Protester at right-wing UMKC event arrested, but was speaker hoping for a disruption?

An anti-transgender speech delivered at the University of Missouri-Kansas City was orchestrated by an outside conservative group attempting to cause disruption, student leaders said Friday.

A protester in the audience of Thursday night’s speech was arrested and charged after using a water gun to spray a liquid onto the guest speaker.

“This was an event to make us look bad,” said Justice Horn, who is the first black, openly gay president of the UMKC student body. “They used our platform, they used our name to bolster themselves.”

Horn said he believes a right-leaning outside group targeted UMKC as a place of diversity and inclusion in an effort to polarize the campus and make it appear intolerant.

Horn said he did not know who had paid for speaker Michael Knowles but said that the student groups that sponsored him have a combined membership of less than a dozen and may not have had the money to pay for a national figure.

Members of the local groups did not answer requests for comment.

Justice Horn is the new student body president at UMKC Mará Rose Williams mdwilliams@kcstar.com

Knowles, the 29-year-old host of “The Michael Knowles Show” at the conservative Daily Wire website, was brought in by the student group Young Americans for Freedom in collaboration with UMKC College Republicans. The event, called “Men Are not Women,” at Royall Hall was open to the public and billed on social media as an anti-transgender speech. Tickets were sold on eventbright.

About 20 minutes into Knowles’ speech, laced with disparaging comments about transgender people, audience members began to boo, and some stood to walk out, waving a middle finger at the speaker. Then a person with a water gun attempted to approach Knowles and sprayed a liquid in his direction.

The person was tackled by university police. Gerard G. Dabu was charged with disturbing the peace, assault on law enforcement, property damage and resisting arrest. He was released on bond.

Knowles initially said during the speech that paint had been thrown on him. On social media he said it was bleach and later concluded that it was “an odorous substance,” that smelled like bleach.

Students later told The Star the liquid was lavender oil. The color lavender and scent have been adopted by the LGBTQ community as a symbol for transgender solidarity.

UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal called the disruption a “collision of two principles that we steadfastly support: the right to free expression and the right to civil protest in response to views we disagree with. The evening’s events laid bare deep divisions that exist in our society today — divisions that UMKC works diligently to address through education, support and commitment to our values.”

Agrawal said the speaker professed opinions that “do not align with our commitment to diversity and inclusion and our goal of providing a welcoming environment to all people, particularly to our LGBT community.”

He said other students held counter-events Thursday night, emphasizing positive messages about diversity and inclusion.

Knowles on Twitter later called Agrawal “a disgrace to higher education,” because of his response.

In a statement to the Star, Spencer Brown, a spokesman for the national Young Americans group, called Agrawal’s message “pathetic” and “dripping with leftist doublespeak and do-nothing claims.

“Agrawal’s letter is a clear showing that he intends to do nothing to encourage actual open debate or the free and open exchange of ideas, but instead be an apologist for the radical leftists whose intolerance toward conservatives and their ideas turned violent.”

Agrawal said in messages to the campus community that UMKC remains “absolutely committed to the rights and well-being of all members of our university community, especially our students. Our absolute commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and the equal rights of members of the LGBTQ community remains one of our highest priorities.”

He also said in a statement that “UMKC is a university, which by definition must allow the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions, including controversial and unpopular ones. As a taxpayer-funded public university, UMKC is also required by law to strictly enforce the First Amendment right to free speech for all.”

He said that while Knowles was talking, peaceful protesters stood and expressed disagreement with his views. “Unfortunately, some others crossed a line.”

What happened at the speech, Horn said, “is not reflective of students at UMKC. It is not who we are.” He said proof of that was evident last month when the campus hosted an LGBT student pride breakfast and raised more than $200,000. Next week the university is hosting a lavender pride awards banquet.

On the day of last month’s breakfast, the Young Americans for Freedom group set up a table with a sign saying “hate speech is free speech,” said Chelsea Engsterom, who works on the UMKC student newspaper.

Horn, just days before the Knowles speech, tweeted that the campus is “committed to the exchange of ideas.”

Horn said that before the speech, an unidentified person, “we don’t know if it was a student at UMKC,” posted a call on social media to attend the Knowles speech and, five minutes in, engage in a silent walkout. Horn said students now believe that person may have a secret right-wing agenda.

“Hi everyone!” the Snapchat post said. “I am hoping to get some support in opposition of an anti-trans event happening at UMKC on Thursday. There is a plan in place to stage a silent walk-out shortly after the events starts and attend the campus inclusion event. If you are free Thursday, please consider coming! . . . If you can’t attend, it helps if you register an alias anyway.”

Knowles read the post at the opening of his speech.

In a video of his speech, Knowles went on to say, “The transgender activists tell us it is cruel not to let these confused individuals inject themselves with hormones to mutilate their bodies.”

“He said that they are a caricature of women,” said Ciara Pate, a UMKC Spanish major.

“He went after the Me Too movement,” Horn said, who added that he did not think the majority of the people in attendance were UMKC students.

Many he knew as liberal students at the Kansas City Art Institute. Others, he said, were older adults, some shouting, “Make America Great Again.”

“It was a battleground between people in the community and students mostly from the art institution,” Horn said. “People were booing, and it seemed that’s what Knowles wanted.”

As the audience’s displeasure grew and it appeared the speaker was inflaming anger, Horn said, “I looked directly at the president of the College Republicans. He looked at me, and he had fear in his eyes. I know that he did not want this to get out of hand. But this had been organized.”

After his speech, Knowles said to those gathered, “What a show we got, huh? It wasn’t me putting on the show, but we got a show indeed.”

Campuses across the country have seen similar situations, where a right-wing speaker, standing on First Amendment rights, inflames liberal students and accuses them of censoring free speech or, worse, becoming violent.

Last week, when three speakers were invited to Kansas State University by the conservative student group Turning Point USA and paid $3,000, some students staged peaceful protests.

“When these speakers come on campus they help embolden people who have hateful opinions of marginalized groups — immigrants, black students, members of the LGBT community,” said Ian Boyd, a student activist at K-State. “People can conceal and carry a handgun on Kansas campuses. A lot of students here were very scared because of that, worried something may happen to them on campus. They did not feel safe.”

But Boyd said, “We made sure to inform everyone protesting not to incite, no matter what. We did not want to cause any conflict.”