I Dressed Up as a Clown and Attended Richard Spencer’s (“Alt-Right” Creator) Lecture at Texas A&M
Let me explain why, and what that experience was like.
It started with a message from a friend on Facebook.
I had been organizing with some activists in Austin to carpool to College Station and make a showing of support for the Aggies. On Saturday night, I got this message from my friend Keith:
I’m with an activist friend and her flatmate who are also going to College Station on Tuesday and want to dress up as clowns (ala Loldiers of Odin, look them up!) to troll the hell out of Spencer. Are you interested in an action like that?
When I read it, I had two reactions: Huh? and Hell Yes.
The Hell Yes. was connected to a growing concern I was experiencing, and one that I wasn’t sure how to address: the feeling that Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are becoming normalized (the “Alt-Right”, as the Associated Press has advised, “an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism”). That is, we’re starting to accept, again, white supremacist rhetoric as acceptable political speech and arguments.
Here’s an infamous video of Spencer if you think I’m exaggerating:
And I thought maybe this could be one of the answers of what I can do about it.
The Huh? was in regards to the LOLdiers of Odin. I hadn’t heard of them, so I looked them up. Here’s a video:
And here’s another, from a news outlet, with interviews of two LOLdiers:
See, in Finland, there’s a group called the “Soldiers of Odin.” They’re a Neo-Nazi brute squad who patrol the streets to “protect” citizens from immigrants. And the LOLdiers are there to add color and humor, and to “protect” the Soldiers of Odin — and, more aptly, to protect the citizens from them.
Beautiful, I thought. Just beautiful.
On Tuesday, a few local groups arranged carpools from Austin, and we were set to meet-up at 2:30. I ended up in a car with some folks from the Austin branch of the International Socialist Organization, some really nice strangers who gave me a seat to ride. We started off on the 2-hour drive to College station.
But I wasn’t with any would-be clowns. That was a problem.
About 15 minutes into the drive, I got a call from our head clown (Azzurra, a prison abolitionist and ethics professor whom I still hadn’t met), who was in Keith’s car (my friend from earlier, a socialist and trans activist who is also a stage manager). They were just leaving Austin, and they wanted to talk strategy and starting dressing and applying make-up on the way.
Relaying this message to my car, we found a gas station off the toll road that would be a suitable dropping point, and they left me there, wishing me well. Several minutes, and several “Where are you?” and “No wait — where are you?” phone calls later, the clown car arrive and I hopped in.
And the antics were just getting started.
The plan was to clown-up and get into the event itself as audience members. Azzurra had prepared signs to respond to known talking points by Spencer, but in a clown-like fashion. The thought: what he says on stage is ridiculous, so let’s highlight it as such. We were going to add two happy peaceful clowns to the event hosting a genocidal, racist, white supremacist clown.
For example, he’s known to harp a lot on white guilt, so we had a “White Kilt” sign. He’s the creator of the “Alt-Right”, so one of our signs said “Malt Rite: An All-American Milkshake”. And we made general purpose signs like “He’s the real Bozo” and “Ignore the Clown.”
We were going to walk around the event, and show the signs to the crowd, but hide them from Spencer’s view — a playful, and childish way of interacting with a speaker who playfully and childishly says things like “genocide wasn’t all bad” and “at the end of the day, America belongs to white men.”
At this point, a lot was unclear:
- We were unclear of what types of security were going to be at the event;
- How many people were going to be allowed in, and if they were going to allow members from the general public in at all;
- Whether they were going to permit bags or signs;
- If they were going to oust protestors, or not let protestors in at all (our chances of going under the radar as protestors until the event started, considering our intended get-up, were slim); and
- If any other protestors were going to join us in our clowning.
As we drove, Azzurra started painting her face in the front seat while I waited my turn in the back, and we started getting messages from folks on the ground that painted a fuller picture:
- There was loads of security, and even the FBI was on-site; and
- They were limited attendees through a strict line and wrist-banding process.
None of this boded well for our plans. We started to arrange bail plans in case we were arrested, creating phone trees for press releases and lawyer contacts.
But even worse news: we underestimated our need for white face paint and ran out after one clown face.
We arrived in College Station around 5:45pm. The event was slated to begin at 7pm, and the line to get in was already reported to be quite long, and limited to 400 people. We had a precious few minutes, and used them to run to a part supply store for some last-minute protest supplies: more white face paint and more poster board.
We also adjusted our plans a bit: I was going to wait until I got inside the venue to clown-up, both because of time, and with the added bonus of potentially sneaking a clown in if the police at the door are enforcing a clown-free zone. We were hoping to sneak in the blank poster board and markers in case our pre-made signs were confiscated.
