As Milo Yiannopoulos was preparing to give his talk to Vanderbilt students in Sarratt Cinema Tuesday evening, 767 students gathered in the Rand Lounge to attend #TheHeist, an event designed to counter Yiannopoulos’ speech.
Yiannopoulos, a senior editor at Breitbart often associated with the alt-right movement, has been in the news for everything from his support of Gamergate to his organization of a “Gays for Trump” party at the Republican National Convention. When Yiannopoulos has given talks at other universities, he has often been met with protests that interrupted the event itself. Hidden Dores, however, created an approach that would instead celebrate diversity at a separate event. Their event, “#TheHeist: Free Speech, Speak Out” took place at the same time as Yiannopoulos’ speech as a way to protest Yiannopoulos’ message.
“I think it’s a lot more powerful to have an event that counters another event rather than just a regular protest, so I think this is such a unique idea, and it makes people feel safe,” said senior attendee Nikisha Sisodiya. “It’s celebrating our diversity, instead of having to listen to egregious words being said about the communities that are here at Vanderbilt, and I’m really happy that Vanderbilt was able to pull this off.”
In places where Yiannopoulos has been interrupted by protesters, the interruption has often been cited by Yiannopoulos and his supporters as an example of the suppression of free speech. #TheHeist emphasized its caption of “Free Speech, Speak Out” as a way of pointing out that this event would also be exercising free speech, instead using it to counter Yiannopoulos’ message.
A total of 32 campus organizations co-sponsored the event, many of which represent minority communities on campus. #TheHeist featured performances from several of these organizations including Vandy Spoken Word, the latin dance group VIDA, the Banghradores and the Vanderbilt Variations.
“I think [Yiannopoulos] spreads a very hateful and hurtful message, and I want to show opposition to that,” Corey Janson, an attendee, said. “As opposed to protesting and boosting his visibility even more, I believe that by coming out and swiping into #TheHeist, it shows support not only for the organizers of #TheHeist, but opposition to Milo.”
Any student hoping to pick up dinner from Pi and Leaf found themselves navigating a large crowd, as #TheHeist filled the space of the Rand Lounge. Just before the event began, a line of students stretched from the entrance to the lounge past the mural at the end of the hall in Rand.
“I think the fact that students came together for an alternative opportunity to celebrate diversity is critically important,” said Chief Diversity Officer George Hill. “That so many students came out is overwhelming.”
Some students attending said that they had chosen to come specifically because they had heard of Yiannopoulos before and wanted to show opposition to him. Others expressed that they came to #TheHeist because it was celebrating diversity on campus in a broader sense.
“I feel that this event represents exactly the direction our nation needs to go in,” said junior attendee Daniel Rose. “Diversity is something I feel is extremely important to building a society where everyone feels accepted and welcome, and it’s also what I feel represents the roots of America.”