This article was updated at 2:39PM, December 19, 2020, to reflect proper photograph captions.
“The Unity Block Party was already over. We were just cleaning up when it happened.”
That was when the peaceful gathering of UCLA students were “mobbed” and temporarily blinded by neo-fascists wielding flashing cameras and phones on selfie sticks. The Trump supporters, back from antagonizing protesters, were on their way to cars bearing out-of-state license plates.
“What was most unsettling was that we didn’t even approach them,” Princess Amugo told me Wednesday night. Amugo, a second year English and African American studies major, attended the Unity Block Party on Monday the 13th. “They approached us, and when we respectfully asked them to leave, they refused.”
Videos taken by Trump supporters confirm the accuracy of Amugo’s account, showing a gang of a dozen male Trump supporters (plus a token white female) quickly descending upon a group composed almost entirely of female students of color.
“We just want to ask y’all to leave,” says a student in one video, calmly, after she is confronted by a Trump supporter who badgers the women with questions about people murdered by “illegals.”
“Why?” the Trump supporter carrying the camera asks.
“Can you just please leave?” The request is still civil.
“No,” says the man with the camera. “This is a public place.”
Amugo seemed subdued when we spoke on Wednesday, when the shock of the incident had worn off. “Apparently, being in a public place gave them the right to harass us.”
The Unity Block Party was sponsored by student groups including the Afrikan student Union, Samahang Pilipino, Students for Justice in Palestine, the Afrikan Arts Ensemble, the Student Activist Project, and MEChA de UCLA. Students from all the organizations were in attendance.
Sarahi Garza, a 2nd year neuroscience major and primary event organizer, had this to say about the Unity Block Party: “I wanted us to have a space where we could heal and share our thoughts—whether it be writing down thoughts we’ve been having onto a piece of paper or drawing something.” There was a large sheet of paper situated at the foot of the steps, held in place by the students of color who were bent at work, and a small shrine of flowers and a pot of burning sage, bordered by votive candles. Around the paper, students adorned the pavement with chalk affirmations: “esta es tierra indígena,” “this is Tongva land,” “Black Lives Matter,” “invest in books not borders,” “brown & gay and here to stay!”
“The emphasis here is on community and healing,” said Garza, as several dozen brown bodies shivered over red bricks that still retained a hint of the sun’s heat, bricks that one chalk inscription told us “were laid by people of color so that the people who stole their land could get an education.”
“A lot of people don’t feel safe on campus, especially with the hate that is spewed regularly by our own president,” Garza told me, her words punctuated by the garbled, tinny voice of someone with a megaphone—it was impossible to tell what side they were on from that distance. “We wanted to shift the focus away from hate and towards love and peace and unity.”
“I think a lot of times, people jump to conclusions about minorities,” she said. “When we want to advocate for peace and love and liberation… they think we are advocating hate and violence. We wanted to change that narrative.” We were far outnumbered by protesters and Trump supporters alike; we could hear both sides shouting on Bruin Walk from the Janss steps, where the unity block party had moved in anticipation of possible violence — from Trump supporters, protesters, or police.
Before the move, according to Garza, “We felt like it wasn’t a safe environment. The environment… can be very hostile, especially with a lot of police around. Some students are undocumented. Some are constantly targeted by the police for the color of their skin. Both [the protesters and the Trump supporters] were going at it. A guy got punched in the face, from what I heard.”
“We kind of foresaw the events to come, especially because of previous events at other universities,” she added, referring to the violence that broke out at Berkeley earlier this year in response to the presence of Milo Yiannopoulos, popular right-wing internet troll and former senior editor of Breitbart (he was asked to step down after making several statements in apparent support of pedophilia). The Berkeley backlash propelled Yiannopoulos’s book to the #2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list.
Student Activist Project internship director Azisa Todd gave another reason for moving the unity block party: organizers “really didn’t want the media in this space, because their words can be misconstrued.” Todd also attended the protest briefly, but left because “a lot of non-POC folks were talking and taking up all the space.” They returned to the block party, where they knew they would be surrounded by “more diverse folks.” Their criticism is one I heard repeated by others who attended both the protest and the unity block party.
Asian American studies major, Kyla Worrell, found it “empowering to be able to write things like ‘trans power’ and ‘trans justice.’” For them, the unity block party was “very healing—especially comparing that space to going to the actual protest” where there was a “hostile environment.” They cited safety concerns and a desire to be away from the protests as the primary reasons the organizers chose to move the block party.
Second year, Spun Jakka, said they preferred the unity block party to the protest, which was “mainly centered around white voices.” As we stood at the fringe of the party, watching our fellow students attempt to light candles against the cold wind, they told me the protest was “supposed to be standing up for people of color,” but it wasn’t “by people of color.”
One student, who asked not to be named, shared this sentiment, “They were saying ‘racists, sexists, anti-gay—right wing bigots go away!’ Most of the people chanting were not part of these groups. They were not making space for people actually in these communities to talk.” The anonymous student “kept flitting between the protest and the unity block party,” feeling alienated by cis white male protesters but also compelled to stand up against hate.
Cheyenne Aoelua, also an internship director for the Student Activist Project, said the Unity Block Party was concerned with “promoting love and pride in your own culture and community,” whereas the protest was “more focused on attacking” the right-wing speaker, “rather than celebrating the diversity between our cultures and how we are meant to be on this campus.” Regarding the right-wing speaker whose presence had attracted the Trump supporters and inspired the anti-fascist protests, Aoelua said, “I don’t think he should have any attention at all. I don’t think we should give him the power to make us feel a certain way… as a whole, he’s just very irrelevant.”