The protestors outside the venue were loud enough that we heard them from a block away, before they were in sight. We followed the chants.
Here’s a Facebook Live video I shot as we got into the crowd:
We’d learn later that over 1,000 protestors gathered outside, and another 2,000 folks attended the alternative/protest event in the stadium across the way. And that the protest (free speech) outside was broken up by riot cops and mounted officers, while the white supremacist lecture (free speech) continued inside. When you consider that the event happening hinged upon an incessantly repeated argument that a public university can’t obstruct free speech, this was an unfortunate move — predictable, but unfortunate.
But I digress.
We got in line, Azzurra in full clown gear, me still wearing street clothes. All of our would-be fellow clowns had joined the protestors outside and were committed to that action, so we were on our own.
Azzurra posed for pictures and selfies with others in line, and passersby, while I handled the signs and other gear. It’s unsettling being in a line of 400 people where you know a sizable chunk of your fellow line-waiters are Neo-Nazis, because we’re all in line to hear a Neo-Nazi speaker. The protest moved over to the where the line was quarantined. It was comforting to be surrounded by our people.
As we got closer to the front of the line, wristbands were being handed out on a ten-by-ten basis — ten folks allowed into the event at a time as a group, escorted from the outside door to the room itself. Azzurra was the 10 of the group in front of us, and I was the next 1.
They separated us and Azzurra — in full clown regalia — entered the building, leaving me with two bags of gear and several posters.
A few moments passed, then they allowed my group in. I walked in, attempting to show my wristband, while being nonchalant about the pile of stuff I was carrying (I failed), expecting at any moment to have my bags and posters yanked. Looking around immediately inside the door, I failed to spot Azzurra (again, remember, full clown regalia, so spotting shouldn’t be a problem).
For a split second I was sure they’d removed her from the venue, and I was on my own. So be it, Jedi, ran through my head, and I LOLdiered forward toward the stairs, where I found Azzurra waiting halfway up the first flight.
Halfway to the door of the event, we excused ourselves from the group and hopped into an all-gender restroom (Thanks, A&M!). I pulled my clown costume on over my clothes, and Azzurra helped me paint a rushed clown face. Wig on, giant bow-tie around my neck, we exited the restroom and walked toward the doors of the event.
A couple police officers guarding the door greeted us with a mixed expression, then kindly opened the door for us and motioned us to enter.
Holy shit, I thought. They literally let us in.
We walked in on an event that had just begun. The room was overfull, with tons of press around the edges, giant news station cameras lining the back wall, and only a few open seats. Fascism draws a crowd.
A security guard told us we had to take a seat, and we managed to find a couple open in the center back.
We were, well, conspicuous, so a majority of the crowd craned their necks around to greet us as we fumbled for our chairs. Spencer said something along the lines of “So now they’re dressing up as clowns? This should tell you something about the liberal mentality.” (Not a direct quote — this is paraphrased — but if anyone finds the quote and wants to correct it, please comment or reach out.)
Azzurra grabbed her first sign (“Malt-Rite”) and started slowly walking around the left side of the crowd without second thought (a true LOLdier, a hero, a bad ass), half dancing, and waving the sign. I sat holding the “He’s the real Bozo” sign, and tending to all of our stuff (in addition the ample protest gear, we coats, wallets, and phones, and nobody with us to collect those things should we be suddenly and forcibly ejected from the event).
Spencer attempted several jokes to deride Azzurra, focusing on fat-shaming, and other boilerplate bigotry — the type of insults you come to expect from someone without the imagination to see a world where people of more than one shade of skin color can peacefully coexist.
The crowd reacted in support of Clown Azzurra, calling out the fat-shaming, and shouting insults at Clown Spencer.
As Azzurra was making slow laps with the sign, I was scribbling out new signs in the back in response to what Spencer was ranting about. When he went on a long prideful tirade talking about how European his blood is (despite being banned from parts of Europe because of his violent hate speech), I made a “You’re A Peein’” sign (my master’s degree at work). Azzurra grabbed it, walked it around, and I went back to improv sign-making.
This continued for about 30 minutes, until the first violent outburst happened in the crowd.
Now, before I go on, It’s worth noting that I’ve been involved in dozens of protests (here’s a video about why I protest), and many different forms of activism throughout my life, from the streets of the middle east, to the cornfields of the midwest.
I’ve had beer bottles thrown at my head by guys waving confederate flags; AK-47s pointed in my face by guys wearing masks; I’ve been jumped, I’ve been mobbed, and I’ve been pepper-sprayed. You get the point.
