Inside Beloit College’s Eaton Chapel on Thursday night, former Vice President Dick Cheney fielded questions ranging from the events of September 11, 2001, to his portrayal in the movie “Vice.”
Outside, about 20 protesters held banners calling Cheney a war criminal and passing out flyers blaming him for between 480,000 and 507,000 deaths in the Iraq War that began in 2003—a statistic footnoted to a Brown University report.
Over in the college’s science center, about 200 people turned out for an alternative Block Party put on by Students for an Inclusive Campus—timed to coincide with Cheney’s visit and, in the words of Lucy Abrams, one of the group’s members, “to empower the community and people who might not feel empowered by his presence.”
And across the country, another 83 people raised more than $9,500 in pledges for RAICES, the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, in a fundraiser that organizers set up to tweak the conservative group sponsoring Cheney’s visit, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF).
“We’re planning to thank YAF for helping us with the pledge drive and notifying them that if they continue to bring speakers to campus, then we will continue running pledge drives to compensate for the harm that their speakers have caused in the world,” the fund drive’s organizer, Toby Gurl, a 2012 Beloit graduate, told Wisconsin Examiner.
The triple-flip response at the college to the controversial Cheney visit was a soft landing after weeks of escalating tension over the impending event.
It also appeared to have allayed fears among students, faculty and alumni of the small private college that the event would spark a confrontation, inflame a right-wing narrative of “intolerant liberal college students,” and cast conservatives as victims.
Andrew Collins, a Beloit senior and president of the campus YAF chapter, said in an email that he was “pleased with the outcome of the event” and called it “a clear demonstration that, with enough work, free speech is possible at Beloit College.” (While the campus organization calls itself Young Americans for Freedom, it is part of a national organization that is now called Young America’s Foundation.)
Posters for the Cheney talk were posted on campus in September, prompting students and others affiliated with the college who were critical of the former vice president to consider how to respond.
The critics singled out Cheney for his role in directing Bush Administration policy during the Iraq War that began in 2003.
On a closed Facebook group for alumni, some threatened to stop giving to their alma mater. The clarification that Cheney’s speaking fee—which a 2010 Politico account claimed could run as high a $75,000—was being covered by YAF through a donation still left some unsatisfied.
Other alumni, although still critical of Cheney, counseled ignoring the matter in order to minimize the attention they believed the organizers sought.
A backdrop to the reaction was an aborted talk this past spring, also sponsored by YAF, by Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary military organization Blackwater.
Blackwater gained worldwide attention when some of its employees were involved in a 2007 massacre that left 17 dead in Iraq. Four Blackwater guards were ultimately convicted in connection with 14 of the deaths in 2014; the company has twice changed its name, most recently to Academi, and is now owned by private investors.
Prince was to speak at Beloit on March 27 but the college canceled his talk after a 45-minute delay during which a group of students played drums in protest of the event and later students stacked chairs on the stage of the building where the talk was to be held. Prince instead delivered a private talk at a local hotel.
Beloit graduate Dianne Lugo, who covered the Prince event for the student newspaper, told Wisconsin Examiner in an email that college security said they canceled the event out of safety concerns. The episode drew attention from a variety of internet news and commentary outlets—much of it critical of the how the college had handled the matter.
Free inquiry or provocation?
The alumni debates over how to respond to the Cheney visit turned on what limits a private college—which, unlike state colleges and universities, aren’t subject to the First Amendment protection of speech—should impose on what viewpoints and ideas are expressed by speakers on campus.
College public relations representatives declined Wisconsin Examiner‘s request to interview campus administrators involved in the decision, but provided a statement from the student handbook: “Free inquiry and free expression are essential attributes of the community of scholars. Therefore, recognized student groups are allowed to invite and to present any speaker, performer, or dramatic or musical group of their own choosing, provided they follow regular procedures for scheduling facilities and placing the event on the calendar.”
One alumnus critical of the college’s stance was Lewis Koch, a 1971 graduate. He spoke with Dean of Students Cecil Youngblood about his concerns with Cheney’s visit and followed up with a letter to the dean that he later shared with other alumni and with Wisconsin Examiner.
