Ben Shapiro began on the defensive Wednesday evening, reading from a letter to the editor in the Salt Lake Tribune that called for his event at the University of Utah to be “shut down.”
The conservative writer and commentator pushed back against the letter writer’s claims that Shapiro’s viewpoints are racist, transphobic and encouraging of violent acts.
“That is ideological fascism at work under the guise of a smiling, happy face,” Shapiro told a cheering, capacity crowd of 400 in the U.’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Building. “If you can name one person, one in America, who has been physically harmed by my speech, I dare you to find them and show them to me.”
From there, Shapiro launched into a 90-minute barrage against liberal notions of institutional discrimination, white privilege, achievement gaps, wage disparity and governmental intervention.
U.S. history is filled with terrible examples of racism, sexism and homophobia, Shapiro said. But it’s wrong to assume individuals cannot escape the after-effects of that landscape, he said, or that past wrongs justify aggression in the present day.
“The idea that every black person is being individually victimized by the United States is not true,” Shapiro said. “You do not get to harm people who have never harmed you because somebody’s dad once harmed your dad.”
At one point during Shapiro’s speech, his microphone suffered a malfunction and was cut off. The energetic speaker was able to project his voice for the modestly sized auditorium, but the drop in volume also allowed attendees to hear the chanting of roughly 300 protesters waiting outside.
Tensions were high at the University of Utah ahead of and during Shapiro’s speech. Supporters and protesters remained for the most part peaceful — albeit with two arrests and some individuals detained after a series of scuffles — and some even hugged.
Most of the clashes between the two groups centered on free speech, particularly the charged rhetoric of Shapiro, editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire and former Breitbart News editor-at-large. Some said Shapiro spews hate speech; others said Shapiro makes a lot of sense.
The event was organized by a student group, Young Americans for Freedom. As such, university officials assisted with coordination and provided additional campus security but were largely left out of planning.
U. spokesman Chris Nelson said the size of and interest in the event was “unprecedented” for a student-led speaker. He complimented organizers, attendees and protesters for maintaining a largely peaceful and professional atmosphere.
“We think this is what free speech looks like on a university campus,” Nelson said.
Ryan Ogden, 26, and Adam Everton, 21, both of Midvale, said they stood in line for three hours to get tickets. With numbers 388 and 391, they were some of the last people to nab passes out of the 400 available.
Ogden brought one of Shapiro’s books that he hoped to get signed. He said he’s a “pretty big fan.”
“Most of his views are pretty libertarian. When I actually started paying attention to politics, that’s what resonated most with me,” Ogden said. “I like the government smaller, less problems that way.”
Everton, who describes himself as a centrist, said he thinks “it’s good to expose yourself to these kinds of things — left and right” and that Shapiro is not as bad as the media makes him out to be.
“His views are pretty down to earth. Most people have the same views, he’s just being a little more vocal about it,” Everton said.
Markell Woolstenhulme, 20, and Parker Johnson, 22, both Utah Valley University students and members of the Young Americans for Liberty chapter there, said they support free speech — whether someone agrees with Shapiro’s ideas or not.
“We like to hear a lot of different ideas,” Johnson said. “We’re not super into Ben Shapiro, we just like to hear a lot of different ideas and different opinions and gather our own opinions that way.”
But some felt like Shapiro represents only certain perspectives.
Natalie Pinkney, of Salt Lake City, said she joined the rally to show the “presence of people of color in Salt Lake and make sure our voices are being heard.”
“I think Ben Shapiro really tells this story about what it means to be a person of color and talks about evidence, but ignores all the evidence that’s out there. I think it’s important to show up and say there is evidence, there is another part of the story. Really make it known that we are here and basically that black lives matter.”
Although Ogden said he wanted to see whether there were any riots Wednesday night, he wasn’t too worried about the U.’s ability to handle any escalations — the worst of which involved a fight that police quickly broke up.
Woolstenhulme said he expected a little bit of protesting but nothing violent like the one at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It was crazy,” he said. “... Being able to let people express their own right of free speech, whether it’s ideas you agree with or not, they should still have the right to speak. The fact that there was so many people out there protesting against him being there and in such a crazy fashion was really unreasonable.”
A group of U. representatives, including campus police, recently visited the University of California, Berkeley to observe that school’s response to a similar event featuring Shapiro.
Increased campus security was planned for Wednesday evening, and notices this week indicated the area around the Social and Behavioral Sciences building would be blocked off, with nearby classes relocated. Several items had been prohibited at or outside the event, including masks and facial coverings, signs, projectiles and weapons of any kind except what is expressly permitted by state law.
Chief Dale Brophy of the University of Utah Department of Public Safety said the level of security was similar to that of a U. football game.
One individual was arrested and booked on suspicion of disorderly conduct and assault, while another was cited and released, Brophy said. Three other people were briefly detained after a fight but were later released.
He said community partners assisted with the increased security presence, offsetting some of the costs to the University of Utah.
