On Oct. 3, chants of “we believe survivors” could be heard echoing across campus as more than 50 people protested the Young Conservatives of Texas demonstration in support of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The two groups clashed and signs were torn, marking the latest controversy involving the right-leaning group.
UT’s YCT chapter is no stranger to political pushback from the student body and is often accused of holding provocative demonstrations. YCT’s leadership said they do not intend to be provocative, but as a political minority group on campus, they always prepare for backlash.
“We don’t expect anger, we don’t invite anger, but we prepare for it regardless because we’d be fools given the history of it all not to,” YCT Chairman Saurabh Sharma said.
According to CNN exit polls from November’s midterm elections, 32 percent of 18–24 year olds voted for incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. During the 2016 presidential election, 34 percent of this same age group voted for Donald Trump.
Sharma, a biochemistry senior, said YCT hosts conservative speakers throughout the semester to help them rationally engage with people who have differing views. But YCT is much more well-known for their controversial public demonstrations.
In 2016 and 2013, YCT held an “anti-affirmative action bake sale” on the West Mall where goods were sold at varying prices based on race and gender. Both times, they were met with opposition and national media coverage.
“Focusing our attention on the provocative nature of the YCT’s actions ignores a much more important issue: They create an environment of exclusion and disrespect among our students, faculty and staff,” said Gregory Vincent, vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement. “In seeking an audience for their ideas, the YCT resorted to exercising one of the University’s core values to the detriment of others.”
Sharma said YCT ensures members who are present at tabling events have an “even temperament” and are well-informed on the issues.
“One of the most deeply troubling things to me is when people go out there not knowing what they’re talking about and decide to engage on an issue,” Sharma said. “We recognize that, even though the Right has a big tent, the worst among us represents all of us.”
After the Kavanaugh demonstration, which drew counterprotesters and the eventual ripping of YCT’s signs, University officials put out a joint statement.
“Free speech of UT community members is fully protected on campus,” the statement said. “Violence and threats are not. You are able to discuss, argue and condemn those views you disagree with, but unwelcome physical contact with those who espouse them or the destruction of property is never acceptable.”
Public relations junior Elizabeth Boone was among the protesters of the Kavanaugh demonstration and said several sexual assault survivors asked YCT to take down their signs because they were triggering.
“I’ve seen so many people, including myself, hurt over this,” Boone said. “We don’t have to be so nasty to each other. If we are able to have conversations that firmly back up the things that we’re saying in a constructive manner, that is much more of a step in the right direction.”
Jacob Morton, government senior and YCT officer, spoke from his own personal capacity and not on behalf of YCT. Morton said the organization wanted to show that sexual assault allegations should be more than just he-said-she-said.
“The message people got largely out of the Kavanaugh protest was that we hate women. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Morton said.
However, Boone said she believes YCT holds these demonstrations to cause anger and that their rhetoric is damaging.
“There are so many people on the opposite side politically who think liberals are overly emotional or unreasonable, and they capitalize off that, especially in a place like UT because so many of us are so passionate about the things that they say,” Boone said.
Protests get the most attention from the news media if there is disruption or violence, allowing groups who would otherwise get ignored to be brought to the attention of the public, said Pamela Oliver, who researches protests as a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“This is why some groups try to do provocative things that they think will draw counterprotests,” Oliver said. “And of course, the counterprotesters are often trying to get attention for their side by causing disruption.”
Historically, political groups will strategically choose to demonstrate their opinions in areas where opposition is expected, Oliver said.
Morton acknowledged some conservative circles have a problem with an “owning-the-libs” mentality, which finds value in upsetting or embarrassing liberals with arguments and actions.
“There may even be a hint of this within YCT, but we are aware of the folly of this mentality,” said Morton, despite how nearly all of YCT’s demonstrations have sparked public outrage. “The ‘owning the libs’ mentality, or any desire to incite outrage, is not the reason we have demonstrations.”
Among the negative reactions YCT received for the Kavanaugh tabling event, Sharma said there were positive outcomes as well. He said some students asked how to join the organization.
“We’re going to keep our chins up and not become bitter and cynical because of reactions against what we believe in,” Sharma said. “We understand broadly that a lot of Americans do hold the values we hold, so we’re not some fringe group, per se.”
Students hurt by the demonstrations, like Boone, said they would like to see the University directly state it does not support YCT’s messages and consult with YCT about how they can positively present their message.
YCT vice chairman Lillian Bonin said allowing YCT’s presence on campus makes other conservative students more comfortable expressing their beliefs at UT.
“I would hate for (conservative students) and their thoughts to be left out,” Bonin said. “There are other people that agree with them. You can speak out and the world doesn’t end, and some people will respect you for it.”