When voices collide

At 6:45 p.m. last Thursday evening, the scene in the Smith Memorial Student Union cafeteria appeared to be business as usual. Students gathered in sporadic pockets throughout the common space, studying, playing board games and socializing in small groups.

An hour later the room was filled with a roaring crowd. Students shouted over one another, jumped on tabletops, broke up in near-fights, and hurled threats, allegations and slurs. Others stood silently on the room’s perimeter, bearing banners that read “Stop Hate” and “Disarm PSU,” in contrast to a handful of signs displaying “Trump for President.”

A handful of students donning “Donald Trump for President” T-shirts and Trump’s signature red “Make America Great Again” baseball hats occupied the center of a crowd of protesters after attempting to assemble the first meeting of PSU Students for Donald Trump, founded by students Volodymyr Kolychev and Stephen Johnston.

Protesters could also be seen gathered outside the cafeteria window in the Portland State Park Blocks donning banners, international flags and signs of protest.

Protesters took over the attempted meeting using the mic check call and response method—mostly instigated by PSU Student Union organizers Olivia Pace and Alyssa Pagan.

Pace yelled over the crowd in attempt to garner attention upon Pagan’s arrival at the meeting takeover.

“If you don’t let her talk I will fuck shit up,” Pace said.

Fellow protesters responded to Pace’s statement, “Nonviolently fuck shit up, Olivia!”

After a short time, protesters held the floor and organized a speakers list, while Trump supporters sat at a table in the center of the room.

“This is what it looks like to actually get in the way of white supremacy,” Pagan said. “White men are very used to shutting up people like me.”

The loudest threats came mostly from some of the students protesting the Trump organizers.

“Every single Trump supporter has a full legal name attached to a social security number with a place of residence, [and] an employer…that information is easy to find online,” said protester Armeanio Lewis.

Before Lewis addressed the crowd, he jumped on a table and engaged in a near-fight with Johnston. Lewis said Johnston had called him an “anti-fag”, a slur derived from the political slang term “antifa,” short for the political movement anti-fascists.

At one point, a small group of protesters holding a sign from United Indigenous Students for Higher Education shoved two of the student Trump supporters as they tried to walk through the crowd.

Another protester, Morgan Morrison grabbed a pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” hat off a Trump supporter’s head and tossed it across the room.

After an hour and a half, most of the Trump supporters had left the original meeting table and moved to several heated discussions off to the side of the cafeteria. Protesters followed the Trump supporters back and forth across the cafeteria for about two hours.

One anti-Trump student tried to shake hands with a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. He refused and said, “No, I can’t. We’re enemies.” He gestured using air quotes on the word enemies.

Patty Miramontes, coordinator for the student group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán described a different approach to group members’ presence at the event.

“We decided as a collective to come in a peaceful manner; to come in a way that said that we don’t stand for what a figure like Trump represents—that white supremacist, hateful rhetoric,” Miramontes said. “We oppose that.

“Our intentions were just to be there, just to be there in silence; to show them that we see you, we understand, you have your right to say, but we don’t agree with it,” she continued.

“Our goal was never to shut them down,” Miramontes said.

She continued by saying MEChA representatives remained silent at the meeting. “We weren’t there to silence anybody or to shut anyone down,” she said. “So if anyone felt that way, we can’t take responsibility for that.

“I think at the end of the day it was a fair thing. I heard from both sides.”

Miramontes said she thinks the contentious climate at the event reflects the overall climate surrounding Trump supporters on a national scale.

“I think when you have an environment—with a figure like Trump—that promotes that kind of rhetoric, that instills fear, that instills anger, that instills all these kinds of oppressive notions,” she said. “I think things can happen. Things get stirred. Whether it’s okay or not, whether it’s right or wrong, that’s not for me to judge.”

Associated Students of PSU presidential candidate Liela Forbes was present and vocal at the disruption. Forbes said she and her running mate Kaitlyn Verret attended as concerned students rather than ASPSU officials, and described the meeting as heated at times but less contentious overall than described by subsequent media coverage.

Forbes also argued that protesters were free to attend, given that the meeting was advertised as an open meeting. She said PSUSU acted to encourage inclusive discussion through the takeover.

“We were trying to have a dialogue, but it really just got to the point where people were having individual conversations and arguments,” Forbes said. “So [Pace] stood up and started directing dialogue.”

