A campus divided: Robert Spencer’s visit met with chaos and opposition from UB community
Robert Spencer couldn’t speak for more than 30 seconds without students shouting and cursing at him on Monday night.
Spencer planned to speak to students about “the dangers of jihad in today’s world” but constant heckling from the crowd made it near impossible for him to complete a full sentence. Spencer, a self-proclaimed expert on radical Islam, runs a website called Jihad Watch.
Students called Spencer things like a “Nazi, “Trump Jr.” and a “pseudo-intellectual,” and most of his hour-long speech was inaudible. Spencer seemed unfazed as students shouted over him and he responded, calling the crowd “uninformed fascists.”
Students who were anti-Spencer and pro-Spencer attended the event. In the end, many students left feeling little had been accomplished for either side.
“I think what ends up happening in debates like this where there’s different people who feel very strongly about different things, instead of seeing the other side's perspective is they strengthen their own perspective,” said Fiza Ali, senior finance major.
Hundreds of students and faculty were unable to get into Knox 109, which only fits 200 people. University Police said the room reached its full capacity and letting more people in would be a fire hazard.
Students banged on the door chanting “let us in” as UPD struggled to contain the rowdy students. The officers were flustered and visibly unprepared for the unruly crowd. Two officers searched their phones to find laws to cite to students about why they couldn’t get in.
But many people weren’t surprised with this outcome.
When Spencer’s visit was announced it immediately caused a firestorm across the university and posed questions about the implications of free speech.
Although Student Association did not pay for Spencer to speak, thousands of students and faculty petitioned for SA to remove its logo from flyers about Spencer’s visit and many demanded his visit be canceled all together. Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) invited Spencer for the club’s first official event.
Despite the outcries of discontent from the UB community, Spencer still spoke. He entered Knox 109 to a swarm of boos and middle fingers from the crowd.
Spencer held a thumbs up with a grin on his face and took his phone out to record people booing him.
“I was invited to speak whether you like that or not,” Spencer said.
When Spencer agreed to debate anyone, he was met with a roaring applause.
Students asked him a wide range of questions, such as, what the central tenets of Islam were, what measures the military should take to defend against terrorism and if white men contributed to U.S. terrorism.
Midway through every answer, someone interrupted.
YAF Chairwoman Lynn Sementilli repeatedly asked students to quiet down as they interrupted Spencer while he tried to answer questions.
Before Spencer’s speech, Muslim Student Association held a peaceful sit-in as students gathered on the ground floor of Knox Hall. Roughly 80 students and faculty members showed solidarity for Muslims while some prayed.
“This is our narrative, our voice being stripped from us, and we demand to take it back,” said MSA President Samiha Islam. “Spencer and his followers have never been impacted by Islamophobia, we have. More Muslims have been harmed and killed by ISIS than any other group in the world. We vociferously denounce terrorism at every junction, hundreds of times publicly and privately and declare this is not what Islam represents.”
Kadija Mohammed, a sophomore undecided major, said she was disappointed that the university allowed Spencer to speak.
“I was shocked that there weren’t any moves by the school to stop him from coming, considering he’s banned from the U.K., like you have to be pretty bad to be banned from the U.K., if the queen doesn’t want to see your face, that’s a bad day,” Mohammed said.
Spencer spent a large portion of his speech reading from the Quran.
He read a part of Quran about gays and lesbians that referred to them as “adulterers,” and the crowd erupted in boos and cursed at him.
Sementilli said she expected the crowd to ask “tough questions,” but didn’t expect the crowd to impede on the dialogue.
“They are responsible for their own actions obviously we can’t control what anybody does,” she said. “It would have been nice if they would’ve been more respectful to the speaker and participated in a more productive dialogue.”
Both Luciana Sena, a senior legal studies major and Jared Armitage, a junior political science major, feel conservative perspectives aren’t heard on campus.
“It’s kind of an ongoing discussion here with the more conservative or Republican groups on campus that our free speech is often suppressed and I think that we saw that here today by not allowing one side of the discussion to speak,” Sena said.
UPD Chief of Police Gerald Schoenle wished more university staff were present at the event to contain the disruptive crowd of students who were unable to get in. He said the university will try to hold future potentially chaotic events in bigger venues like the Student Union Theater or Alumni Arena.
“Overall, well nobody got hurt, the points were heard on both sides so from that perspective so from that point of view it went OK,” Schoenle said.