In a follow-up letter to the dean, he wrote, “It seems pretty obvious that the College is being trolled—that the appearance of those such as Cheney and Erik Prince are intentional provocations to cast a negative light on liberal arts campuses, calling the institutions’ credibility into question.”
He credited the dean for “committing to having an intentional dialogue following Cheney’s ‘talk,'” but called for “some deliberate ground rules—that a clear and informed counterpoint be allowed to offer rebuttal; and that opposing views are given equal time during the Q&A, so that the deck isn’t stacked by those who invited the VP there. Otherwise, the idea of dialogue is merely a sham.”
About a week before the event, it was announced that Cheney’s talk would be in the form of a question-and-answer session between the former vice president and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the president-elect of YAF.
Protest through fundraising
A different alumni response came from Tobias Gurl and a handful of other recent graduates.
Instead of threatening not to give money to the college or demanding that the talk be canceled, they decided to turn it into a fundraiser for immigrant rights. Participants could pledge whatever they choose for every person attending the Cheney talk, the money going to RAICES.
They named the campaign “Wunsiedel” for a town in Germany that in 2014 turned a march by neo-Nazis into a fundraising mechanism for a group that helps Nazis leave their ideology behind.
“While most of our donors aren’t happy that Mr. Cheney is making an appearance, we’ve all agreed that the best thing we can do for the college, free speech, and the world at large, is to host a fundraiser for a good cause rather than directly protesting the event,” Gurl said in a press release he circulated in the days leading up to the talk. “Our members all love Beloit, and we’re deeply committed to helping the college. Alumni from all over the political spectrum have come together to support immigrants and refugees because our education at Beloit taught us about creativity, problem solving, good humor, and civic conscience.”
Even as alumni were debating the Cheney visit, members of Students for an Inclusive Campus were considering how they would respond.
Lucy Abrams, the SIC activist, said the purpose of the organization is just what its name suggests: to promote a spirit on the campus of inclusiveness for all students.
“SIC has just always wanted to hear as many voices as possible—especially voices that are not often listened to at predominantly white institutions,” said Abrams, a junior and anthropology major from Brookline, Mass.
By the time students arrived for the fall semester, the news was already out that Cheney was coming to visit. “We knew we had to do something,” she said.
The previous spring the group had held an alternative event to draw attention away from the Erik Prince appearance. But while it had nothing to do with the cancellation of Prince’s talk, SIC also didn’t want to see that repeated.
“We definitely didn’t want to shut down the [Cheney] talk,” said Abrams. “That was not our goal. That’s never been any of our goals.”
Noting that there have been other controversial speakers in the past, she added, “Maybe we disagree with their politics or disagree with how their presence disrespects our community. But we don’t want to shut that down. We look to make the people who show up to our events, and people in our Beloit community who may not feel heard and may feel marginalized—we want to make space for them.”
The organization settled on a “Block Party” theme and got support from 20 campus clubs and organizations. As planning proceeded, she said, the organizers—led by the chair, student Gabe Gonzalez, and the six SIC executive board members—moved away from advertising the event as explicitly countering the Cheney visit. Instead, it was simply held at the same time. The purpose was to focus on celebrating diversity and fun—”not making it about him.”
Small, peaceful protest
Shortly after 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Beloit Police taped off the area around the college chapel where 90 minutes later the event was to start.
Beloit Police Sgt. Christian Dalton told a reporter the police presence had been “requested by the college” and were “due to the Erik Prince event…and taking all precautions that nothing bad happens.”
Altogether there were 21 police officers from Beloit, Janesville, and the Rock County sheriff’s department; Dalton said the size of the deployment was because law enforcement authorities had no information on how many protesters would be present.
The protesters showed up about 6 p.m. Gathered under the name of Left United, they included about 20 students and community members who carried signs made from bedsheets and other materials. One asked whether there was a designated protest area, and the group took their place there, singing songs.
The chapel doors opened at 6:15 p.m. As spectators arrived for the talk, protesters handed them flyers that concluded with the statement, “We ask that you consider the human cost of Vice President Cheney’s policies as you listen to him speak today.”
