Students at Boston University were outraged after a far-right student group invited Ben Shapiro—a racist and homophobic propagandist—to speak on campus. RUF helped to lead student organizing on campus against Shapiro. We worked to expose the reactionary nature of the university itself and unite many students in the struggle. This has opened new doors for revolutionary student organizing at BU.
Hundreds gathered outside the BU Track & Tennis Center to protest Ben Shapiro’s presence on campus.
RUF members at Boston University have been organizing to rebuild a radical student movement on campus, and in the process made a series of connections with other progressive students and organizations. Due to the relatively low level of class struggle and people’s movements in this country, this has been an uphill battle. However, the invitation of Ben Shapiro by a far-right student organization, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) sparked outrage on campus. RUF worked with other radical students to coordinate a series of protests against Shapiro’s visit to BU, while simultaneously laying the foundations for a sustained radical student movement on campus.
Ben Shapiro and the Rise of Far-Right Ideology
Ben Shapiro is a far-right propagandist and ideologue who has made a career espousing racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic views. Shapiro tours college campuses in order to popularize far-right ideology, and uses sophistry to justify his reactionary worldview. Alt-right and fascist forces have tried to promote Shapiro’s racist political views as typical of a “mainstream” conservative. This is part of a concerted effort by far-right forces to legitimize outright racism as part of the “normal political discourse” in the U.S.
Shapiro has been making openly bigoted statements since he began his career as a right-wing talking head. Early on he wrote articles defending the slaughter of civilians in U.S. imperialist wars and he called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from all of historic Palestine. He has spewed a long list of racist, homophobic, and transphobic remarks. For example, Shapiro has stated that that all issues—like poverty and police brutality—that Black people Black people face in this country are due to their “culture”, he also also claimed that transgender people are “delusional,” and he recently even stated that if gay rights were taught in public schools he would “pick up the gun.” Shapiro has also called for doctors who perform abortions to be jailed and for all abortion—even in cases of rape and incest—to be banned.
A few of Ben Shapiro’s many racist comments.
Shapiro defends all this under the guise of “free speech.” In fact, it is hate speech which serves only to justify reactionary attacks against oppressed people, and deprive them of their own rights and basic humanity. Shapiro’s efforts to defend his racist rhetoric under the guise of promoting “free speech” is shown to be a total farce by the simple fact that he has called for sedition laws to be put in place to crack down on anti-war protesters during the Iraq War.
This exposes the logic of Shapiro and the far-right: They want freedom to spew racist rhetoric and to encourage violence against the oppressed but they want the government to crack down on the masses of people when the protest and rebel.
Shapiro is not so unique in this regard. Many of his statements and arguments reflect the ideology of the capitalist class that runs this country. In particular, Shapiro and those like him represent the ideology of a subsection of the ruling elite who supportive of fascism and open white supremacy in lieu of liberal multiculturalism and “disguised” white supremacy. In the former, all dissent is met with violent suppression. In the later, we have some formal freedoms, but rampant police brutality and the robbery of poor Black communities by the banks during the Great Recession is overseen by a Black president. Neither the former (fascist capitalist rule) nor the later (capitalist democracy) are systems for the people; they are just two different ways the capitalist class can run the country.
Increasingly blatant white nationalism and fascist politics is growing in popularity among a section of the ruling elite in this country. This can be seen with the rise of the alt-right and Trump’s presidency. Shapiro, like many of these other “populist” fascists, is in fact openly funded by billionaires. His magazine, The Daily Wire, was initially funded by the Wilks brothers, who are billionaires in the petroleum and fracking industries. In addition, his podcasts feature advertisements from various major corporations every five minutes or so.
But besides simply being a corporate shill, Shapiro and other commentators like him (Tucker Carlson, Tomi Lahren, Laura Inghram, etc.) play an important ideological role. They are part of a larger effort to make fascist and white nationalist politics part of “acceptable” mainstream discourse and political debate. Tours of college campuses and marketing their ideas towards young people are a big way the alt-right and other fascistic forces are working to lay the ground for mass support for fascist politics.
