Ryan Werder

October 17, 2006

Andrew Boyd, President of University of Michigan’s Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), stood isolated among over 100 students protesting his action last Thursday as he explained the rules for “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day.” By dressing two students in “illegal immigrant” costumes and offering a $100 prize to whichever wannabe Minuteman caught them, YAF succeeded in stirring up an enormous amount of campus, state, and nationwide controversy. When it came time to play, though, only one lonely student contestant braved the snowy weather, trotting around before a Fox News camera.

It’s doubtful that YAF expected anyone to actually join in the game; the entire event was a publicity stunt. If the number of reporters and cameras there were any indication, it was a great success. And due to the presence of the aggressively pro-affirmative action group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), the Yaffies succeeded in provoking the outraged liberal response they so desperately craved. As its name indicates, BAMN fights in an uncompromising, often unorthodox, and occasionally violent manner. They have a history on the Michigan campus of clashing with other affirmative action and civil rights advocates. Their incursion onto the scene was very much to the chagrin of the far larger progressive community that was peacefully protesting in the thirty degree weather. The other protestors had planned to step back from the YAF spectacle and starve them of media attention, reserving their sentiments on xenophobia for another venue. BAMN, on the other hand, chose an approach of more direct confrontation.

It’s been my somewhat dubious honor to have been embroiled in this “catch an illegal immigrant day” fiasco since its genesis on campus over a month ago when Morgan Wilkins–whom MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann once dubbed the “worst person in the world“–came to town. I have been serving as the spokesman for the University of Michigan College Democrats on issues relating to this event ever since Wilkins suggested the “catch an illegal immigrant” idea to the Michigan student paper and sparked a national controversy.

Everything began smoothly enough on Thursday two hours before the “game” kicked off. An ad-hoc coalition of five different multi-cultural organizations held a “Prayer for Inclusion” in the Diag (the center of Michigan’s campus). Unfortunately, the mid-October snow kept many possible participants away. The statements from the organizations’ leaders reflected a unified disgust with YAF’s tactics. A joint press release noted that the coalition recently sent a letter to the Regents and the President of the University of Michigan asking for them to take steps to “deal with the negative impact that this activity will have on its student body and surrounding communities.”

Throughout the hour-and-a-half hiatus between the prayer and the scheduled start of YAF’s event, the Diag’s thin collection of snow melted away and students began to gather. Well over 100 student protestors, many dressed in “Michigan Immigrant” T-shirts (a showing of solidarity with immigrants) milled around with a variety of signs. “Xenophobia isn’t funny,” “Bag a Fascist,” and “Prejudice is not a Joke” were a few favorites. As the minutes rolled by, protestors began to wonder if the Yaffies had gotten scared off by the campus’ outrage, just as they had on the event’s originally scheduled date nearly two weeks earlier.

But this time the allure of the cameras and reporters’ notebooks kept YAF from canceling again. After Boyd read the rules, his lackey ran around for five minutes, BAMN yelled and hollered, and the “illegal immigrants” finally surrendered themselves. When they appeared, even BAMN stopped glaring to stare. Coming around the corner, the “immigrants” emerged dressed as Christopher Columbus and a stereotypical Native American female. Unfortunately, BAMN only shouted louder as Boyd stood with his two “illegal immigrants.” One group of students moved the “Bag a Fascist” sign behind him as a backdrop for the cameras as BAMN continued with an endless chant of, “Racist harassment, we say no! YAF bigots have got to go!”

As BAMN shouted, the calmer majority of protestors drew the press and remaining students away from the imbroglio to make statements of their own. They fielded questions from reporters and argued with a deranged woman who was convinced that Spanish was “Hamas-speak.”

I asked Maricruz Lopez, co-chair of the University of Michigan BAMN chapter, if she thought that trying to shout down YAF is intolerant in its own way. After a moment of hesitation, she responded by saying that the country had already heard enough from them.

YAF got the media attention they crave, but they looked ridiculous. There were no winners in this debacle. But there was a loser: constructive, respectful debate.