My Lyft dropped me off a few blocks away from Boston University’s Track and Tennis Center Wednesday afternoon because the roads had been blocked off by several police officers. Still, I could hear chants of “Fuck BU, and fuck Ben Shapiro!” from protesters a half a mile away.
I started walking to go pick up my press pass and ran into hundreds of angry students blocking my way. I decided to take a ten-minute detour around the building to avoid them because I didn’t have my press pass yet and refused to let anyone think I was going to see Ben Shapiro for fun, even if they were strangers.
After an intense security process that included a prolonged argument over whether I could enter with my backpack or not, I was greeted by Spencer Brown, Ben Shapiro’s spokesman.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Lucas, from Boston College,” I responded, hoping he hadn’t Googled The Gavel and seen our progressive slant.
“Trouble,” he scoffed, indicating that he had.
As I walked in, I was surprised by how difficult it was to tell who was there in protest and who was there in support. An old white man in a “Resist” shirt and Bernie sticker sat next to a blind paraplegic man with a transgender flag and a "Make America Great Again" hat.
I decided to go approach someone whose point of view was a little more obvious: a young man wearing a shirt that said, “List of successful socialist countries on the back of this shirt.” The back of the shirt, of course, was blank.
His name was Logan. He was a sophomore in high school, and he told me that he'd driven all the way from Rhode Island to attend the event.
“When I’m at school, I feel like kind of an outcast for my beliefs. But Ben? He’s like a prophet to me.”
As the event began, someone came over the loudspeaker to announce, “if you disrupt the event, you will be asked to leave,” foreshadowing what was to come.
The President of Young Americans for Freedom BU, whose name I didn’t care enough about to write down, came to the stage and began making fun of the various student groups who opposed the event.
“So there was a club created in response to this, called BU Students Against Hate Speech,” she said. “Imagine creating a club about something that doesn’t even exist!”
After a few more moments of condescending discussion about how all leftists were brainwashed and can’t be blamed for their ignorance, the time finally came.
“Tonight, we are breaking the one-sided dialogue on campus in an unprecedented way. Let’s welcome Ben Shapiro.”
Rapturous applause echoed through the room. I was the only person in my section to not stand and clap.
Ever the gracious guest, Shapiro began his speech by lampooning Boston University.
“Thanks to Boston University for ensuring that this event could happen, despite a Change.org petition that people signed which was very intimidating,” he said.
“To be fair, it sounds like your Econ department could use some work,” he continued, referencing BU alumna Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Shapiro proceeded to give an underhanded compliment to the hundreds of protesters outside and the “courage of their convictions,” before going into a list of people he wanted to give a “no thanks” to. He spent four minutes lambasting a BU student who was against the event by name before suggesting that a Black student group who wrote a letter opposing him needed a thesaurus to do so.
As he began recommending that the protesting students seek medical attention, a whistle and chants pierced the room. Several students were interrupting the event, shouting about the importance of fighting back when oppressed groups are under attack. As quickly as it began, they were whisked from the room and drowned out by chants of “USA! USA! USA!”
As Shapiro opened the floor for questions, the same blind man in the MAGA hat from earlier headed towards the front of the room. It turned out the hat was a decoy. The man hoisted up his transgender flag and accused Shapiro of denying the transgender community their humanity and existence. His claim was quickly dismissed by Shapiro and he was escorted out of the room by the police as a member of the crowd eloquently told him to “shut up.”
I expected the first question to require Shapiro to defend his conservative beliefs from the left, but was surprised to find him under attack from the other side instead.
“It seems like conservatives like you… feel threatened by America First conservatives and America First ideals. Is this why you're smearing them?”
Many in the crowd rose to their feet, agreeing with the aggressive line of questioning. As Shapiro attempted to argue against America First ideals, the crowd booed him and called him a liar.
Three people asked Shapiro specifically about his attacks on an alt-right, white supremacist, Nazi sympathizer named Nick Fuentes. For some reason, they couldn’t seem to understand why Shapiro wouldn't support a man who denied the Holocaust, fantasized about his murder, and participated in the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
“You need to stop smearing people who want to reduce immigration,” one said, while another accused him of not being a true “America First patriot.”
Shapiro seemed delighted to finally have some support when a Jewish BU student began arguing against the alt-right, but his smile quickly disappeared when that same student called Fuentes and his supporters the R-word. After gasps rose from the crowd, he corrected himself, settling for "evil" instead.
The rest of the Q&A was less controversial but increasingly ridiculous. Shapiro said that he is “seriously considering” becoming a vegetarian, and a back and forth ensued over whether a rape victim’s inability to describe their assaulter's penis makes them less credible.
One questioner suggested that, without security, Ben Shapiro would “literally be eaten by larger men as a palette cleanser between courses” due to his “short and petite” frame.
Finally, the question and answer period concluded with a student giving Ben Shapiro the opportunity to clarify his previous claim that rap isn’t real music. He refused.
Walking out of the event, the large crowd of protesters had dispersed, leaving only a few left in opposition. Two students were standing silently with their fists held high, while another asked attendees whether they enjoyed their experience at “BU’s KKK rally.”
“I think there could be a lot more outraged people here against these fascists," said Alex Smith, a BU student protesting.
I asked her how she felt about her classmates who agreed with Shapiro.
“I don’t take it personally because their opinions are worthless. They don’t mean shit, because they’re wrong.”
A few moments later, a student named Seth who described himself as a supporter of Shapiro’s approached a couple of protesters nearby.
“I’m here trying to learn. I’m not here trying to attack you, I’m not here trying to be rude… I’m here to hear you out,” he told them.
“I don’t talk to fascists. I tell a fascist, if I can kill you I will, but I don’t want to have a debate with you," one student responded, roughly paraphrasing those who opposed Franco’s regime in Spain.
Seth replied that he was not there to debate, but to learn, stepped closer to introduce himself, and reached out in an attempt to shake hands. The response?
As I walked away from the event, I was surprised by the rift within the conservative youth of America that I'd encountered. While Shapiro said some messed up things in his speech, any hate spewing from his mouth was minor compared to that of the dozens of young white ethno-nationalists in MAGA hats.
This idea was echoed by another BC sophomore I found at the rally.
“I’m here because I’m a Conservative,” he said, as opposed to the many Alt-Right attendees. “You might have noticed that most of the people here were actually to the right of Ben. So, I think that he’s a lot less radical, or far-right, than people think.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story wrongly attributed two quotes responding to the student referred to as "Seth" to Alex Smith. The attributions were corrected on December 30, 2019.