Campus police have said the clash was not violent, did not result in arrests and “did not rise to the level of a riot,” emphasizing that both Bennett and the crowd were exercising their First Amendment rights. They acknowledged “strong language and allegations that some unknown person(s) in the crowd splashed water.”
Bennett and her supporters say officials have downplayed the response. On Monday, she pledged she would be back — next time with an “army of gun owners for an open-carry walk through campus.”
“You can’t keep us away and you can’t keep us silent,” she tweeted to her more than 300,000 Twitter followers. “Just like Donald Trump, we will always win.”
Ohio University spokeswoman Carly Leatherwood said in an email Tuesday that the school is “committed to fostering an atmosphere that allows the free and peaceful exchange of diverse thoughts and ideas.”
“The University urges its community to respect the rights guaranteed to all under the state and federal constitutions,” Leatherwood wrote.
Bennett arrived midday Monday with a bodyguard and others involved in the libertarian media site Liberty Hangout, according to Ohio University’s independent student newspaper, the Post. Photographer Nate Swanson, a sophomore, told The Washington Post he rushed to the scene with his camera to find Bennett filming amid a small gathering, apparently for one of her customary videos interviewing college students.
As word of Bennett’s presence spread, the crowd grew, peaking at 150 to 200 people, according to police, who said the conservative group was on campus for about two hours. Students knew Bennett as the Kent State University graduate who made headlines with the gun-toting images that Bennett said was meant to protest her campus’s ban on students carrying weapons.
Bennett, then 22, argued she should be able to arm herself while attending the school where the Ohio National Guard opened fire decades ago on unarmed war protesters.
“I believe that if the government has it, we should have it. Machine guns — any weaponry,” Bennett told The Washington Post at the time.
That stance catapulted Bennett into the national spotlight, turning her into a divisive political figure. Contributing to the far-right site Infowars — notorious for promoting conspiracies — and to Liberty Hangout, she’s continued to build an online following while also drawing critics. One of her interviews went viral last month as a college student she’d queried about tampons in men’s bathrooms criticized “people making a living off stoking the flames of anger,” according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
“If a dude wants a tampon for some reason, he can have a tampon,” the student, Michael Hawse, had said when pressed about a flash point for conservatives who oppose transgender people’s use of bathrooms that correspond to their gender. Asked about urinals in women’s bathrooms, Hawse told Bennett: “I don’t really care.”
Monday’s attempt to film at Ohio University soon became a chaotic confrontation as Bennett tried to move to a second location, Swanson recounted. The student newspaper reported that Bennett’s group was followed down escalators amid chants urging her to “go home.”
By about 2:45 p.m., the paper reported, Bennett’s bodyguard was carrying her to the parking lot and the Ford pickup waiting with a “TRUMKIN” license plate. Videos document tossed toilet paper and deafening yells from the crowd as people wave Bennett’s group away. Some shout obscenities.
“We won’t miss you,” people chant in one clip, as Bennett mouths something that’s drowned out.
“I kind of feel like she just came here to get this reaction,” Liam McSteen, a sophomore, told the Athens News. “I think it’s just kind of attention-seeking behavior. I don’t know if she thinks she’s going to change anyone’s mind out here.”
As Bennett’s clips of the encounter garnered more than a million views, the activist said police should have done more to protect her, pointing to officers who stood to the side as people threw liquids at her group’s truck. Bennett also said she had hot coffee thrown on her.
She tweeted at President Trump, who has joined conservatives in criticizing college campuses as especially hostile to conservative viewpoints and last year signed an executive order encouraging schools to “avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives.”
Ohio University police said in a statement that officers did not ask anyone to leave campus and that both Bennett’s group and protesters were “compliant” when asked to move at various points. No injuries were reported, they said, and the truck was not damaged.
“Officers appropriately positioned themselves between the crowd and the group’s vehicle and focused on protecting everyone from physical harm,” Lt. Timothy Ryan wrote in an email Tuesday, saying authorities’ attentions were on potential threats more serious than the thrown liquid and cups.
Police have not ruled out the possibility of criminal charges but did not find evidence of assault or rioting in videos they reviewed, he said.
“We obviously don’t condone people throwing water or other objects and we will continue to review new video if/when it becomes available,” Ryan wrote.
Joel Patrick, who was in the driver’s seat when the drinks came through the window, told The Washington Post on Tuesday morning he was dismayed by those who chased his group away.
“People were telling me I wasn’t black and that I needed to be blacker,” the 24-year-old social media personality and radio host said. “It was just such a weird experience.”
“What we need more of in America is for people to have a conversation from two sides of the aisle without resorting to violence or bullying,” he added.
Others in right-wing media also condemned the campus reaction.
“You can’t assault someone just because they voted for @realDonaldTrump Or attack them because they disagree with you politically,” tweeted Elijah Schaffer, a correspondent for conservative BlazeTV.
By midday Tuesday, Bennett’s supporters were also criticizing Twitter over a spate of posts discussing violence toward the activist. The social media platform says users “may not threaten violence against an individual or a group of people” but adds that statements expressing a “wish or hope that someone experiences physical harm” or “making vague or indirect threats … unlikely to cause serious or lasting injury” do not fall under the threats policy.
Twitter said in a statement that it is looking for and taking down only content that violates the threats rules, including messages targeting Bennett.
With the university still in the spotlight Tuesday, some divisions in opinions have emerged among students, photographer Swanson told The Washington Post. Although many praised the police’s response on Twitter — “Thank you for … not turning on the students trying to express their free-speech rights too,” one person commented below the police’s statement — Swanson has also heard some people questioning students’ handling of the surprise visit.
The city of Athens is “very politically mixed,” he said, with both the surrounding region’s conservatism and a college town’s more liberal views. Students feel strongly about Bennett’s conservative causes and wanted to show their opposition, he said.
“I’ve been to a lot of demonstrations and protests in my lifetime,” he said, “but this is the biggest I’ve seen.”