The Trump supporters’ videos show that the UCLA students made several polite-but-futile requests to be left alone. The women dwarfed by the burdens they carried—burnt candles and affirmations from the Unity Block Party—stood together, some looking stunned, others weary. Amugo didn’t attempt to answer or engage the harassers. “I wasn’t going to explain to them why I’m valid or should be affirmed along with other disadvantaged groups.”
The Trump supporters continued to subject the students to a torrent of hate, some even spitting on the chalk affirmations. A few of the students attempted to defend themselves from the verbal attacks, but were shouted down. They were visibly shaken. The Trump supporters had invaded their peaceful space, a space the students had hoped was far enough removed from the protest and the neo-fascist event that inspired it to insulate them from such ugliness.
“I didn’t have the time or energy to debate a force that was so violent there would be no point,” said Amugo. In any case, “it’s not like they came to us with the intention of having a discussion. They came to get a rise out of us and to terrorize us.”
The Trump supporters were filming the students despite their objections or because of their objections. In one video, a Trump supporter offered an alternative interpretation of events, stating that he would continue filming until he reached his car, because “you never know.”
Evidently, these men feared the small group that remained, which was composed of mostly women of color. There is no way of knowing how the Trump supporters’ fear compared to the fear of the UCLA students they harassed, but it is chilling to watch the videos knowing which of the two groups benefited from police protection—paid for by the university— and which group contained young, marginalized women who avoided the nearby protest out of fear of violence from neo-fascists, protesters, and police alike.
“Amid the chaos, all I could think was that I just didn’t know how we were going to defend ourselves. I knew if we did, we would be the ones criminalized,” Amugo told me.
The UCLA students pulled out their cell phones to film the encounter—often the only defense people of color have in such confrontations.
“Will you guys get over this? There is no systemic racism holding you down because of your skin color,” says the Trump-supporting cameraman in one video, as one of his cronies begins to chant “build that wall, build that wall…”
“Triggered!” a Trump supporter shouts, mockingly. One of the UCLA students has apparently made the mistake of showing emotion.
“We bombed the Japanese with a fucking nuke,” says another Trump supporter with a phone mounted on a selfie stick. “I don’t see them complaining… we put them in internment camps. That’s a little worse than picking cotton.”
The unity block party attendees picked up as much as they could and attempted to leave in peace, but the Trump supporters and their cameras blocked their passage. Some students were too stunned to move, and others were baited into speaking with the Trump supporters.
When the UCLA students finally gathered enough momentum to extricate themselves from the tangle of shouting Trump supporters, they were pursued by their tormentors.
“They were stalking us,” Amugo says. The videos confirm that the Trump supporters followed the departing students, chanting “commies go home” and “Trump, Trump, Trump,” as well as shouting miscellaneous taunts.
“It was the first time I had ever encountered such hate for my mere existence in such close proximity. I read about it all the time, but when they’re in your face, treating you like you and other oppressed groups are nothing, it’s an entirely different experience.” The impact of the encounter on Amugo is evident.
“It was traumatic. Afterwards, everyone who was there [the students], went up to the MEchA office to reflect and talk about what happened because it was so traumatic.”
Of her takeaway from the incident, Amugo said that the incident “reminded me that we should focus on our own communities. Fuck trying to educate people who don’t give a fuck.”
Watching videos of the incident at the end of the Unity Block Party was like watching a snuff film—a snuff film featuring friends and fellow UCLA students who could not defend themselves from the onslaught of hatred. Young people, many of them women, were terrorized because their school failed to protect them.
UCLA, I love you, and that’s why I’m so disappointed. I am grateful to this university for providing me with a world-class education and for supporting me as someone who has faced homelessness and as a survivor of sexual violence. I want UCLA to continue to strive to be a home for all students.
I am grateful that UCLA values free speech— but if an outside hate group was protected, why weren’t our students protected?
I want to know why administration made it a priority to protect the free speech of men who drove from all corners of the country to harass UCLA students, why administration spent university funds to hire police guards for these bullies, yet did not see fit to invest in similar measures to protect the free speech of UCLA students or even, at the bare minimum, to protect students from physical intimidation. To many of UCLA’s students of color, the administration’s failure to protect them from the itinerant hate-mongers appears to be an oblique endorsement of their violent rhetoric.
I am disillusioned, UCLA. The Unity Block Party was not a part of the anti-fascist protests. It was a space for students of color to gather together in solidarity, an escape from a conflict they were too exhausted to be a part of. It was a place for community healing. The disruption of that peace was pointlessly cruel. The interlopers might tell themselves that ruthlessly bullying marginalized youth was just their way of defending free speech—failing to see the irony of the fact that they support a president who has been openly hostile to free speech since day one, threatening his critics with lawsuits and imprisonment, while encouraging his twitter followers to harass members of the press. But whatever ideal the Trump supporters thought they were defending that night, what happened at the end of the Unity Block Party can only be characterized as a vicious and unprovoked attack upon vulnerable students.
In order to stand against hate, students of color need their administrators to stand with them.
“We just need to look at how we are going to move forward and acknowledge the issues, but not dwell on them,” Garza told me, hours before the incident at the peaceful event she organized. “We are resilient.”