As a result, RUF members saw Shapiro’s visit as important to oppose for two critical reasons. First, the oppose the proliferation of fascist politics and unite a wide section of students in a struggle against openly hateful speech which would not only embolden racists on campus but would serve to normalize white supremacy and other reactionary politics in society overall. Second, in uniting students in the struggle against Shapiro and the administration, to spark a more permanent student movement and set it off on a radical footing.
Organizing at BU
After learning of Shapiro’s planned visit, RUF members worked to build a united front of different student groups against Shapiro’s fascist hatemongering and his presence at BU. A petition was launched online, and we put out a call to progressive student groups as part of an effort to form a coalition and plan a campaign.
A flier for the townhall leading up to the Shapiro protest. Despite an overall culture of apathy, there is a general consensus among the BU student population that “it sucks to BU."
Because of the huge number of bigoted and inflammatory statements made by Shapiro, a general progressive attitude among the student body, and a wide, deep-seated mistrust and anger at the university felt by a large number of students, it was possible to bring a large number of different groups together. These included several feminist groups, LGBTQ groups, as well as pro-Palestine, anti-imperialist, and democratic socialist groups. Most of the groups were not revolutionary, and some people in the coalition even supported the Democratic Party. However, it was possible to unite with such a broad array of students due to the nature of the movement against hate speech and fascist politics.
The short-term goal of these efforts was to get Shapiro’s talk canceled, and if that could not be achieved (which it was not), then the goal was to have a large protest and walkout from his event. The long-term goal was to revive the radical student movement at BU. Boston University used to be known as “the Berkeley of the East” due to its radical student movement in the 60s and 70s. However, repression by the administration and internal divisions crushed this movement in the 80s and 90s. Given that a large number of students were outraged at the prospect of Shapiro coming to campus, our assessment was that it would be possible to reignite a long-term student movement on campus. However, this would not happen automatically. It required serious dedicated effort and a series of struggles in the student movement.
We helped to form a student coalition, Students Against Hate Speech (SAHS), and planned a series of events in order to up the pressure on the university and raise the consciousness of the student body. These included protests, tabling, and a public forum to discuss how Ben Shapiro’s visit was symptomatic of much deeper problems at BU such as the role the university plays in the white supremacist capitalist power structure of this country. All of this helped to solidify the coalition of existing groups, draw new people into the movement, and develop the basis for a sustained student movement after Shapiro’s visit had passed.
Student outrage mounted after the school newspaper announced that BU had agreed to pay at least $12,720 in “security fees” for Shapiro’s talk. Many students pointed out that when Angela Davis visited BU last Spring, the university forced her and her supporters to raise tens of thousands of dollars in funds to cover costs associated with her talk. The petition against Shapiro quickly gathered over 2,000 signatures as students began to learn their tuition dollars were being used to hire at least 50 police officers to protect the fascist hate speech of Ben Shapiro. The open funding and platforming of Shapiro outraged a great number of students. But this outrage did not immediately translate into action.
A rally at BU in the leadup to Shapiro’s talk. Organizing a series of demonstrations on campus in the weeks prior to the big protest was key to building mass support and getting new people involved in the movement.
The first protest—a rally and march to the administration’s office—was small, but got the attention of a wide number of students due to our efforts to flier and talk to a large number of passersby. The movement was also successful in getting media attention from student newspapers.
Students Against Hate Speech organized a second protest that was held that weekend, with slightly larger numbers. However, we realized that in order to really grow our movement we would need to be well coordinated in designing posters, spreading news, writing op-eds for the student paper, and talking to other students about the situation. In group discussions, RUF members emphasized that through principled political struggle, small movements can grow into large movements. Despite the relatively small numbers, the spirit at the protests and among the organizers was very high and strengthened our resolve to grow our struggle to an even wider scale.
The third protest marked a big advance in our work. On a damp and chilly Monday afternoon, around 100 students gathered to protest the university’s platforming of Ben Shapiro. Many students who had previously not been involved in the movement spoke eloquently on the megaphone about how Shapiro’s visit was typical of BU’s complicity in racism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression.
This rapid growth was in large part due to the efforts of the coalition to table and talk with students, put up posters all over campus, and spread the word online in BU student groups. In the week before this protest, several articles were written not only in the student newspaper, but also in local city papers, including the Boston Globe. The mood on campus shifted from apathetic to angry, as more and more progressive students came to realize that BU would not cancel Shapiro’s event. Even the Student Government, in no small part due to our efforts, passed a resolution condemning hate speech and the university’s handling of the Shapiro event.
