‘Hate doesn’t roll here:’ Pence visit leads to student protest

Sarah Clifton and Raelee Sents

On the grassy area between The University of Alabama Student Center and the surface lot across from Lakeside Dining Hall — an area known as a “spontaneous expression zone,” where students can protest without a permit — Morgan Helder, a senior majoring in civil engineering, stood among approximately two dozen students chanting until her voice went hoarse to spread the word: “Hate doesn’t roll here.” 

This chant was just one of many phrases students in The University of Alabama’s Leftist Collective shouted to protest the arrival of Mike Pence, former vice president of the United States, on campus, and his intention to give a speech warning against the dangers of “wokeism.”  

Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student organization, invited Pence to speak in the Student Center Ballroom on the night of April 11. This event marks the third in the past year in which YAF has invited a speaker to campus — the other two events being Matt Walsh’s “What Is A Woman?” tour stop at the University in October 2022 and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s visit to campus last April. Similarly to the other events, Pence’s “Saving America from the Woke Left” speech drew student protest. 

“[Considering YAF’s event history within the last year], it is evident they are not intending to better the material needs of students on campus, no matter their political affiliation,” said Rebecca Mhagama, a senior majoring in public health and chair of the Leftist Collective. “We want to be an organization that shows that there are people who disagree with these views. We believe in freedom of speech, but freedom of speech does not equal freedom of consequences for that speech.” 

The protest partly focused on standing in opposition to the rhetoric of Pence’s speech against “wokeism.” 

“I think if you’re really here to promote freedom on this campus, you should be open to all ideologies,” Mhagama said. “You shouldn’t try to exclude people. … ‘Saving America from the Woke Left’ is an obvious, concerted effort to exclude certain groups of people on campus and America.” 

In addition to denouncing Pence in general, the protest also served as a memorial to the lives of transgender individuals who passed away nationwide in 2022 due to discrimination. Pence has formed a reputation of being anti-LGBTQ through legislation that he has supported in the past.  

“I’m from Indiana, Pence’s home state, and I remember back when he was governor,” said Evan Taller, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering who participated in the protest. “He signed a bill that would make it legal to refuse to serve someone based on your religious beliefs, which people wanted to use to try to refuse LGBTQ people service. He’s been advocating to discriminate against LGBTQ people for a while.” 

Helder, who helped make a board that showcased pictures of the memorialized individuals, said she was inspired to come out and protest because she has experienced personal loss in direct relation to transphobia. 

“One of my close friends had a younger sister who was trans,” Helder said. “About one year ago, we lost her to suicide. It’s an epidemic that’s affecting transgender youth, and because of that it’s so important that we showed up for the LGBTQ community tonight.” 

In recent years, the state of Alabama has passed legislation specifically related to transgender youth such as the Alabama Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act, which seeks to criminalize medically necessary care for transgender youth, and a law known colloquially a “bathroom bill,” because it stipulated that people must use bathrooms and changing rooms based on their biological sex. 

Helder cited this legislation, both in Alabama and nationwide, as a cause for distress at the least and a full upheaval of normality at the worst for transgender youth. 

“I’ve watched my other friend’s younger brother go through this recently,” Helder said. “Legislation like this has blocked his ability to access medications, so they’re having to move to a different state just to make sure he has healthcare.” 

Overall, Mhagama said the goal of the protest was not to draw a large turnout, but to show that there is an opposing side to organizations like YAF. 

“All [YAF does] is talk and tell people to vote and then invite speakers on campus to antagonize marginalized groups on campus. They don’t really do anything that changes material conditions of the students,” Mhagama said. “That’s how you know which organizations are really about the Capstone Creed. [YAF says they] are promoting diversity on campus equity and inclusion on campus … but they are doing events like [bringing Pence to campus] all the time.”