Right-wing agitators allegedly sprayed protesters with mace at a far-right “comedy” event on Penn State’s campus in State College, Pennsylvania, on Monday night.
Amid escalating tensions on Monday evening, Penn State canceled the event, which featured Gavin McInnes, founder of hate group the Proud Boys, and right-wing YouTube performer Alex Stein. Until then, the university had ignored protesters and experts who warned that the gathering would attract violence to the campus.
The group that hosted the event, meanwhile – which has connections to a broad network of far-right activists and groups – is advertising further events at other universities.
A participant in the rally (whose name is being withheld over personal safety concerns) told Hatewatch that the mood among 200 or so protesters on campus had been defiant but upbeat until the event was escalated in two ways by campus police.
At one point, the protester said, a number of mounted police moved to a small area on one side of the venue, in close proximity to one group of protesters.
“That escalated things. People started yelling, ‘Fuck you!’ at the cops,” he told Hatewatch in a telephone conversation, “and some of them started saying, ‘Fuck you!’ back.”
Video of the event posted on social media appears to confirm this account of police entering into a contentious interaction with protesters.
Soon afterwards, he said, police allowed Alex Stein – one of the scheduled speakers – to mingle with the crowd at some distance from law enforcement, provoking them as he often does to generate outrage content for his YouTube channel.
“Very obviously, [Stein] was trying to get in people’s faces to get content,” the protester said.
He told Hatewatch in a telephone conversation that until that point, the focus had been on “maintaining a vigil,” but “the mood changed when Alex Stein started provoking people.”
“He shouldn’t have been allowed to do that,” Jenkins added.
“The police weren’t standing close enough to intervene had someone thrown a punch,” Jenkins said.
“To the credit of protesters, almost no one took the bait,” Jenkins said. “Stein was visibly frustrated that people were not being more aggressive in their responses to him.”
Soon after, according to Jenkins, a number of Proud Boys emerged into the crowd and began interacting aggressively with protesters.
Finally in an incident captured on multiple videos posted to social media, a protester on the far-right side – clad in body armor and facial protection gear that obscured his identity – released pepper spray into the crowd without provocation, disabling nearby students and reporters.
Soon after, Penn State canceled the event and issued a statement that appeared to blame student protesters for violence, without citing evidence. The statement condemned "polarization" rather than far-right violence.
The statement defended Penn State’s actions while offering an idiosyncratic theory of protest, stating, “We have encouraged peaceful protest, and, while protest is an acceptable means of expression, it becomes unacceptable when it obstructs the basic exchange of ideas.”
“Such obstruction is a form of censorship, no matter who initiates it or for what reasons,” the statement added.
Neither that statement, nor a follow-up signed by Penn State president Neeli Bendapudi, acknowledged that student protesters had been pepper-sprayed by far-right activists, with Bendapudi claiming that it was “unclear which individuals onsite then resorted to ... using pepper spray.”
Hatewatch contacted Penn State’s strategic communication office for comment on the actions of police and the outcome of the event, but there was no immediate response.
Meanwhile, Uncensored America (UA), which hosted the event, is still advertising future events and promoting its chapters at Penn State, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. All the group’s past and future events platform far-right speakers, sometimes in “debates” with other social media performers who style themselves as liberals or centrists.
As Hatewatch previously reported, the group was founded by Sean Semanko, whose membership in the pro-Trump student group the Bull Moose Party links him with a network of far-right actors that includes the principals of white nationalist publishing house Antelope Hill.
In September, the event was approved for funding by Penn State’s University Park Allocation Committee (UPAC), which allocates a proportion of student fees to registered student organizations for on-campus events.
UPAC records show that funding included $6,500 total in honoraria for McInnes and Stein, and over $1,000 for their airfares, according to UPAC meeting records.
On Penn State’s decision to host the event, Jenkins, the journalist, said that alongside the threat to public safety, these payments from student fees were the main concerns of protesters.
On the administration’s decision to try to hold the event, Jenkins said: “Free speech is not a suicide pact. You knew this was coming.”