Discussions disrupted: Attorney General’s talk derailed

Nathan Tolfa

Matthew Park

Last Thursday, Whittier was tossed into the national debate on free speech when California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and California Assembly Majority Leader Ian C. Calderon held an open forum at Whittier College’sRuth B. Shannon Center — a forum that was ended early due to disruption from pro-Trump protesters.

The Attorney General’s office coordinated the event, which was open to the public. It was intended to function as a Q&A, and it was advertised as an opportunity to “learn about our efforts in protecting California’s values.”

 Before the event, audience members submitted written questions that were read by Majority Leader Calderon and answered by Attorney General Becerra. The event was meant to be peaceful; however, a group of around 25 protesters arrived, sat in the middle of the Shannon Center’s auditorium, and disrupted the event. Both the Attorney General and the Majority Leader tried a number of times to gain the cooperation of the protestors. 

“In my 24 years of doing town hall meetings, one of the things that I would try to do is suggest to folks that the more time we have for questions and answers, the better it is for everyone, and so rather than applaud or boo or anything else, if we go right to the conversation, we get more done,” said Attorney General Becerra. A protester responded by screaming, “Obey the law then, obey the law!”

With the protesters attempting to boo louder than the rest of the audience would clap, and vice versa. A number of times the event devolved into a partisan shouting match. This disruption continued until the event came to an end, 30 minutes earlier than planned. 

This event, despite being held at Whittier College’s Shannon Center, was not an event put on by the college; as it was put together by the Attorney General’s office with the consent of the school. This means that it was up to the Attorney General and Majority Leader’s teams to decide how agitators should be dealt with.

“I was very disappointed that the people who had come from I don’t know what distance couldn’t get their questions answered and asked, and that was sad,” said Whittier College President Sharon Herzberger.

This feeling of disappointment was shared by an attendee who said, “Of the actual conversation, I wish I could give an opinion, but I couldn’t hear anything. I’m immensely disappointed in those people’s decision to be disruptive and everything.”

When asked to quiet down, the protesters claimed First Amendment protection to continue their disruption. Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Andrew Dzeguze argued that this is a misinterpretation of freedom of speech. “You cannot go to someone else’s event, disrupt it, and not expect to be asked to leave,” said Dzeguze. “I want to clear that up from a legal perspective because I think there’s a lot of confusion there and people think that the First [Amendment] entitles them to go somewhere and start screaming at the top of their lungs. It does not.” 

The Attorney General wanted to allow the protesters a chance to voice their opinions. “We talked with the Attorney General about it and the Assembly Majority Leader,” said President Herzberger. “The Attorney General was adamant that this is a public event, they have a right to be here, they have a right to speak, and he was not going to prevent them from doing that.”

Security for the event was organized by the staff of the Majority Leader and the Attorney General who worked in conjunction with Campus Safety, the Whittier Police Department, and the County Sheriff’s Department. “There were police officers in plainclothes present, who were there in case things got out of hand,” said President Herzberger. “But our campus safety officers had strict instructions that they were not to physically interact with the people at all.” 

Theater Director of the Shannon Center Shane Cadman also worked in conjunction with the Attorney General’s office and local law enforcement to prepare for the event. “The Attorney General’s staff were great to work with,” said Cadman. “Everyone was super on top of everything. There was a lot of pre-planning and everything went nicely until around 5-5:30 p.m., when these individuals started showing up. We were given strict orders by the Attorney General to not remove anyone, and, unless things got physical, there was nothing we could do.”

Director of Campus Safety Jose Padilla elaborated on instructions given to Campus Safety by the Attorney General’s office. “You have to set thresholds,” said Padilla. “And up to the point of physical interaction, that was our tolerance.” 

However, physical interaction is a somewhat loose term, “Physical could be anything. It’s open to interpretation I guess,” said Director Padilla. With eight Campus Safety officers present at the event, there were roughly three times as many protesters as there were officers. 

Campus Safety was surprised by the number of attendees present at the forum. “We were only told there was going be 80 people there, and 200 people showed up,” said Padilla. “If the situation was where we observed 25 protesters coming towards the college, then our job would’ve been to set up an area for them to do that peacefully. That’s not what happened.” 

One protester, President of the Beach City Republicans, Arthur C. Schaper, took a few, shaky videos of the event with his phone’s camera. At one point in Schaper’s YouTube video, titled, “AWESOME: Trump Supporters Loudly Condemn Corrupt AG Becerra and Majority Leader Calderon,” a woman grabs at his MAGA hat, and he pulls it out of her hand. In the video, Director Padilla confronts Schaper and the woman briefly, and, after calling her a “pothead, just like Ian [Calderon]” and a “twat,” Schaper goes back to watching the conference.

