Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.


About 250 students gathered outside Littlejohn Coliseum to protest April 8's Back the Blue event featuring speaker Tomi Lahren. Joshua Needelman/The Post and Courier

CLEMSON — They dropped their signs, threw up their fists, and, in unison, dropped to one knee.

The past two hours, the roughly 250 Clemson student protestors, all dressed in black, had screamed, chanted and booed, transforming into an organism of resistance.

But nothing spoke louder than their silence. For about nine minutes — roughly the amount of time Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, kneeled on George Floyd's neck, before Floyd died in police custody — they delivered a more powerful message than could be transmitted through words.

Tomi Lahren, the right-wing firebrand who once compared the Black Lives Matter movement to the Klu Klux Klan, brought the frontlines of the culture wars to the Upstate on April 8. Lahren was the keynote speaker of the Back the Blue event put on by Clemson's chapter of Turning Point USA, a nationwide organization that seeks to implement conservative values on college campuses.

About 1,000 attended the event inside Littlejohn Coliseum and, on the ninth day of Chauvin's trial, a hearty group of protestors gathered outside the building. 

It marked the first large non-athletics indoor event on campus since the start of COVID-19. For some Clemson students, who were heartened by the university's support in the wake of last summer's anti-racism protests, Lahren's presence on campus felt like a betrayal.

Chris Miller, Clemson's interim vice president for student affairs and dean of students, at one point crossed the barricade to talk to some students. Asked how the university could permit Lahren to speak on campus, Miller, who is Black, insisted Turning Point had every right to host Lahren but championed the protestors' activism.

"You're doing exactly what you should be doing," Miller said to a semicircle of students. "You have a different point of view."

At that point one student walked away and said, "Your ancestors are rolling in their graves right now."

As students and others attending the event approached the arena, they were booed by protestors. "You're a racist!" was a common refrain. "Clemson condones hate speech!" read one sign. But inside, where most removed their face coverings, they found community.

More than 4,000 people had signed a petition to bar Lahren from speaking on campus, which delighted the 28-year-old Fox Nation host.

"And to the haters, the naysayers, the perpetually triggered, listen here," Lahren said on her show, "you will not keep me off that campus! You will not stop me from delivering my speech in support of law enforcement, the first amendment and freedom!"

Lahren was preceded by Graham Allen, a former Army staff sergeant, and Brandon Tatum, a former police officer in Tucson, Ariz.

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Tatum, who on April 7 tweeted a doctored video that falsely claimed Chauvin did not kneel on Floyd's neck, sprinted to the makeshift stage inside the arena a little after 7 p.m. He wore a black Blue Lives Matter hooded sweatshirt.

"I want to apologize," Tatum said, "to nobody! Don't you apologize to these cry babies!"

The crowd erupted.

At around 7:30 p.m., Tatum handed the microphone off to the main attraction. The fans inside Littlejohn rose to their feet and clapped. Lahren, wearing a festive blue dress, swaggered out to the stage.

"It's very weird to see you guys socially distant," Lahren said, gesturing to the audience. "I don't like it at all. I'm ready for the tyranny to end."

Lahren for about 16 minutes played all of her hits: She called BLM a "terrorist organization," railed against "cancel culture" and reminisced about former president Donald Trump, who was impeached for a second time by the U.S. House of Representatives for inciting the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

During the question and answer session, Lahren mocked protestors by referring to Tatum, who is Black, as a white supremacist. Tatum smiled, raised his fist, and responded, "white power."

More than anything, Lahren and the rest trumpeted a call to action: It was time to be proud conservatives. It was time to fight for free speech. It was time to fight back.

"We can stop this," she said, "if we band together."

Outside, as the sky turned black, all but four protestors gradually departed. Senior David Seagle and juniors Jainada Williams, Carese Brown and Chase Jackson wanted to send a message.

As the night wore on, they attracted visitors: Clemson Chief of Police Greg Mullen, Miller, and lastly, a white student named Isaac Manning.

Manning, who attended the event, was curious. What exactly did BLM want? Why had they burned down buildings? Looted stores?

Seagle, Williams, Brown and Jackson answered his questions. No signs were wielded and no insults were lobbed. From opposite sides of a steel barricade, as Lahren's fans began to filter out of Littlejohn, they had a discussion.

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.