Political schmoozing and musing
Inside the chapel at 7 p.m., Collins, the campus YAF leader, introduced Cheney and Walker and the conversation began. Cheney recounted his time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—he never finished his Ph.D.—and reminisced about other Wisconsin connections.
He said he had supported, voted for, and raised funds for President Donald Trump, but criticized the president’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of the buffer zone between Turkey and Kurdish territories in northern Syria, opening the Kurds up to Turkish attacks.
“I’ve got a real problem with that. I think that’s a mistake,” he said, adding a moment later, “This one really concerns me because It does raise questions about our understandings with our allies.” After a brief digression about possible talks between Congressional leaders and the Trump administration on impeachment proceedings, he said of Trump and the Syria troop decision, “I hope he reverses course.”
Audience questions—relayed via text—started about halfway through. Asked about media portrayals, Cheney said he had not seen the biopic “Vice,” a sharply negative portrayal of his political and personal life, but that his 18-year-old granddaughter had and said it made him “look badass.”
In response to a question about LGBT rights he mentioned his lesbian daughter, Mary, and said, “Freedom means freedom for everyone.” On gun control, he expressed support for background checks for gun owners. He called serving as secretary of defense, under President George H.W. Bush, the most rewarding position of his political career.
Earlier in the day, an email to the college community signed by Beloit College President Scott Bierman, Provost Eric Boynton, and Dean of Students Youngblood acknowledged that many “have strong feelings at a foundational level” in opposition to Cheney’s actions in public office and ethical disagreements with him. In response, it suggested, the options included attending the presentation “and questioning thoughtfully to hold this elected official accountable to his record” and “protesting visibly in a way that does not interfere with the speaker’s ability to speak and the audience’s ability to engage and hear the speaker.”
On Twitter, YAF’s national spokesman quickly circulated a screenshot of the message, framing it as “encouraging protest.” Collins called the admonition “loaded language” that was “directed at left-wing students.”
Others saw it differently. National Review Online contributor and self-proclaimed “conservatarian” Brad Polumbo tweeted: “This looks like a pretty good response from them, no? ‘Attend the talk’ ‘Protest in a way that doesn’t disrupt’ Seems like a pro-speech approach all around.”
There seemed to be little in the way of tough questions, however. Possibly the most challenging came when someone in the audience asked for Cheney’s thoughts about “the Squad”—alluding to a series of racist tweets Trump made this summer about Democratic Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib.
Cheney’s reply: “Anyone can run for Congress, and it shows the complexity of our political system, and we have to listen to the upcoming generation.”
And then, at 8 pm., it was over. The protesters had dispersed by 7:30.
Collins said he had “every expectation that the event would go off without a hitch.” Of Cheney’s talk, he added, “there might not have been fireworks, but students had the chance to hear conservative ideas explored on their campus, which is a very rare thing.” And he called Cheney’s comments, whether reminiscences or right off the news, “fascinating to hear.”
He rejected the characterization that his group deliberately courts outrage to paint liberals as intolerant, calling it “a cheap and hackneyed line that aims to strip the agency of those who try to shut-down or degrade my club’s activities and shift the blame away from those parties which are actually causing problems.”
Meanwhile, SIC member Lucy Abrams pronounced the organization’s Block Party event a success, even though rain had forced the event inside the college Science Center atrium and off the dead-end street where it was originally planned.
Some 20 campus groups and clubs, from Black Students United and the Sexuality and Gender Alliance to the tech-oriented Maker Lab and many more, set up booths and offered refreshments including pizza and barbecue, Abrams said. There was a cotton candy machine and face-painting.
There were buttons, stickers, and a photo-booth. The campus radio station broadcast a playlist constructed for the occasion and sold records and CDs, donating the money to RAICES.
“It was really just a celebration and a party,” said Abrams. “I’ve never seen this campus come together like I did tonight.”
Clare Eigenbrode and Frances Ann Knaggs, co-editors of the Beloit College Round Table student newspaper, and Jake Quatt, the Round Table arts editor, contributed reporting for this story from Beloit.
Full disclosure: Wisconsin Examiner reporter Erik Gunn is a 1978 graduate of Beloit College.