Some students challenged the protesters, telling them that their words and actions amounted to hate speech. One person tried to grab a burning flag to try to put out the flames, and people were shouting at one another.
At one point, some students began chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” and protesters — holding yellow signs that said, “Black Lives Matter,” “Stand up to racism!” and “Stand against anti-Muslim bigotry” — responded with mocking profanity, according to a student watching the protest and counterprotest.
It was one of many campus protests nationwide Wednesday as college students lashed out after Trump’s victory was assured; students on campuses with predominantly liberal politics said they were shocked and saddened by results.
Camille Lepre, a spokeswoman from American University, issued a written statement Wednesday evening: “About 200 students convened this afternoon in a protest to express their reactions to the presidential election outcome. The university supported the free expression of views on all sides of the political spectrum. The expressions were at times heated, but peaceful and safe. The university does not condone the burning of the American flag, even though the act is protected speech.”
In video filmed at the protest, some people can be heard shouting that they have a right to political expression. (And others can be heard shouting, “Shut up!”)
In a year when freedom of speech, race and a polarizing election have been hotly debated, the scene still upset many at American University and far beyond its campus.
Lindsay Petelinkar, a sophomore from Pennsylvania, said she was “extremely shocked” by the scene. She supported Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton, as did most people she knows — “it’s a liberal campus,” she said — but she couldn’t believe people were burning the nation’s symbols.
“I was definitely uncomfortable, just — more in shock than anything, that a fellow student at my university would be willing to burn our nation’s flags and be happy about it and say this is a revolution, this is going to change everything,” she said.
She left, worried about what might happen next, and not wanting to be a part of it, even as an onlooker.
It was the first large gathering since the election, she said. In the early-morning hours Wednesday, people were sitting on the grass on campus in small groups or alone, talking on phones, crying, with their families.
“It felt like America died,” she said. “As if we were in mourning.”
Students’ photos and videos of the protest spread quickly, generating intense reactions on social media.
Devontae Torriente, president of the student government at American University, responded to the protest with a statement on Facebook:
Leaders of the American University Black Student Alliance and the American University College Republicans could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. The college Republicans quoted Clinton in a plea for unity Wednesday: