Murano Chides Protesters
By Matthew Watkins
From the Bryan-College Station Eagle
Texas A&M President Elsa Murano urged students to be more respectful in their political discourse Thursday after a controversial rally on campus encouraged students to hurl eggs at a photo of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
At Rudder Fountain on Wednesday, the A&M chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas held the “Anti-Obama Carnival” to raise awareness of Obama’s economic policies, group members said.
In addition to the egg-throwing, organizers held a “socialist on a stick ring toss” in which students tried to throw rings over masks of Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton on sticks.
“The egg was supposed to be representative of the nest egg that Americans build over time and save for retirement,” said Toni Listi, executive director of A&M’s Young Conservatives of Texas chapter. “Unfortunately, that term ‘nest egg’ got lost in the discussion of what was going on. Quite frankly, I am not completely sure that every college student knows what the term ‘nest egg’ means in economic terms.”
Listi and other students who witnessed the carnival said many students who passed by became angry.
“At first, I really couldn’t believe it,” said Jerren Willis, a senior mechanical engineering major who watched the event. “I thought, ‘This is really stupid.'”
As the event progressed, a crowd of 200 to 300 students gathered. A member of the Texas A&M football team stepped in front of the Obama poster to stop people from throwing eggs, people said.
“Basically, civil discussion turned into heated discussion, which turned into very uncivil discussion and shouting and basically, I would say, verbal abuse at times,” Listi said.
Eventually, Listi said, the organization decided to shut down the event to prevent the crowd from getting out of control.
But word of the carnival had already spread across campus and over the Internet. KBTX-TV reported on the event, and the station’s video footage had made it to CNN by Thursday.
“They have a problem with Obama’s policies, but it was really kind of getting personal,” Willis said. “It just didn’t look right. It was disrespectful.”
On Thursday, Murano e-mailed the student body, urging more respect for others’ opinions.
“The recent actions of the small group of students at Rudder Plaza claiming to make a political statement concerning the presidential election have been widely interpreted as being much broader — and certainly contrary to the core values of Aggies everywhere,” she said. “Here at Texas A&M, respect is one of our core values that are fundamental to being an Aggie. We should always respect each other, each other’s opinions, and express our own opinions in a respectful way.”
A&M officials said that the school was obligated to allow students to express their political ideas even if they found them offensive and that they respected students’ rights of free speech.
“Political disagreement is to be expected, particularly as election day nears, but it can — and should — be addressed in a respectful dialogue,” Murano said to students in the e-mail.
She pointed to a joint program held this week by the Aggie Democrats and College Republicans at the Student Conference on National Affairs. The College Republicans and Young Conservatives of Texas are unrelated organizations.
Officials with the Aggie Democrats did not return calls seeking comments.
Students said interest in this year’s election has been widespread. Tables have been set up on campus nearly every day recently promoting political causes, students said, and campaign T-shirts are commonly worn to class.
Early-voting booths have been set up at the Memorial Student Centers and, by Thursday night, a record 6,196 ballots had been cast there. Throughout the county, 28,711 early votes had been collected.
The Young Conservatives have a reputation for making controversial and provocative statements on campus.
This year, some members approached U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a Democrat, singing the Happy Birthday song and presented him a cake with a picture of him with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Lettering on the cake proclaimed that Edwards had voted with her 96 percent of the time. The video was later posted on YouTube.
In 2003, the organization held an “affirmative action” bake sale to protest A&M’s hiring of a a vice president for diversity. Minority students were charged less for baked goods than white students.
Listi said that Wednesday’s event was misconstrued. The carnival was meant to protest Obama’s policies, not to disrespect him, he said.
“We had fact sheets available detailing why we thought his policies were bad for America,” he said. “Unfortunately, that message was lost on many of those in the crowd.”