Presence of confrontational protesters sparks student response


The harassment that ignited a campus

Wednesday morning was clear and full of promise.

That changed a little before noon, when students began posting on social media concerning protesters on the corner between Bowman Park and the Student Union. There were five of them, holding signs and yelling at students.

“I’m not protesting; I’m preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Kirsten Borchert, 20, from Lafayette, Indiana.

Borchert was at DePauw University “preaching” with The Campus Ministry USA, based out of Terre Haute. The confrontational evangelical Christian group travels from campus to campus “Preaching specifically about sin and hell, and how sin leads to hell,” she said.

The group was speaking against a plethora of issues, from the LGBTQ community, to “baby killers, masturbators, porno freaks, feminists” and many more.

Quickly, they became increasingly confrontational with students, asking women how many Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) they had, calling them whores and telling them to go back to the kitchen.

“I don’t want you to burn forever and ever and ever in the lake of fire,” said Joshua Borchert, 22, who was fully adorned in his Eagle Scout uniform.

Students mobilized quickly.

“I saw that post on Facebook, and I saw that there were protesters here saying homophobic things,” said sophomore Marissa Higgs. “When I heard about it I was like, 'okay, I've got to go.' So I grabbed my five foot rainbow flag off my bed and ran here.”

Other students, faculty and staff joined, and by 1:30 p.m. the roads around the intersection were barricaded off by DePauw Public Safety and the Greencastle Police Department.

People made signs, decorated posters, played music and chanted through megaphones in an attempt to silence the group. The two opposing protests had to be separated by a human barricade of staff and administration as the counter protest grew.

“I’ve never seen this happen on campus as far as a protest,” said senior Kayanat Paracha. “It’s good to see that everyone is here together.”

Students, regardless of if they were specifically targeted, stood together in a show of solidarity.

"This is our campus. This is our community, and we work hard to build this community. We're not going to let anyone just come in and tear it down,” she said.  

As temperatures reached a high of 85 degrees, the university provided water bottles that were passed to students by members of the administration.

President Brian Casey was on the scene almost immediately after the situation began to heat up. As the afternoon continued, many at the protest felt a sense of pride and community with their fellow classmates.

“I’m so proud of every single person that came here, every single person that showed up, every single person that chanted, that held their fist in the air in solidarity with everyone,” Higgs said. “For all the kids that made this important, I'm so proud of them.”

Pamela Roberts, student disability services coordinator, echoed the sentiment.

“I’m so proud of the way or students have come together to support each other,” Roberts said. She helped calm distressed students and handed out bottles of water.  

“I hurt for our students because they have been hurt today by this,” Roberts said.

Police brutality takes the spotlight

As the protest and counter-protest continued, some in the crowd became agitated that more was not being done to remove the Terre-Haute based protesters.

“I don’t know why the school can’t kick them out,” junior Hector Rivera said, “It’s a private institution, so at least I’m curious to know more like the policies and politics behind all this.”

Others were more than curious, and demanded action from the law enforcement who were present. The corner of Hanna and Locust is a public street corner, regardless of the fact that it is in the heart of a private university campus. This allowed for members of The Campus Ministry USA to speak freely and congregate without fear of removal from Public Safety.

“We’re presenting no danger,” said Brother Jed Smock, the man in charge of The Campus Ministry USA.

A white female student threw coffee at the protesters and was escorted away from the scene. Tension grew. Greencastle Police moved in closer to the student protesters, which upset some students.

Sophomore Avery Nash was one of the many students present during the protest and counter-protest. Frustrated with the police’s response, he approached an officer.

The situation escalated quickly.

The majority of witnesses say that Nash did not touch the officer, but was instead grabbed by the officer.

When he shrugged it off, he was tackled to the ground. He was held down by four officers, was handcuffed and lead away from the scene.

Andrew Smith, assistant director of Alumni Engagement was also put on the ground and detained.

“I was trying to protect a student, and we both got taken down,” Smith wrote in a Facebook post.

Director of Public Safety Angela Nally said that two people were detained and released without charges being filed.

After the incident of police brutality on behalf of law enforcement, the energy of the protest changed drastically. Nash and Smith were led off the scene, but no arrests were made.

“You come to college to get an education, and you end up getting thrown to the ground in handcuffs in front of your peers,” said Clarissa Peterson, professor of political science,  “I think that we as a university didn’t have to let it get to the point that it did.”

Many members of the DePauw community showed emotion as the scene began to settle, both for the words of hate and the witnessing of the take down of a fellow student.

“It’s just triggering, for someone to stand there and look you in the eye and tell you that you’re going to go to hell or that you deserve to die because of something that you can’t control,” Higgs said. “It’s triggering.”

Senior Ben Davis agreed.

“It’s already bad enough walking around campus trying to find your own self identity without people coming in here and telling you, ‘You’re a sinner, and you’re going straight to hell,’” Davis said.

As the protesters were escorted away by Public Safety and Greencastle police, DePauw students chanted the Supremes song, “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).”

Open forum: tensions high and emotions raw

At 2:19 p.m., after The Campus Ministry USA was escorted off of DePauw’s grounds, Casey sent an email to students, faculty and staff announcing an open forum to be held at 4 p.m. in Ubben Quadrangle to address the protests.

Hundreds of people attended, including members of the Greencastle community and representatives from all of the local houses of faith. Food and water were provided free of charge.

Casey, DePauw Student Body President Craig Carter, City of Greencastle Mayor Sue Murray and Vice President of Student Life Christopher Wells gave short speeches to the crowd.

