When the Kalamazoo Peace Center (KPC) wanted to book rapper and political activist Boots Riley as a speaker during the 35th annual Peace Week, the organization did not expect to move the event off campus property due to safety precautions.
After almost a month of correspondence between the Registered Student Organization (RSO) and university officials, the speaker event has been moved to the Wesley Foundation, which is not considered a part of Western Michigan University property despite its central campus location.
“[We were first told] that Boots Riley cannot speak on WMU campus due to public safety issues,” said Nola Wiersma, co-director of the KPC.
Wiersma and the organization were later given permission to host Riley, but with the supervision of a police officer as a requirement. The KPC then decided to move the location off campus.
“We didn’t have a choice, really, because we don’t have the budgeting to pay for security, and we didn’t have the time to wait for the university to offer to pay for security if that’s what they were going to do,” said Wiersma, and added that it is “unfortunate” that the Riley event had to be moved, as the new location is smaller, and doesn’t have the same acoustics as a lecture hall.
Wiersma noted that the KPC tried to find a code in university policy that reflected the university’s decision to require public safety presence at the event, but failed to find anything specifically aimed at RSOs and who can speak on campus.
“We got funding from the [Western Student Association] allocations to bring [Riley to campus],” said Wiersma. “For us, the issue was that we got funding, but we were unaware that we needed funding for public safety. We messaged them back [and asked] what is the final reasons? [But] was never given a straight answer.”
KPC has now decided to host the event in the Wesley Foundation, and will not be required by the university to have security at the event.
“These new, uncodified regulations to pay police made organizing this event difficult. The administration’s behavior is absurd, it is reminiscent of the McCarthy era,” said KPC Director Jessica Clark in a press release.
WMU Department of Public Safety Chief Blaine Kalafut said the university has “certain requirements”, which pertain to events that happen on campus, and that the police department want to act pro-actively.
“It’s on a case-by-case basis,” said Kalafut, explaining that there is no specific guidelines for RSOs when it comes to speakers, and that it depends on the history of the speaker, and possible disruptions that may be caused on campus. He also added that the KPC is no longer required to have police supervision at the Riley event as it will be held on non-campus property.
Kalafut mentioned that when Professor and Weather Ground co-founder Bill Ayers spoke on-campus in mid-March similar safety precautions were in place.
“[Ayers] is controversial,” said Kalafut, and added that public safety officers were present at Ayers presentation. “Nothing [bad] happened.”
Kalafut explained that the university does background checks on everyone who speaks on campus, and that it is a practice that originates from when conservative political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan spoke at WMU in 2005, and a non-WMU student assaulted Buchanan.
“[Riley] has a [political] stand, a message,” said Kalafut. “And there are dissenting views.”
Kalafut added that the WMU police looks at the precautions from a “security point of view,” and that the KPC are not being “singled-out” as an organization with the safety precautions.
“Everything is political,” said KPC collective member Benjamin Ayer. “It’s absurd to think that students minds are so fragile, and that if we hear anything upsetting there will be a riot.”
Riley is scheduled to perform at the Wesley Foundation Thursday, April 3 starting at 7 p.m. The speech will take place in the basement of the Wesley Foundation, and will have its main focus on “capitalism, liberation and organizing for a better world.”