California Polytechnic State University student Kate Tenley looked over at a large security fence blocking off part of campus. Police and security personnel with metal hand detectors stood at all blocked-off entrances to the area.
“Someone is coming to present today. Who is it?” Tenley asked. Tenley was sitting with Noah Kim outside The Avenue on San Luis Obispo’s Cal Poly campus. It’s a place where students can grab a bite to eat and hang out.
“Milo something?” Kim replied.
Standing a few feet away from Kim and Tenley was another police officer. And more police were inside chatting inside the building with students who were in line for drinks, snacks and fries.
“It’s just really controversial on campus,” Tenley said. “Last year there was a big riot. Not a riot, but a big protest on campus.”
A police officer walked to the edge of the roof and looked down.
“I’m staying away,” Tenley said. “Honestly with how things are going at Cal Poly lately it might be a big deal.”
Things at Cal Poly haven’t been great recently. A string of racially-charged incidents at the university, like a fraternity member wearing blackface and white supremacist flyers showing up in bathrooms and hallways, have elevated tensions on campus.
But on Thursday afternoon, the general mood coming from students near the gymnasium where Milo Yiannopoulos would speak later was annoyance.
“It’s a bit of an inconvenience,” Benjamin Holland said. Holland and his friends sat on a grassy area near a portion of the chain link security fence. “We’re student athletes and the gym is closed off to us all day. And our stuff is in there. We can’t shower in the locker rooms or grab any of our stuff. It’s been bothersome." A big inconvenience.”
This inconvenience likely cost the university somewhere around $55,000, possibly more. But the chief of the university’s police department had previously said he’d be willing to spend $100 thousand dollars if needed for campus safety.
Holland’s friend Sierra Brill summed up the general sentiment of many students that day.
“It seems unnecessary,” Brill said.
“I feel like there aren’t going to be too many protests that are too crazy.” Holland said. “I can’t imagine anything will happen.
And Holland was correct. No one showed up to protest. There was a bongo player and his friend holding a sign that said, 'Love is Invincible."
The lack of protesters was a bit of a surprise. Especially considering that less than two weeks ago, hundreds of students stormed the campus during an Open House weekend to bring attention a medley of issues like tuition hikes, perceived racism, and anger the university would allow Yiannopoulos’ to return.
But on Thursday evening it felt as if students were done protesting, for now. They’re exhausted from weeks of town halls and talks and asking the university to cancel the Yiannopoulos event, many said, and they have their grades to focus on.
The Cal Poly administration has repeatedly stated that canceling Yiannopoulos’ appearance might spark First Amendment issues, and even postponing it could be seen as censorship. However, according to Katherine Rueckert of the Cal Poly Republicans, the Dean of Students, Kathleen McMahon, did ask the group to consider moving their event.
“We were asked to but we decided not to.” Rueckert said. “It’s not our job in a climate like this, I think it’s best if you come together and have a nice group discussion on a topic that doesn’t have anything to do with what’s happening on campus.”
The topic of Thursday's panel discussion was 'fake news.' For two hour, Yiannopoulos joined the right wing YouTube celebrities Carl Benjamin - also known as Sargon of Akkad - and Austin Fletcher, more commonly known as Fleccas. They loosely shared their views of news media while also mocking liberals, Jews, transgender people and women.
"Look at the covers of magazines. They used to be Sophia Loren and Gisele Bündchen. And now it’s Amy Schumer on the cover,” said Yiannopoulos as the audience laughed along. “And when you put something on the cover, you’re not just saying ‘look at this.’ You’re saying ‘be like this.’ So these aspirational lifestyle icons these days are damaged, fat, and hideous.”
What could be taken as offensive to some didn’t seem to bother the crowd. It’s what they came for.
Student Sarah Theodozio summed up the the general feeling of the audience.
“Oh, I love Milo,” Theodozio said. “I think he’s hilarious. I like him because [of] his tactics - he kind of gets under people’s skin. You really can’t take him too seriously, so I laugh at what he says. It doesn’t really affect me.”
Cal Poly, however, did take Yiannopoulos seriously. Police were brought in from across the California State University system. There was even a Critical Response Unit in all-black riot gear tucked away and ready, just in case.