Protesting the gun fundamentalists on campus

March 21, 2018

Scarlett Moore reports from Burlington on a protest against a pro-gun meeting organized by right-wing groups at the University of Vermont.

JUST WEEKS after the massacre of high school students and faculty in Parkland, Florida, Turning Point USA teamed up with Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) to host an event advertised as a "Discussion of Gun Rights in Vermont" at the University of Vermont (UVM).

Organizers described the meeting on Facebook and in a call-in to Vermont Public Radio as an opportunity to open dialogue between pro-gun rights advocates and those in favor of gun-control measures.

But an agenda that included two hours of speeches by gun supporters and just a half-hour question-and-answer period made it clear that only one side was going to get the platform to speak.

Turning Point USA has been building a presence at UVM and other universities across the country for a number of years. The group is behind the Professor Watch List, a collection of names and photographs of professors they claim are advancing left politics in the classroom.

Their members advocate the limitless use of fossil fuels and a free market for capitalist exploitation, and they put up signs on campus that say, "Safe spaces are for children," "Free markets free people" and "You PC, bro?"

Student activists protest gun violence and the right wing in Burlington, Vermont
Student activists protest gun violence and the right wing in Burlington, Vermont (The Vermont Cynic)

In a December 2017 article in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer described the secrecy surrounding the conservative nonprofit's funding resources and its long-term relationship with political and economic elites like the Trump family, suggesting that Turning Point USA is the expression of "dark money" at play on college campuses.

Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), a student organization with more than 900 chapters nationwide, was also present. According to their endorsements page, they grew out of Ron Paul's presidential campaign and continue to focus on defending the U.S. Constitution.

Like Turning Point, YAL is a pro-capitalist libertarian organization, and while their members didn't have much of a presence on UVM's campus before this event, they were instrumental in the organization of the gun fundamentalist action.

THE PRO-GUN event didn't go by unnoticed by students. One week before it was scheduled to take place, two students were inspired to put out a call to action and invite students to take part in a silent protest inside the chapel where the meeting would take place.

One of the organizers had read Danny Katch's recent article in Socialist Worker, "How do socialists take on gun fundamentalistm?" and invited the International Socialist Organization to take part in organizing the counterprotest.

Through discussion in a planning meeting and an online messaging group, organizers of the counterprotest decided that simply standing in silent protest within the chapel might make too little impact.

Instead, since students had been turning out every day for several weeks of action to oppose racism at UVM, including an occupation of the administrative building just days before, we decided on a multi-action plan that could work, whether 20 students or 100 chose to attend the protest.

The action, co-endorsed by the ISO and the Intersectional Feminist Collective of UVM, was wonderfully successful. We met an hour before the gun rights event started to begin with a speak-out on the steps of the university library.

It was a five-minute walk from the Ira Allen Chapel where Turning Point was preparing for the meeting. Without fear of being heckled by the right-wingers, students were more confident to speak their minds about the violent society we live in.

Some 38 people turned out, and several news agencies were there to cover the action. The footage of students chanting "Hey, hey, NRA! How many kids have you killed today?" was probably not what Turning Point USA and Young Americans for Liberty had hoped to be the highlight of media coverage of their event.

The speak-out emphasized how gun violence fits into conversations about social injustice: the personal, traumatic, violent nature of life in U.S. society. One student spoke about the murders of people of color by police officers. Another talked about watching the aftermath of the last year's mass shooting in Las Vegas and not knowing whether their friends at the music festival were safe.

After 30 minutes, we marched to the chapel and stood silently with signs on either side of the entrance in a silent vigil to remember victims of gun violence at the hands of both mass shooters and the police.

Shortly before the right-wing speakers began, protesters entered with reserved tickets and filled two pews near the back of the chapel. Totally silent, we sat until the introductory remarks began, and then stood with our backs to the speaker for another moment of solidarity with survivors and victims of gun violence. When the first scheduled speaker began, we walked out.

Several members of the protest re-entered the space for the question-and-answer period, others went home, and several went to an ISO meeting on understanding and ending gun violence that was taking place in a building next door.

The right wing is continuing to try to build a presence on college campuses, and they must be confronted. We have to show that the growth of Turning Point USA and similar groups will not be ignored.

After the event, the headline in our state's most popular newspaper didn't read, "Gun rights come to UVM," but instead: "Protesters stand in silence, stage walkout at UVM pro-gun rally."

We took action, and we changed the story.

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