Warning: This article covers a speaker that used hateful rhetoric against marginalized communities.
Charlie Kirk, a far-right activist with a penchant for stirring controversy, spoke at UC Santa Barbara Wednesday night to an estimated crowd of over 600 packed into Campbell Hall, as hundreds of students protested outside the building.
Kirk is the founder and president of Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a conservative organization that promotes right-wing politics on high school and college campuses. An on-campus chapter of TPUSA was founded Fall Quarter 2021 and has been criticized by UCSB community members for spreading hate speech since its inception.
College-aged students and older adults comprised near-equal parts of the crowd, many sporting red Make America Great Again caps. Kirk, at the outset of his speech, highlighted his experience speaking with UCSB students throughout the day.
“Very smart kids, I have to say. Some of the smartest that I’ve had a chance to talk to — misled on a lot of topics, and I think that’ll manifest tonight — but generally very respectful, gave me hope,” he said.
Outside, hundreds of students, some holding signs with slogans like ‘trans rights are human rights’ and ‘Charlie Kunt,’ demonstrated in opposition to Kirk’s visit. Kirk supporters argued with the student protesters until the event began at 7:30 p.m., in some cases engaging in screaming matches and other verbal altercations.
One UCSB student — who did not disclose their name for privacy reasons — said she came to protest Kirk’s speech to “support groups that are protesting a fascist, racist, homophobic person,” noting Kirk called transgender people “garbage” and George Floyd a “scumbag.”
“I personally am so disappointed in UCSB for allowing this to happen,” she said. “He literally stands for everything that is, in my opinion, horrible. I’m here because I want to show my support against him and show my support for the groups that are protesting him.”
A Kirk supporter, who identified himself as Dave, said he drove for roughly an hour to make the event and thought that the groups protesting Kirk’s speech were emblematic of America’s ongoing issues with censorship.
“I think there’s a problem with free speech, not only in the media but also universities, and that’s the first problem with America falling. You should be able to speak anything. literally anything, even if it is, God forbid, racist — because you should have a right to speak your mind,” he said.
UCSB Dean of Student Affairs Katya Armistead, who attended the pre-event protest, said that she was “very proud of our students for expressing themselves.”
“I understand the importance of allowing a registered campus organization to have an event on campus, even though it doesn’t match the values of our university,” she said. “So I’m really proud of our students.”
One UCSB student, who identified as a leftist, said he supports the protest but chose to attend the speech event to see the “other side” of his perspectives on politics.
“I think it’s definitely good to see the other side of the debate … I kind of want to see what percentage of the people here are actually serious. Just for me, it kind of seems like a joke,” he said, noting that the protests were “great.”
“I think people probably shouldn’t be welcoming. Whether he has a right to speak or not, that’s a completely separate conversation, but I think he should not be welcome here. And I think this is an appropriate-level response,” he continued.
Kirk responded to the mass of protestors, still audible inside the lecture hall leading chants of “transphobia has no place here,” “cops off campus” and “abort Charlie Kirk.”
“If our ideas were so terrible and did not resonate and were so bad, why did you have to spend your time screaming like a crazy person outside?” he asked.
Kirk then launched into the crux of his speech: a tirade against the existence of transgender people.
Kirk focused on a slew of issues from climate change — of which he is unconvinced humanity plays any part in — to systemic racism, which he views as a fantasy. Bad ideas predicated on these beliefs, he said, will do far more damage to the country than COVID-19 ever could.
Students one-by-one approached the open mic to spar with Kirk over hot-button issues or pick his brain about various topics. In some instances, unfinished conversations and debates carried over from earlier in the day when Kirk had set up a table at the Arbor to engage in debate with the student community.
He and a group of staff and supporters occupied several tables outside Girvetz Hall in the afternoon. Several operated cameras captured Kirk’s debates with students — he’s known for the segment “Prove Me Wrong,” where TPUSA posts edited clips of such conversations.
Several University of California Police Department and Community Service Organization officers patrolled the Arbor throughout Kirk’s visit. The words “Fuck Kirk” were spray painted on the side of Pardall Bike Tunnel ahead of his appearance. Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, highlighted the graffiti on his instagram.
Also in attendance at his pre-speech appearance were members of Kirk’s personal security team and volunteer members of the national TPUSA organization.
“I’m here to speak the truth,” he said before taking students’ questions.
Kirk debated with students for several hours on issues related to race, abortion and gender identity. Much of the crowd dispersed as the event was interrupted by rain and hail.
The campus’ TPUSA chapter has worked to cultivate conservative values on campus while developing friendships within the group, according to TPUSA Vice President and third-year political science major Mark Lucas.