Rightists, reactionaries and fascists on campus followed us at all these events in order to spy on us from a distance. However, this only provided more fuel to the fire as we were able to point out their reactionary politics and spinelessness to the students passing by and at the protests. Open debates with the reactionaries at these events worked to expose their bigotry.
The fourth and final protest happened on November 13, the night of Shapiro’s talk. At the peak there were 300-400 people protesting in front of the venue, including around 150 Black students who mobilized and created a new student group, Black BU, three days before the protest after learning the title of Shapiro’s lecture: “America Wasn’t Built on Slavery, It Was Built on Freedom.”
Thousands of BU students gathered in Marsh Plaza on October 15, 1969 as part of a nation-wide series of protests against the Vietnam War.
The protest lasted for hours despite the below-freezing temperatures, which showed the dedication of those involved to stand against fascism and BU’s role in popularizing reactionary politics. In addition to the protest outside, there were multiple disruptions in the event itself. Ten minutes into Shapiro’s talk, more than 10 members of SAHS participated in a planned walk-out of the event while chanting against the bigotry that Shapiro was putting out.
During the remainder of Shapiro’s talk there were other disruptions which SAHS did not organize. The protest and disruptions received a good deal of favorable coverage and was a major topic of discussion around campus in the days that followed.
However, the movement cannot simply end with protesting this one racist figure. The seeds of a radical student movement have been planted; now we must water them and let them grow. This is essential to bringing more petty-bourgeois students and intellectuals into revolutionary politics, and encouraging them to join the struggles of the masses people. Students Against Hate Speech collectively grasped the need to continue working together, and agreed to form a long-term group on campus, the Student Activist Union.
For a long time, the student movement in the United States has been weak and disjointed. This is related to the dominance of various forms of liberal and nihilist ideology on campuses. Many students are primarily focused on getting a “good job” and having a “successful career.” Others are critical of issues in society, but primarily see liberal solutions and minor reforms as the way to solve deep structural issues. Many students at BU and other universities around the country have a lot of illusions about the nature of the present system: it is all too common for students to believe that oppression can be overcome via the ballot box or that racism and sexism can be addressed simply with better representation in places of power.
Students, workers, veterans, and Black revolutionaries all joined together to protest against the Vietnam War in Washington D.C. Around 500,000 people attended the protest. The red and blue flag of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam was flown throughout the protest. This demonstration shows what is possible when the radical student movement gets off campus and links up with other struggles in the wider society.
All of this in itself is not surprising, especially on “elite” college campuses. Universities in U.S. society are, in fact, training centers for capitalist imperialist ideology. It is the duty of revolutionaries to struggle against both liberal reformist ideas as well as nihilism and apathy, and to expose the role that universities in U.S. imperialism.
The development of a radical student movement is essential to doing so. During the 1960s and 1970s, student movements in this country played a big role in opposing the Vietnam War and standing with the Black Liberation Struggle and the feminist movement. Today, it is far too common for students to simply see the issues in the world in terms of social media discourse. The isolation in our present society also encourages people to simply “like” and “share” on social media but not get involved in the day to day building of a movement. What’s more, the university has established channels for “activists” to learn how to simply become good bureaucrats for non-profits and NGOs, instead of actually taking up struggle against systems of oppression.
Despite the successes of our organizing efforts at BU, these issues have not been overcome. They are part of the larger dynamics and class relations in this country and need to be struggled against over a long period of time. The student movement at BU is not isolated from society as a whole, and so the contradictions in society are naturally reflected within our organizations. Various forms of middle-class and liberal ideology will continue to reproduce themselves within the movement, and the ruling elite (including the University administration) will promote a whole series of dead ends and false solutions in their efforts to lead us astray.
These are real obstacles that will have to be struggle through and overcome if the movement is to continue to grow and advance. While the movement that has come together already is impressive, the road ahead of us is long with lots of twists, turns, and potholes. But with a principled political approach which avoids the dead-end politics of the Democratic Party, NGOs, and nihilism, major victories can be won, and a revolutionary student movement can be reborn.