“If we were to pay for the cost, it would have been about $25,000,” Brophy said.
Shapiro said it was “pathetic” that his visits to U.S. campuses require an outside police and campus security presence.
As the sunset dimmed on the U., chants broke out of "black lives matter" versus "all lives matter" between dueling factions of supporters and protesters.
“We’re not going to let them scare us,” Everton said of potential antifa protesters. “They’re not scary at all anyway.”
Daniel Argueta, who represented the Salt Lake City chapter of the activist group the Brown Berets, said he rallied against Shapiro’s visit in support of all oppressed people.
“The narrative of race and oppression is real regardless of what the alt-right says,” he said.
Pinkney shared a similar sentiment, saying that Shapiro tells history from an ahistorical point of view.
“It’s problematic because it paints a picture of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps while ignoring the very much political systemic policies that are in place that impact if you can get a house, that regulate which school you’re going to, that regulate your funding going to your education system.”
Pinkney said, “We’re not going to stand for hate speech.”
“We want to shut down Ben Shapiro not because of his free speech but that his speech incites violence against individuals, and that’s not going to be acceptable.”
Although tensions were high among Shapiro supporters and protesters, few clashes actually broke out. The rhetoric, however, became heated among certain people.
In one case, a white man in a "Straight" shirt with a colorless rainbow called Sara Kang, an Asian woman, an "egg roll."
“In my opinion, if you’re describing someone as a food, I would say that’s pretty disgusting and that’s not respectful,” the U. student said.
Kang said that when people allow hate speech on campus, that is the kind of language they can expect. But she was still optimistic that the protest would draw attention to the pain associated with such language.
“I’ll be OK if I’m the only one who got hurt, but I’m not OK with the fact that other people are hurt just as much as I am or maybe more than I am.”
Shapiro is the author of several books, including “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America‘s Youth.” His campus speeches are sponsored by Young America’s Foundation, the parent organization over campus Young Americans for Freedom chapters.
Shapiro’s event was titled “Trigger Warning,” a nod to campus political correctness efforts that seek to alert individuals to potentially distressing content in written materials, videos and lectures.
During his remarks at the U., Shapiro frequently spoke about race and gender, critiquing narratives that tie poverty to demographic status and the perceived rates of rape and sexual assault on college and university campuses.
The estimates that one in five female college students is assaulted are “hogwash,” Shapiro said, before adding that rapists should be “castrated, imprisoned for life, or killed.”
He said that female workers do not make less than their male counterparts, a frequent line of attack among liberal and feminist advocates. Instead, he said, women take time off for child rearing because they “like to have babies” and don’t enjoy long hours as much as men.
“This is not controversial, and it’s not insulting,” Shapiro said. “Its great that women like to have babies. If women did not like to have babies, there would be no future generations.”
And rather than race being a predictor of poverty, Shapiro said, a stronger correlation exists between lifetime earnings and a whether an individual has a child prior to or outside marriage.
“Don’t put that thing in that place without that thing on it,” Shapiro said, referring to birth control. “The problem isn’t the [skin] color. The problem is the lack of marriage.”
Shapiro also criticized claims of discrimination by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples who are denied access to wedding venues or services by religious business owners. Free market forces are a better check on discrimination than the government, he said, as LGBTQ couples can take their money elsewhere if denied services.
“You’re not a victim because that person has no duty to serve you,” Shapiro said. “The gay baker has no duty to serve the Westboro Baptist Church annual function.”
Nathan Blair, of Orem, attended the speech with his wife. He said he appreciated Shapiro’s lessons on family.
“He had some very solid arguments about the socioeconomic reasons for getting into a marriage relationship and sustaining that. For child rearing in a family. I really appreciated his logical reasoning for conservative values. A lot of things that just made sense to me.”
Falynn Delight and Angie Delight, both of South Jordon, liked how Shapiro talked about people taking responsibility for themselves.
“He just wants people to have accountability for their actions, basically, is what it comes down to,” Falynn Delight said. “You have the right to make your own choices in life. You’re not suppressed by anybody. You choose to commit crimes or you can choose to go to school.”
And that’s a message Delight felt she could stand behind, saying as she walked away, “Ben Shapiro 2020.”
Shapiro also distanced himself from other far-right commentators like Richard Spencer, a leader in the so-called “alt-right” movement who advocates for the creation of a white ethnostate.
Asked by a student if he would ever debate alt-right leaders, Shapiro said he has no interest in legitimizing people like Spencer by appearing on stage with a “moral monster.”
“I’ve become prominent enough that for me to go on stage with somebody who is a pig would essentially give the pig wings in the eyes of his own followers,” Shapiro said.
At the end of his speech, Shapiro emphasized the need for conservatives to reclaim space in American culture by pushing their ideas and solutions to the nation’s problems.
Without taking action in the private sector, he said, the federal government would continue to push “significantly worse” ideas down the pike.
“The only thing that distinguishes whining about an issue from not whining about an issue is the possibility of a solution,” he said.