Schaper, a native of Torrance, California, traveled to the event with a number of fellow Republican activists from different organizations. After hearing about the event over social media, Schaper quickly organized numerous activists who all wanted to voice their displeasure with both of the state officials.

“We have seen the Attorney . . .

 General promoting the cause of illegal aliens over American citizens,” said Schaper.  “He filed a lawsuit against the president because he wanted to build the wall along the southern border, which is the prerogative of our federal government.”

While Schaper was primarily there to protest the Attorney General, he also expressed his grievances with State Assemblyman Calderon. “I’m very well aware that he has personal habits that are contrary. I understand that he is a pot smoker, I understand that he’s a drug addict, too. This is what I’ve heard from different elected officials,” said Schaper.

The protesters came into the Shannon Center and sat down six rows from the stage in the center of the auditorium. “It was open to the public, but it was hard to tell who was a protestor and who wasn’t,” said Cadman. “Once they arrived, it was obvious what they were there for. For the most part though, they were pretty well-behaved outside, so there wasn’t any indication of how things were going to go.”

Signs, posters, picket signs, and displays were not allowed at the event, yet, when the protesters arrived, they brought a box with a number of 8 1/2 by 11” signs. These signs featured JPEG images, pixelated from their enlargement, of Majority Leader Calderon or Attorney General Becerra with “Fire Ian Calderon!” or “Fire Becerra Now!” written next to them. One protester carried an image of President Trump’s face attached to a popsicle stick to make a pint-sized picket sign. As the event ended, one of the protesters unfolded a Trump banner, and multiple protesters helped him hold it up.

There was little Campus Safety officers could do to quell the protesters short of ending the event. “It’s 25 people in the middle of an auditorium,” said Padilla. “You can’t surgically remove them, once they start their deal … more than three people, they stand up, they grab each other’s arms, and they lock in place. You know how hard it is to remove three people that are locked in place? It’s very difficult.” The event was ended early, and Campus Safety escorted the protesters out.

The College is not used to dealing with this degree of vocal agitation. “In the past, if we’ve had a disruption at a college-sponsored event … 9 times out of 10 the student is compliant,” said Padilla. “I’ve been here six and a half years and I’ve only known of one situation when a student had to physically be removed, and that’s because they were intoxicated.” 

After this event, it was clear that opening up the campus to a public forum attracts a different crowd. According to President Herzberger, “[The event] may make us question whether we would open our grounds for this kind of event — in the near future, at least.” 

Cadman also recognized the risk of hosting public events like this on campus in the future. “The second it started, I felt they should have been removed,” said Cadman.  “It became clear quickly that they were there just to impede, however, removing them was not our call. I thought the officials handled it the best way that they could. They kept their composure, but I would have lost it way before that. I really had a hard time because I wanted to go out and tell those people that they were in my theater and are expected to conduct themselves accordingly.”

Padilla thought that things went better than it may initially appear. He explained, “I know the result for the average person doesn’t look like it was well-handled, but the one thing I always tell people to take away: nobody went to jail, nobody got hurt, and everybody went home safely.”

Overall, Majority Leader Calderon had positive takeaways from the event. “I think, given the circumstances, the conversation went well,” said Calderon. “We were able to ask some questions of the Attorney General and hear directly from him … Attorney General Becerra handled himself as a statesman and gave us all many reasons to be so proud to have him as our A.G. and the first Latino to hold that position in CA.”

Whittier students and faculty have mixed feelings about how the visit went. Second-year Cameron Tracey felt that the event helped displayed struggles America as a whole is experiencing politically. “I just don’t see how we’re gonna do anything productive in this country if we can’t even do the first thing, which is listen,” said Tracey. 

While some weren’t happy with the turnout, many expressed how this event can serve as a positive learning experience for the community. “In some ways it was a good lesson for my students,” said Professor Dzeguze. “It’s easy for people to live in a community such as Whittier [and believe] that this just happens somewhere else and that it’s not here. I’m not saying that those people represented Whittier at all, but I think it was good for people to see that this is how high passions are rising. So I wouldn’t say it was unsuccessful.”

As the event ended, Attorney General Becerra gave his final thoughts. He said, “Even though sometimes people lose their way and forget how to be decent individuals, at the end of the day, you’ll trump them.”