community members in the surrounding area went before the Borough Council in State College (the small town where Penn State is located) seeking some level of government intervention as well, but to no avail. The result of this inaction was a brief but at times chaotic protest marked by violence carried out by far right extremists who came to either attend the event, or fight those they that they saw as their political enemies.
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For several weeks leading up to October 24th, the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity (SCDS) mobilized students to discuss what they could do. The group studied past movements in order to understand what best practices might be for this specific event and came up with a plan. On the day of the protest the organizers of that group led a march of about 100 students to the venue of the McInnes event, the Thomas Building. The organizers led chants and distributed QR codes among the crowd. The QR codes were for tickets that had been purchased by students, and the plan was to distribute these tickets amongst the protesters as a final act of nonviolent direct action (NVDA). The crowd was energetic and grew while the chants and speeches continued. Jose, an organizer with SCDS, began to split the crowd up into those who had tickets and those who did not. While he was doing this Alex Stein, one of the other speakers for the event, came out of the south facing doors of the Thomas Building and immediately began antagonizing the crowd.
In the ensuing moments the crowd momentarily lost cohesion as Stein moved through the crowd attempting to illicit a large emotional response from the college students and community members who had gathered there. For a moment he was successful and was yelled at by many of the students in attendance. However ultimately Stein professed to the media members and a handful of students who remained by the South doors “I’m frustrated that the students aren’t being more aggressive.” Stein was able to parlay the short affair into a four minute long video that he later tweeted out with the caption “Absolute Mayhem and Chaos at Penn State University with the most Mentally Insane College Students in America!”
While Steins unplanned appearance created momentary chaos, the student organizers quickly gathered those in attendance and moved them towards the North doors of the building. Near the North Doors two men in proud boys colors were spotted: one who was larger and bald (PB1), and one who was shorter and wore a hat (PB2).
The two quickly lost track of each other as the crowd swelled around them, PB1 was chanted out of the crowd and back towards the plaza outside of the Thomas Building. PB2 was also chanted at and moved closer to the North Doors. When PB2 moved towards the North Doors he was stuck between the Police and the growing crowd of protestors. Eventually he ducked behind the police line, he appeared to be in over his head and unsure of what to do next because the doors to the building were locked.
After a few seconds of waiting behind the police line and the crowd chanting at him, he slipped back into the crowd and began shoving and hitting seemingly at random. During this scuffle his hat was knocked off of his head and his mask briefly pulled off.
As can be seen in the video, the police then swarmed into the crowd and separated PB2 from whoever he was scuffling with. Police then led him back to the building and let him in through the doors. In a photo provided by photographer Zach D. Roberts we can see the Proud Boy, now mask less and hatless, speaking with an officer inside the North Doors of the Thomas building.
Following this Police moved in on horseback and with cops in riot gear to defend the North Door. Students chanted “Who do you protect, who do you serve” as the police watched the group swell. At this time some students began to wander back towards the Plaza outside of Thomas where additional right wingers had gathered. These men were not wearing Proud Boys gear but had expressed right wing views to members of the crowd. Four men were dressed in khaki cargo pants and dark sweatshirts, some with gators and some with balaclavas. One of them had on a tactical helmet. These men brandished pepper spray at the crowd and in the video below from Zach D. Roberts you can see them spray students and journalists. Around the 0:38 mark the man to the left of the person in the tactical helmet discharges his pepper spray. The group of men then flew towards the south doors of the Thomas building, but not before saying something to one of the police officers who was watching the event unfold.
In a photo taken by The Collegian we can get a clearer picture of the man in the tactical helmet and another man from this group. It is unclear if the man on the left was the one who discharged the pepper spray.
As the rest of the crowd moved from the North Doors to the Plaza about five different pockets of students could be seen washing out their eyes with bottled water. The tone shifted as the crowd became furious that police allowed the men to get away and chants of “Fuck the Police” filled the space. Despite the violence that the students had then endured by two separate groups, they rallied together to chant again outside of the South Doors. At 7:08 an alert was issued to all Penn State students declaring the gathering an unlawful assembly and telling them to leave the area surrounding the Thomas building or risk arrest. Ten minutes later at 7:18pm the Daily Collegian reported that the event had officially been cancelled by the University Police due to concerns about escalating violence. The crowd erupted in cheers and celebration and SCDS gathered up as many of the students as they could to march safely in a group back through campus and towards downtown.
Despite SCDS trying to gather everyone they could and lead them away from the area, about 200 students chose to stay near the Thomas building. These were mostly students who had arrived after receiving the “unlawful assembly” alert that chose to go see what was happening. For reasons that are still unclear, the Police decided at this time to use greater force than they had the entire night and marched in dozens of riot police and cops on horseback who advanced rapidly on students, eventually dispersing them out onto Pollock Road.
The Police response for the entire event was at best under prepared. Their were multiple police departments in play during the event including Campus Police, State College PD, Spring Township PD, Patton Township PD, and the State Police. The departments are no stranger to dealing with large and unruly groups of people. Penn State football is practically a religion and there have been multiple documented riots after big wins, or even smaller wins like Penn States first game of the season back in August of this year.
But dealing with football fans is not like dealing with far right extremists and the students that they sought to harm. The entrances to the Thomas building did not have any barricades or fences around them. There appeared to be no plan in place to keep student protestors and far right counter-protestors separate. During the pepper spray incident multiple officers stood by on the sidelines and allowed things to happen in front of them with no attempt at intervention. They were mere steps away from the four men who attacked the students.
Prior to the events of the evening, I spoke with two officers in uniform and one man who was wearing plain clothes in the parking lot behind the Thomas building. When I asked about the security plan for the evening I was told they couldn’t discuss details but that they were “prepared for a number of contingencies.” Based on the way the evening went it would appear that they were not prepared for Stein to leave the Thomas building, and they were not prepared for separate crowds to engage one another.
The Administrations Response
Penn State Administration, led by President Neeli Bendapudi, has maintained for weeks that because it is a Public University it was required by the first amendment to allow the event to happen. The Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity, along with many extremism experts such as Samantha Kutner, has claimed that when there is a clear potential for violence institutions can cancel an event based on concerns for student safety. While the University resisted this line up until 7:18pm on October 24th, they eventual did cancel the event on those grounds.
In total the events of October 24th on Penn States campus can be seen as an example of how an institution should not handle an event like this. From the perspective of the Student Committee for Defense and Solidarity this has been a massive win, and their social media channels have reflected this. Meanwhile Uncensored America has released a statement lamenting the Universities decision to cancel the event, stating “we do not live in a free speech culture if college students cannot attend a comedy show.” As of October 25th their Instagram Account has also been suspended for violating community guidelines.
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