Without the usual enforcement of social distancing guidelines, hundreds of students gathered to protest as right-wing social media personality Kaitlin Bennett — also known as “Gun Girl” — visited USF’s Tampa campus Wednesday afternoon.
A video of Bennett interviewing individuals from the USF community posted at 12:30 p.m. on Twitter by @shivorsomething quickly received thousands of views, and less than a half-hour later, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza filled up with students from all over campus.
Bennett was filming for the libertarian media outlet Liberty Hangout. She walked across campus carrying a microphone while interviewing students about topics such as abortion.
As the crowd grew larger, Bennett and her team of security guards walked toward the area between the Marshall Student Center and the Theater I building where she was separated from the crowd by her team and University Police (UP) officers.
The crowd chanted “make her leave,” “all these racists got to go” and “Kaitlin is a coward” as Bennett waved a flag with President Donald Trump’s campaign logo and filmed the crowd.
Bennett gained attention on social media after posting a photo holding her graduation cap and carrying an AR-10 rifle. The photo went viral, receiving more than 30,000 likes, and as a result, she gained the nickname “Kent State Gun Girl.”
While many might see Bennett’s visit as unexpected, that wasn’t quite the case. USF spokesperson Adam Freeman said the university was informed on Tuesday about her campus visit.
Freeman said Bennett was made aware of USF’s COVID-19 protocols, including the required use of face coverings at all times, prior to her arrival.
Throughout the afternoon, many students pointed out how USF’s safety protocols were not being followed by Bennett’s supporters, including noncompliance with wearing masks. Individuals carrying pro-Trump flags and “Make America Great Again” hats were also seen walking next to Bennett.
“USF’s campuses remain open to visitors from the public and the university values the right for individuals to exercise free speech,” said Freeman.
Senior Tori, who opted to withhold her last name, expressed confusion regarding the intersection between USF’s COVID-19 guidelines and Bennett’s visit to campus.
“It’s this weird thing, where it’s like ‘We have safety guidelines in terms of making sure people aren’t hurt’ but it’s also ‘freedom of speech.’ But if I want to go talk to her, why am I not being allowed to go talk to her,” Tori said. “She’s not some celebrity, she’s a random person that came to this campus that has a microphone. I can do that, and campus police aren’t going to stand there and create barricades for me.”
Bennett was accompanied by five bodyguards that made up her security team who frequently yelled profanities at individuals in the crowd, but also attempted to create a line for those who wanted to speak with her directly.
While there were some who did want to speak to Bennett for her content, the majority of those present were there to express their disagreement with Bennett’s politics and presence on campus.
“Stop coming to college campuses, stop going anywhere, make a YouTube channel, spew your hate there,” Tori said about Bennett. “I don’t understand why you keep coming into spaces to disrupt them, and then you’re fake scared when people want to get buck with you.”
For an unplanned gathering, Freeman said that USF staff would “attempt to seek compliance with university guidelines while also trying to minimize the risk of compromising their own safety and the safety of others in the process.”
As the crowd grew, so did concern for abiding by the university’s COVID-19 guidelines for reopening. The university’s reopening plan mentions “physical distancing” 18 times throughout the document including in subsections for Housing and Residential Education, Dining, Academic Program Delivery and Research as a part of its risk mitigation strategy.
Among those concerned about the gatherings provoked by Bennett’s presence was Alaa Massri, Black Lives Matter activist and USF student, who organized a protest Aug. 29 to begin at USF and march to the Tampa Police District 3 Station on North 30th Street.
“The reason for me trying to make this protest start at USF’s campus was so that the students could get more involved, and so that people who didn’t necessarily have access to transportation or anything like that would be able to attend and voice their opinion and show their support and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Massri.
Massri said Dean of Students Danielle McDonald called her the afternoon before the protest and told her she needed to change the meetup location.
“The fact that the dean and the university as a whole allow people like Kaitlin Bennett to show up and have the support of the police to protect her is absolutely ridiculous, when the university sees what an uproar and unrest that she causes and her presence causes onto the students of USF,” said Massri.
As an “unplanned gathering,” Freeman said the university is still open for the public to exercise their freedom of speech.
“In a situation such as this with an unplanned gathering of individuals in response to a campus visitor, USF staff will attempt to seek compliance with university guidelines while also trying to minimize the risk of compromising their own safety and the safety of others in the process,” Freeman said.
UP spokesperson Audrey Clarke said officers were there to “maintain peace.”
Bennett previously visited UCF in September, where students had a similar reaction as crowds followed her around campus.
Bennett’s presence at USF not only incited a large gathering of people against her, but also drew other students who were in support of Bennett and Trump. Those supporters argued with other students after being separated from the crowd by UP.
The conservative students were a minority among the crowd, bringing signs saying “F*ck Liberals” as well as other signs that were torn up by other students.
Students at the gathering also took notice of an individual who wasn’t wearing a mask and was using an electronic vape, shouting “get out” when the person refused to put on a mask after being provided with one.
Bennett left campus escorted by security at around 4 p.m. UP maintained a bicycle barricade so students would not follow Bennett and her entourage. The arguments continued in small groups for a short period of time before the crowd dispersed.
Additional reporting by Leda Alvim.