A group of around 30 women of color walked up the steps of Lucy Rowland Hall, which was being used as an impromptu stage, holding signs of protest and sitting on the steps for the duration of the speeches.

“Today we got invaded by people who came here, by people who came here who tried to shake our cores, who tried to shake our values,” Carter said, “I’ve never been more proud to be a Tiger.”

After Carter, Casey and Murray addressed the crowd, followed by Wells.

“It’s uplifting to me how many people want to react with love,” Wells said, “It’s easy to respond with hate but that’s what they want.”

The opening speeches focused on the people who invaded DePauw’s campus and the strength of the community, but as the students were allowed to take the mic, the conversation shifted to police brutality and the social barriers that divide campus.

Students called for justice, and proclaimed that they were unsafe on campus and that the university was not doing enough to protect them.

Casey and other administrators were openly criticized. At one point two students had an emotional exchange on the steps of Lucy, which ended in many of those in the audience leaving the forum.

“If we blame and accuse each other how different are we from them?” asked Renee Madison, senior advisor to the president on diversity and compliance. Madison is also the Title IX coordinator.

President Casey promised that change will be made. “You can’t learn or think or do your work if you don’t feel safe,” he said. Casey pledged to bring the Board of Trustees to Campus. “My vow to you all is to find out what happened here today. Our mission is truth,” he said.

One of several conversations

These conversations surrounding race and privilege aren’t new.

Ashton Johnson ‘15 published an opinion piece in The DePauw in 2014, lambasting the lack of opportunity for minority students. Her piece, titled “Excuse me, but your privilege is in our way” was picked up by The Huffington Post.

A campus-wide movement--”DePauw doesn’t care”--evolved soon after.

Classes were canceled in the spring with the intention of the university coming together to discuss diversity, multicultural inclusiveness and micro-aggressions to minority groups. A similar day of inclusion is planned for next semester.

The university’s Diversity and Equity Committee are in the process of developing a five-year plan, which they intend to present a draft of the 2016-21 Campus Inclusion Plan to the Board of Trustees at their May 2016 meeting.

Still, many students of color, and other minorities on campus expressed in the open forum after Wednesday's events that they do not think that DePauw as a whole has done enough to ensure the campus is welcoming to all.

The harassers: They will return

Ryan Simpkins, the most vocal protester, goes by R.D. and calls himself “The Radical Reverend.” In a phone interview last night he said that he doesn’t understand why “everyone thinks [they’re] so special.”

“My main goal is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Simpkins said.

In fact, Simpkins claims he preaches on sidewalks out of love.

“We love the homosexuals,” Simpkins said. “We’re out there because we love them.”

Simpkins first came to Christ shortly after a near-death experience in 2007. According to a Nov. 29, 2007 article from The Orange County Register, Simpkins, who was 22-years-old at the time, was in the passenger seat of a car driven by his younger brother Justin.

“My brother was an adrenaline junkie,” Simpkins said.

His brother was going 90 miles per hour, which was twice the legal speed limit. The car collided with a telephone pole. His brother passed away, and Simpkins, who was ejected from the car, had severe injuries on his right side of his body, including a broken arm, clavicle and pelvis.

“I felt the presence of God with me when I was in that car,” Simpkins said.

He said that what the group does is rebuke sin.

“Sinning is the most unloving thing you can do,” Simpkins said, adding that it’s unloving to God, others and yourself.

The only event he has been to that resulted in a reaction moe severe than the one at DePauw was at a gay pride parade he attended in Salt Lake City.

“That’s what happens when the spirit of feminism and homosexuality and the religious spirit all kind of exchange,” Simpkins said.

Yesterday, Simpkins posted on Instagram, “The demonic stronghold on this campus is among the worst I’ve ever encountered.”

The post has since been removed from his account.

In response to the multiple accusations of calling female students whores, Simpkins said, “I didn’t call anybody whores. I never directly call women whores.”

Simpkins said they are in no way affiliated with The Westboro Baptist Church.

“They protest, and we preach,” he said of Westboro. “Plus our signs are better.”

He pointed to the fact that Westboro will sometimes call homosexuals faggots.

“We don’t say things like that,” he said.

The Christian Ministry USA said that they will be coming back on Wednesday.

Healing and looking forward

In an email sent out to the DePauw community, Casey wrote, “I will, in the days ahead, assemble an external group of regional community leaders who will be asked to offer recommendations about the work the university must do itself and with local officials and the Greencastle community to prepare for incidents such as these.”

He also said that Wells and Anne Harris, vice president of academic affairs, will provide details about programs to prepare the community for any future visitors that might utilize their First Amendment rights in the same manner.

No one can compel the end of a demonstration if the parties have stayed within the boundaries of protected speech,” Nally wrote in an email last night. “It was clear that many students, faculty and staff wanted the Public Safety staff to protect them from this group by making them leave.”

Nally continued.

“This would have been unconstitutional and exactly what groups like this want to see happen,” she wrote. “Professional protesters often attempt to draw situations that will allow them to sue for failure to protect them, which funds their hate agenda.”  

Casey plans to keep his promise to students to allow for more access to the Board of Trustees during their visit in October. The promise was made at the open forum.

“We have to do this in a fair but clear way,” Casey said.

He intends to work with Carter on the best way to represent student concerns to the Board of Trustees.

“We’re going to bounce back from this,” Carter said in an interview yesterday evening. “Right now we’re fractured.”

For now, Carter encourages students to talk to one another and come together to do things as a community.

He said, “There’s no better medicine.”

-Ali Baker and Nettie Finn contributed to this article.