Nearly 150 protesters gathered on the Washington Avenue Bridge Saturday to rally against a mural promoting Donald Trump’s presidency bid.
The multi-paneled mural — created by University of Minnesota’s College Republicans at the school’s Paint the Bridge event — included the words “Build the Wall,” which has been a central slogan in Trump’s campaign. The painting incited a flurry of social media condemnation and spurred the midday protest over the phrase’s perceived racism and xenophobia.
The mural has been spray-painted and effaced multiple times since it was finished Friday. One of the graffitied phrases reads, “Stop white supremacy.”
Paint the Bridge has been an ongoing event for University of Minnesota student groups since the mid-90s, said Assistant Director of Student Union and Activities Erik Dussault. The Washington Avenue Bridge underwent a six-week, $200,000 short-term rennovation this summer, where broken, crumbling panels were replaced and new security cameras were installed, said Bill Paulus, interim vice president of University Facilities Management.
At Saturday’s protest, many of the attendees shared stories and expressed their support for those affected by the perceived hate speech.
Valerie Sanchez, sociology sophomore and Latina student whose father immigrated to America, said at the protest that the mural “hits close to home.”
The event was organized by immigrant student advocacy group Navigate MN after multiple students contacted them.
Prior to the event, Emilia Avalos, executive director for the organization, said she hopes the University takes a stand against the mural.
“This is free speech, and we are completely in agreement with that, but when the speech marginalizes other people and builds hate and hateful actions against other people, that’s when you have to draw the line,” she said.
Nevertheless, University President Eric Kaler sent out a school-wide email shortly before the protest started.
He acknowledged in the email that students have found the phrase offensive, but he condemned the vandalization of the painting and said the campus supports all types of free speech.
“The University of Minnesota supports a campus climate that welcomes all members of our community and our values of equity and diversity, but that also ensures the free flow of ideas, even those that are offensive to some,” Kaler said. “We encourage all who find some protected speech distasteful or offensive to engage in more protected speech.”
Still, many who attended the protest echoed Avalos’ statements about the limits of free speech and criticized Kaler’s response to the painting.
“I just hate how people are hating on other people who weren’t born here,” said Natasha Kataeva, a University biology graduate who immigrated to the United States. “I think the fact that it was vandalized is wrong because of freedom of speech, but at the same time, I’m not really too upset about the vandalism.”
In a prepared Facebook statement Saturday night, College Republicans denounced the accusations of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, criticizing those who vandalized the mural.
“We understand that some students may disagree with this policy decision,” said Madison Faupel, the group’s president, in the statement. “However, free speech is at the center of a functioning democracy, and the actions taken against our panels run contrary to free speech.”
Catherine Squires, communications professor and director of the Race, Indigeneity, Gender and Sexuality Studies Initiative, said at the event that it is important for faculty members to participate in these types of discussions, “especially faculty of color — many of us have been through these sorts of situations when we were students.”
Heather C. Lou, assistant director of the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence, said on Facebook that she and other University staff members would organize a support space for students on Monday.
“I recognize folks are feeling impacted by the xenophobic and racist statement on the bridge panels today. The UMN bias incident team has been contacted,” she said in the post.