I’m providing this context, because what I’m about to describe was a fear that was new to me, a feeling that I hadn’t experienced while protesting. And it’s not for a lack of putting myself out there in the past, but more about, I suspect, the nature of this event in particular.
After the “scuffle,” Richard Spencer urged the crowd back into order. He did this as if he was somehow innocent of instigating the violence, as though he was existing there as a neutral party. I’m just telling it like it is, was his underlying sentiment and disposition.
I’m pretty sure it’s at this point that I started to have what I can only describe as a dissociative experience. I felt dizzy, confused, and awash with a vague fear. Not fear of Spencer, or even of the giant skinhead sitting four feet away from me with SS tattoos on his forearm. It was more of a generalized fear: of what was happening in this room, in this country, and the world; that we were politely listening to a white supremacist tell it like it is, the same matter-of-fact way we might listen to a physics lecture on a college campus; or that a white supremacist could somehow see himself as a neutral party.
Whenever it started, I was in some sort of this haze for the majority of the rest of the event. I tucked my phone and my wallet into my socks, grabbed my sign, shakily stood up, and started walking around the right side of the event.
I may not have been able to be a jolly clown, but I wasn’t going to let Azzurra and Spencer be the only clowns standing up.
We tried to muster a conga line, and other interaction from the crowd, but for the most part things continued in this way for the event: us holding signs, or bowling pins, or dancing, while a Nazi waxed philosophical about a white nation.
A supporter of Spencer’s (judging by the hoots and hollers) muttered to me “that get-up is just going to make it easier to find you outside.” A different crowd member threatened to “lay hands on” Azzurra if she didn’t “get out of [his] face” (she was merely walking by him). I overheard a different small cluster of younger crowd members whispering about “beat[ing] the shit out of those libtards after the event,” I was unsure, but assuming, I was the “libtard” in question.
Meanwhile, more crowd members gave us high-fives, hugs, thumbs-ups, raised fists in support, and lots of “Thank you”s. A group of students of color formed a line on the right side of venue and raised fists in opposition of Spencer and solidarity with one another. Several other groups left during the speech in protest, often yelling their thoughts on the way out.
By the time Spencer finished his schtick, the crowd was down to half of what it started as. Folks queued up for a Q&A and asked questions. There was another violent outburst. There were times when Spencer directly antagonized a specific crowd member to attack him, or argued the benefits of making fun of people with disabilities.
And all this while, I couldn’t help but revisiting the feeling, and the awareness, that this is all too normal. People were asking questions during the Q&A that were meant to intellectually one-up Spencer, or challenge inconsistencies in his message — all the same stuff that happens at normal college lectures. Or, at the very least, they were the same as questions at a “controversial” speaker — the same things that happen when I give talks on college campuses. As if this was just a “controversial” event.
His arguments aren’t rational. He’s a professional troll who manipulates facts to sell a narrative that appeals to people struggling to find a sense of self, and who aren’t opposed to (or in full favor of) racial genocide on the path to that calling. He won’t be disillusioned by a quippy one-liner.
A lot of people started with their questions with comments of “I came here to hear you out,” or “I may disagree with you, but I listened politely,” which, again, sent these ripples of discomfort through me. Is it polite to listen quietly to a white supremacist? my mind raced. Polite to whom? Or whom is this politeness benefitting?
I don’t consider myself a rude person, but I draw the line at protecting Nazis from disrespect.
We kept up our clown antics, as the juxtaposition became louder and louder. It felt more crucial we were there, like just by standing there I was yelling “THIS IS NOT NORMAL. DON’T LET THIS BECOME NORMAL.”
The event concluded without much ado. Folks were gently nudged out by security (as happens at a normal college lecture), and we left the building, walking through a small crowd of white supremacists outside (decidedly less normal).
I was hyperaware of our surroundings, waiting for Nazis to jump out of a bush at any moment and make good on their promises, while we tried to find our friend we lost (so, basically, I lived the plot of Saving Private Ryan). Nothing happened, and we walked to a nearby Freebirds, where Keith was waiting to fill us in on what happened outside. And we ate Tex-Mex.
Washing off my face paint in the bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror, and reflecting on the event, I was left with a single pervasive thought: how insane it was that I just dressed up as a clown and joined 400 people in attending a white supremacist lecture on a college campus in the United States in 2016.
The insanity wasn’t me attending as a clown, but that there was a white supremacist lecture on a college campus in the United States in 2016.
We’re gonna need more face paint.
Sam Killermann is the author of A Guide to Gender and Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation. He’s also an activist, a comedian, a speaker, and a gender & sexuality educator, who travels the world performing, delivering keynotes, and facilitating workshops around issues of justice.
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