Rittenhouse speech at WKU draws protests, support

Published 1:38 pm Thursday, March 28, 2024

By Michael J. Collins, Bowling Green Daily News

BOWLING GREEN — Kyle Rittenhouse heard the chants of hundreds of protestors gathered at Western Kentucky University as he presented his “Rittenhouse Recap” Wednesday evening.

All 104 audience members heard those chants clearly, penetrating the walls of Downing Student Union and ricocheting between 21-year-old Rittenhouse’s words. Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit, and its WKU chapter were his hosts.

Some chanted support for Rittenhouse, others called him a killer. Rittenhouse spoke for a half hour and the chants never let up.

His speech began with the day his life changed four years ago — the day two Black Lives Matter protesters lost their lives at his hand. Rittenhouse recalled the scene that eventually would see him acquitted in a criminal trial based on self-defense in 2021.

“On August 25 of 2020 at around 11:55 p.m., I was set up for an ambush,” Rittenhouse said. “I was chased, lured between cars and left with no choice but to defend myself.”

Rittenhouse, who was in Kenosha with an AR-style rifle purchased by his friend, said he sought to protect property. He spoke of the three men he shot that night and was quick to recall the several people he did not shoot.

It’s a story he has told many times — to police, to jurors, to college students, to conservative political conventions.

“Looking back, with hindsight being 20:20, (…) if I would have known I would be violently attacked and put on trial for defending myself, I would not have gone down there,” Rittenhouse said. “I would have stayed home because it’s not worth it.

“But that does not take away from the fact that I defended myself.”

With this, he moved to his call to action — the right to carry firearms on college campuses.

“I want to tell you that your university does not give two (expletives) about any of you,” Rittenhouse said. “You have a right to defend yourself, and the university of Western Kentucky and our lawmakers out here want you to be disarmed and more vulnerable to attacks.”

Roughly half of the event’s attendees wore all-black clothing, indicating support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Many were members of the “For the People” advocacy group, a collectivist student organization made up of Black students in leadership positions across the campus community.

Members of the group, as well as supporters of Rittenhouse, lined up for questions. Some asked about comments he made claiming to support BLM, to which he said “great — but all lives matter.”

Others asked him what empowered him to give these speeches at college campuses across the country.

He said it was his right to speak, but otherwise he “does not feel any empowerment” from giving his speeches and engaged in a back-and-forth with the person who asked. He called it a “really stupid question.”

Several supporters took the mic as well, musing with Rittenhouse about their desire to abolish the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and their dislike of U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio.

The 2022 Uvalde school shooting took place in Gonzalez’s district. He received backlash as the only Texas Republican in the U.S. House to support subsequent gun legislation.

Rittenhouse called him a “tool.”

He went on to call for more organization around less restrictive gun legislation and asked supporters to donate to advocacy groups.

“There’s all these different groups that are actively fighting,” Rittenhouse said. “If you don’t have the resources to donate, sign the petitions.”

Cade Holcombe, president of WKU’s TPUSA chapter, told the Daily News after the speech “we had a good conversation from both sides.”

“I hope everybody gets home safe tonight and got something out of this,” Holcombe said. “That was really the main goal.”

Holcombe said he was approached by national organizers with TPUSA several weeks ago offering to bring Rittenhouse to campus at no cost to the chapter.

At first, he was “weary” of accepting.

“I thought about it for a couple of days and because this is America, everybody deserves a platform, it’s free speech,” Holcombe said. “If you want to talk, come on and talk. You can start a conversation, maybe get some views from the left and from the right, and see where it goes.”

He said it’s easy to see vitriolic differences in online discussions, but he hoped that when face-to-face, people could have an easier time finding “common ground.”

“Maybe that didn’t happen fully tonight, obviously, but just starting that conversation, sparking that conversation in the community, … it’s good to be able to have those conversations in person,” Holcombe said.

Not far away, a crowd of protestors continued chanting. Holcombe looked out at them as he spoke and for a brief moment, tears welled up in his eyes.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been a hard day, but a day that I wouldn’t want to relive,” Holcombe said. “I’d say I’m definitely happy that it’s over with and I hope everybody got something out of this.”

Rittenhouse left and his protestors soon followed suit. His speech lasted 30 minutes, yet nearly a full day of protests had gripped WKU’s campus.

The “For the People Advocacy Group,” a student collective formed in response to Rittenhouse’s event, began the day with a sit-in at Wetherby Administrative Building where WKU’s main administrative offices are.

The group occupied the lobby from roughly 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. before marching across campus to address members of the Student Government Association and send representatives to Rittenhouse’s speech.