“We get together, and we just hang out. We eat pizza, and we’ve really become a really good friend group, among all things, while still promoting pro-American values and the Constitution,” Lucas said.
UCSB TPUSA hosted its first speaker event last April at an off-campus venue. While the group and speakers decried the campus’ decision not to host the event as an instance of discrimination against conservative voices, the campus said in a statement to the Nexus that the group simply had not yet committed the annual registration requirements needed to be a registered campus organization.
“Currently, only registered campus organizations (RCO) and campus departments can sponsor/host events in general assignment spaces,” UCSB Media Relations Manager Kiki Reyes told the Nexus in September 2022.
Kirk’s afternoon visit preceded his speaking at Campbell Hall later in the day, an event that drew the ire of several campus groups, including Campus Democrats and the Associated Students Student Commission on Racial Equality (S.C.O.R.E). Both groups originally promoted the plans for a counter-protest outside of Campbell Hall, with some discussion around changing the location of the protest to avoid direct confrontation.
“Charlie Kirk is a white supremacist + creator of Turning Point USA, a well-known pro-fascist organization that spews anti-Blackness + anti-immigrant hate, misogyny, and racism! Let UCSB admin know that hate has no place on our campus!” the original S.C.O.R.E. post said.
A controversial TPUSA speaker event on the UC Davis campus last October was canceled after a “100-person brawl” broke out on campus and alleged members of the Proud Boys, a white supremacist organization, attended, KCRA 3 News reported.
Kirk, in the time between his meeting with students at the Arbor and his Campbell Hall speech, journeyed off-campus to meet with TPUSA donors, according to Lucas.
The crowd, initially close to 100 onlookers, thinned to just two dozen by the time Kirk finished debating students.
The group previously hosted two on-campus events in I.V. Theater in the past year. Lucas said that inviting Kirk to speak on-campus was UCSB TPUSA’s largest achievement and builds on previous speaker engagements hosted by the group.
“This event that we’re doing today, it’s the biggest thing our chapter’s ever done, and that’s why there’s so many people here. It’s really a blessing for us to do this,” he said.
The group undertook a concerted effort to raise awareness for the event in the days prior to it, distributing flyers while tabling at the Arbor and sending a mass email to over 75 students in the Political Science 155 Congress course.
“This is a fun opportunity to learn about Charlie’s viewpoints on life and politics as well as to ask him questions face to face,” the email obtained by the Nexus read.
UCSB Campus Democrats encouraged students to publicly protest against Kirk’s visit to show the university that his presence on campus is unacceptable.
“He’s a white supremacist that feeds hate speech and misinformation,” Campus Democrats Vice President and third-year sociology and political science double major Zadie Waletzko said. “We really think this whole tour is just another way for them to kind of twist our words [and] kind of take advantage of college students just to get more content and spread their fascist beliefs and mission.”
“I think it’s totally important for campuses and any environment to have multiple points of free speech and different perspectives, but I think when that speech is derogatory, hateful or misinformed — like Charlie Kirk’s — it just crosses a line,” she continued.
Lucas said the group welcomed peaceful protest of the event.
“It would be a little weird if they didn’t protest,” Lucas said. “We’ve got a lot of security measures in place just to make sure nobody, either on our side or on the other side, gets rowdy. We’re fine with protesters as long as they don’t threaten our speaker or disrupt our event in a major way.”
UCSB Young Democratic Socialists of America — a progressive campus group — issued a statement on Feb. 28 condemning the TPUSA organization but encouraging students not to engage with the speaking event.
“We at UCSB YDSA vehemently oppose the platforming of alt-right, racist, and transphobic groups such as TPUSA on this campus. The direct threat this poses to marginalized people’s safety is unacceptable,” the statement, issued via Instagram post, read.
“Because of this, we at YDSA must also oppose the rally that A.S. [S.C.O.R.E.] has planned to protest the platforming of Charlie Kirk,” the statement continued. “We at YDSA also believe that the best course of action is not to interact with groups such as Turning Point … TPUSA thrives off of negative attention … We believe this counter action, while well intentioned, will ultimately cause more harm than good.”
The UCSB Division of Student Affairs issued a statement about Kirk’s visit on Feb. 27, stating that while the university upholds the right to free speech, they understand how the message of the event “may be impactful or hurtful to some of our students.”
“As a public institution, we must uphold the right to free expression, which is afforded to all members of our community and speakers. This is a right we must fiercely protect or we risk censorship and oppression of all speech,” the statement read. “At the same time, I want to reiterate our community’s commitment to inclusion and belonging, and reaffirm that you belong here at UCSB and are deserving of respect and dignity.”
Kyra Schimpf contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the March 2, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.