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By Maya Brown and Steven Keehner
About 200 people from Turning Point USA (TPUSA), the New York Young Republican Club, the Long Island Loud Majority and surrounding community members gathered around the fountain at the Academic Mall on Sunday, Sept. 12, to protest mandatory vaccines.
The demonstration was in response to the State University of New York’s (SUNY) mandate that all students entering a SUNY campus or institution be vaccinated against COVID-19. Since 99% of campus residents and 88% of in-person commuter students have been appropriately vaccinated, the remaining students have until Sept. 24 to present proof of immunization.
TPUSA’s Stony Brook University chapter, which has yet to be recognized as an official school organization, first announced the demonstration on EventBrite and spread the news on campus the week before. TPUSA is a non-profit organization that advocates for conservative values and promotes “the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.”
One Stony Brook University student, Isabella DeLuca, a senior political science major, spoke at the event.
“The goal of the event was to encourage freedom of choice amongst college students at Stony Brook University,” she said. “I would encourage more students to join us next time even if they disagree with us. It can open the floor for positive, encouraging, and effective dialogues to take place that normally would occur over social media.”
Protesters supporting the organization arrived on campus with their families, flag poles, posters and no masks. Signs read “Stop the mandate,” “Let me call my shots,” “My body, my choice” and “Freedom over fear.”
The Stony Brook College Democrats and the Young Democratic Socialists of Stony Brook University held a counter-protest as other students joined in the demonstration. People were holding signs and chanting a variety of chants, ranging from calls for protestors to leave campus to the condemnation of TPUSA as an organization.
Both sides of protests were met with barricades, and neither group was allowed to pass to the opposing side. However, a counter-protester snuck his way onto the fountain where the event’s speakers were giving their speeches.
As a TPUSA speaker remarked, “I am proud we are one nation under God,” Pregrin Mahan, a student, came up to the fountain and shouted, “You know nothing about God.” The junior philosophy major was met with a chorus of jeers as he was escorted from the premises.
“They’re protesting the vaccine mandate, but what are they trying to accomplish by coming to campus?” Mahan said. “They are clearly here to intimidate students and disrupt student activities. This shouldn’t happen on a college campus.”
Resistance against vaccine mandates has been increasing within the Republican Party, thus turning vaccines into a political debate. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 47% of Republicans said they weren’t likely to get vaccinated, compared with 6% of Democrats.
Paul Wilson, a junior biology major at Stony Brook, came to hear both perspectives of the protest. Towards the end of the protest, Wilson got into a heated argument with one of the anti-vax mandate protestors regarding making vaccines mandatory.
“We’re in a scary time right now and right-wing politics is on the rise in America; it’s mainstream,” Wilson said. “It’s no longer a minority event in the conservative wing. These people genuinely talk in an almost semiotic tone about rebellion.”
500+ grassroots patriots gathered today at two separate rallies to advocate for their medical freedom thanks to our amazing @TPUSA staff: @therealistaylor, @emilytalento & @emilybird112 👏🏼🇺🇸🙌🏼#mybodymychoice pic.twitter.com/5pauZ7jGb9
— Andrew Sypher (@AndrewSypher) September 12, 2021
The event’s speakers, which included students, activists and other political personalities, expressed similar emotions.
The Stony Brook University Office of Enterprise Risk Management tweeted that there were no armed protestors on the campus and the protests ended with no incident. Despite this, there were several verbal conflicts that required security intervention to break up.
Counter-protestors yelled “99% of students are vaccinated, we are the majority,” while protestors yelled back “Shut the f*** up.”
One student that was a counter-protester expressed the toll that a lack of vaccine information has taken on his loved ones in one of the event’s more dramatic exchanges.
“[My friend] was a healthy 21-year-old man, and he died from COVID-19,” the student said. “He died because his parents wouldn’t let him get the shot. He’s dead — I can’t get him back… It’s the same with my grandma … She’s dead because of your ideology.”
More than a dozen of campus police were also present for safety reasons during the two-hour protest.
In anticipation of the protest, University president Maurie McInnis had sent a campus-wide email regarding free speech and civility on campus.
“Stony Brook University is dedicated to open inquiry, knowledge, and insight,” McInnis wrote in the email. “As such, free speech and peaceful assembly are fundamental to our mission. True freedom of expression demands that we acknowledge the rights of others to hold and express beliefs different from our own.”
Since the protest ended, students, faculty and community members have expressed outrage.
Josh Dubnau, a professor with the departments of anesthesiology and neurobiology and behavior at SBU, believes that the protest pushed the limits of acceptable free speech on campus.
“These are groups with connections to far-right ideologies of hate,” he said. “They [the University] needs to tolerate all manner of speech, yes. But there are not good people on both sides of racism, misogyny, anti-LGBT hate, or denial of science during a pandemic. There just are not two sides to these things. This administration should have, and still needs to make a statement that while this type of speech is protected by the first amendment, it is repulsive.”
In an advertisement of the protest on the Long Island Loud Majority Facebook page, a user commented that he would be armed at the event. Word of a potentially armed protestor spread on social media and inflicted worry.
“They didn’t take the potential threat to people and property seriously,” Dubnau said. “There was the social media mention of being armed, but also there are members of these groups who have a history of violence. These people could have stormed the admin building or another campus facility.”
Some have also gone to Twitter to express their frustrations with the University for allowing for the protest to occur on campus.
About an hour after the protest, Twitter user @jackieSBUwgss tweeted “This is infuriating. We have students & employees on our campus 24hrs / 7 days a week, & a responsibility to KEEP THEM SAFE. Credible evidence & threats of protestors being armed have been posted PUBLICLY for all to see! How is this allowed to happen on our campus?”
Another user, @Odalis_H, questioned the right to truth and safety. She tweeted “This is not acceptable. Are they affiliated with the campus in any way? How did a group like this get to use our campus to spew divisive lies and state they would be armed and I have yet to get an alert from #sbu #sbupd?”
The University has not put out a statement regarding the protest since it has ended.