“We are deeply angered, disappointed, and dissatisfied with the administration’s attempt to distance themselves from this egregious situation by making claims that they are not affiliated with Turning Point USA,” a statement by the group’s organizers read. “The event in question is orchestrated, organized, planned, and will be hosted by Western Kentucky University’s chapter of Turning Point USA, which is a Registered Student Organization through the Student Activities Office.

“The administration’s attempt to wash their hands of this matter is both transparent and unacceptable.”

The group argued that Rittenhouse was likely to incite violence and hateful rhetoric and expressed concerns about ties to the Proud Boys, a far-right, neo-fascist militant organization known for political violence and a notable role in the January 6 insurrection.

Rittenhouse posed with members of the organization in a Wisconsin bar in 2021 while underage and on bail, flashing an “OK” hand symbol co-opted by far-right groups. He denied that he knew of the group’s history during this time, claiming during Wednesday’s event he was approached for a picture and went along with it.

For the People put forth a series of demands and calls for action, including that WKU condemn Rittenhouse’s speech and improve inclusivity training as well as updated SGA policies to better foster engagement among underrepresented groups.

They also called on the SGA to revisit Resolution 6.17S, a policy passed by a previous SGA that sought to provide reparations to Black WKU students and create a task force to assess the feasibility of test-optional admissions and geographically weighted admissions. Former WKU President Gary Ransdell declined to adopt the resolution.

For the People organizers, such as Tani Washington and Avery Wells, said these changes are needed to help address a pattern of university and peer actions deemed unwelcoming and discriminatory.

“Our call to action is not only to the university and to the university’s administration,” Wells said. “We’re also calling on our peers and our fellow students to continue to speak out against these things and to make change, to run for positions in the Student Government Association, to be active and advocate.”

Organizers regularly pointed to the idea that “silence is compliance” — that without WKU and SGA speaking out against the event, they are inherently supporting it.

“The idea that we have to be neutral about something that, 20 years from now, our children will look back and say, ‘that was an obvious answer, and the answer was to stop him from coming,’ it’s gross,” Washington said.

Saundra Ardrey, a professor of political science at WKU and a longtime activist, was one of only a few faculty members present for the demonstration at Wetherby.

“The students are hurting. They are disappointed, as I am, in the administration and other faculty’s lack of appropriate response to their anger, to their outrage, to their disappointment,” she said.

Ardrey said she understands the administration’s obligation to protect free speech, but said there is “a greater responsibility to provide our students a physically and emotionally safe environment.”

“And in addition, essentially a very loud affirmation that you are wanted here, you are respected here,” Ardrey said. “Not that we’re neutral, but a public exclamation that you are a valuable contributor to this university, and from what we’ve heard, the students just aren’t feeling that.”

WKU President Tim Caboni, in a statement released Monday, pointed to the Campus Free Speech Protection Act of 2019 in response to demands to disinvite Rittenhouse. The law states that a university found to have disinvited or discouraged a student or faculty-invited speaker could be fined as much as $100,000 per violation.

Ardrey clarified, however, that a “loud affirmation” does not necessarily mean preventing Rittenhouse from speaking.

“You can say ‘We have to, as a public university, have you on campus.’ I understand that, but you also must say in a very loud voice what your beliefs are,” Ardrey said. “Restate your beliefs, being neutral does not do that. It is an insult to our students. It is an insult to people of color on this campus and to all that we do and bring to this generation.”

LeMegan Shelton is director of operations for BG Freedom Walkers, a local activist group promoting “peace, love, diversity and unity,” according to its profile on Facebook. The organization staged a protest outside DSU.

“We wanted to gather together and represent Bowling Green as a community and (show) our disapproval of bringing Kyle Rittenhouse here as a guest speaker and celebrating his actions,” Shelton said.

Shelton served as a combat medic at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, in the U.S. Army and completed one tour of duty in Iraq.

“You don’t celebrate taking a life, even if it’s the life of your enemy,” Shelton said. “That’s just not something that’s done.”

She said she feels Rittenhouse is being “manipulated by the right.”

“It’s just very sickening,” Shelton said. “I almost have some sympathy for him because he is a young person and he’s being used.”

Shelton believes Rittenhouse’s actions in Kenosha speak to a larger issue.

“I believe that he was put in a poor situation and made poor choices,” she said. “Something, or someone, failed him along the way for him to not have remorse for his actions.”

Rittenhouse will likely not return to Bowling Green soon, but in the coming days, a community divided by his presence must wake up beside each other still.