Forbes said that participants from both sides engaged in discussion. She acknowledged that at several points protesters got heated after comments she described as disturbing.

“There were people that were in support of Trump that came up that weren’t spewing those things,” Forbes said. “And those people did try a little bit to engage in dialogue and understand, as did we, but there were a lot of points where things were said that were so disturbing that members of the audience like myself and others couldn’t be quiet. And that’s fine, because it’s a dialogue and it’s an open meeting.”

Kolychev said he expected the meeting to be protested, suggesting he and fellow organizer Johnston had hoped this would happen.

“This was just bait,” Kolychev said. He went on to say he had hoped to shed light on student protesters and their views and tactics he disagrees with.

“We wanted to demonstrate how the radical left on college campuses is not sticking to classic, liberal [or] democratic values or freedom of speech,” Kolychev said.

Forbes disagreed, arguing that protesters also had rights to free speech and assembly through the First Amendment. She also said the Trump meeting was not protected under the Oregon Public Meeting Law.

“The reality is, we showed up because we have a right to free speech as well, we have a right to assembly. We wanted to stand up for what we believe, and stand up for the values of inclusivity, diversity and actually keeping students safe on this campus that we stand for and that PSU stands for,” Forbes said.

When asked if any of the protests or stories he heard this evening had any effect on his views, Kolychev said, “Are you asking if I still support Trump? More so.”

In the end, Kolychev and Johnston had a sign-up sheet with 22 Trump supporters, while the total number of protesters peaked at about 45.

Campus Security Does Not Intervene

PSU’s Campus Public Safety Office did not intervene at any point during the heated gathering. A follow-up statement from PSU’s Office of University Communications read, “A number of students in [PSU’s] student union were debating politics yesterday evening. It was monitored by [CPSO]. Although there was shouting, at no time did CPSO feel the need to intervene because of safety concerns and no one was hurt or arrested.

“The student union is a community space open to all students. We support the students’ right to meet and express their opinions.”

CPSO Chief Phillip Zerzan declined to comment on the matter, and referred the issue to PSU’s Director of Communications Scott Gallagher.

“CPSO came by and were watching the events,” Gallagher said. “They received calls, they responded, and when it was breaking up they left.”

“The job of CPSO is to provide a safe environment and be responsive the needs of students, faculty and staff,” he continued. “They’re doing their jobs. They’ll continue to do their jobs.”

When asked about the potential that CPSO presence might have escalated the disruption further—especially given the strong presence of students advocating for the disarmament of CPSO—Gallagher said this was not a factor in the decision not to intervene.

“Regardless of whether it’s students, faculty or staff or the community, [CPSO’s] job is to ensure the safety of all of the campus community, and they will continue to do so based upon their training and the need,” Gallagher said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with any particular groups or events. Everything’s different. You can’t say one thing appeals to everybody. [CPSO are] the best ones to make that judgment on when they need to be present, when they need to intervene and how they intervene.”

Forbes, a supporter of the DisarmPSU movement often at odds with CPSO, praised the officers’ decision to stay out of the meeting.

“I completely agree with that,” Forbes said. “In fact, this is a rare opportunity where we can completely agree with the actions that CPSO took, to be quite frank. They correctly identified that there was no physical threat to immediate personal safety. There was no need for them to get involved.”

Parties on both sides have expressed feeling unsafe since the meeting disruption. Kolychev said he was thankful he wasn’t relying on public transit as his ride home after the disruption.

When asked if he felt at risk of physical retaliation or bullying, he said, “I’d like to think I’m intelligent, but yes.”

Contention and criticism for the protesters has been apparent on the Vanguard’s website, Facebook and Twitter, as well as the social media accounts of participants on both sides of the issue.

Both Verret and Forbes—who can be seen in an altercation with a cameraman in footage posted by Laughing at Liberals—said they’ve received threats and harassment after the meeting’s disruption.

“He put in the parts that made it look like we were going to assault him,” Forbes said. “And now I’m receiving death and rape threats, and my address has been spread around. I have to move because I live on campus and people have been stopping to take pictures of me.”

Students involved in the protest have filed reports with the university and PPB and investigations are ongoing.

PSU Students for Donald Trump posted on its Facebook page that it will host its, citing popular demand, second meeting on April 16 in the same location.

Additional reporting by Claude Akins. Multimedia content by Serina Hersey and Andy Ngo