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Kent State students turn out to protest Kyle Rittenhouse's campus visit

Kent state rittenhouse protest
Des Torres
Ideastream Public Media
Students gathered for a press conference, April 16, 2024, to condemn Kyle Rittenhouse's visit to campus. Rittenhouse shot and killed two protesters, and injured another at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020, but was found not guilty of charges including homicide.

Students demonstrated throughout the day Tuesday at Kent State University condemning an appearance by Kyle Rittenhouse, culminating in a protest outside the student center involving roughly 200 people who booed those attending the talk.

Rittenhouse shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020. A third person was wounded. At his 2021 trial, Rittenhouse claimed self-defense and was acquitted of all charges. Rittenhouse has been lionized by some conservatives and Second Amendment advocates for his actions, many who turned out for his speech, filling the rows of the auditorium. The Kent State chapter of Turning Point USA had invited Rittenhouse to campus to speak. Turning Point USA is a youth-focused nonprofit that supports conservative candidates and causes.

Rittenhouse argued in his remarks that he came to Kenosha to offer aid and was not looking for a fight, recounting his view of what happened during the protest, including when he was hit in the head with a skateboard, and chased by protesters.

"Thank God I'm still alive and here to share my story. Because they really wanted to kill me. And it makes a lot of these leftists upset that I'm coming to these universities to share my story. And all I can say to them is 'cope harder,'" he said, to cheers in the audience.

Kyle Rittenhouse speaking at Kent State University's Kiva Auditorium, April 16, 2024.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Kyle Rittenhouse speaking at Kent State University's Kiva Auditorium, April 16, 2024.

Julian Grimes, president of the Black Student Union, said students with his group silently protested during the event.

"We all put our headphones in, put our phones out, showed them that we were not paying attention," he said.

One member of the union asked Rittenhouse why he went to Kenosha in the first place, "riling people up" while carrying an assault rifle during a Black Lives Matter rally.

"What about all of BLM (Black Lives Matter) that was there with rifles? And yes, they were," Rittenhouse responded. "What about my right to defend myself? What about me providing first aid?"

The university in a statement said kindness, respect and freedom of speech are its "core values" when asked about protesters concerns with Rittenhouse's presence on campus.

"We cannot ban speech because it would go against a core value and because of well-established laws governing free speech on public university campuses," said spokesperson Emily Vincent. "Upholding the First Amendment rights of free speech and peaceful assembly for all, the university has a long history of allowing peaceful dialogue from all points of view, including those whom some may feel are offering different and/or sometimes controversial opinions. Consistent with our core values, we encourage open dialogue and respectful civil discourse in an inclusive environment. "

Rittenhouse during his speech called for the Ohio Legislature to implement "campus carry" laws, to allow concealed carry on college campuses. Currently, Ohio law prohibits concealed carry of guns on campuses, and in university buildings, but people can openly carry firearms in public areas.

"What happens if these Hamas Palestinian terrorists come to the U.S. and try to attack us?" he said. "Are we supposed to be left defenseless?"

Pat Millhoff, who went to Kent State and was present during the May 4, 1970 shooting of protesters by the National Guard, said she wasn't happy about Rittenhouse being brought to campus.

"So it's just appalling to me that they would bring this particular speaker to campus so close to May 4th," she said. "I just think it's glorifying him. So I agree with free speech, but I'm just not sure this was the appropriate time and place to have this young man here."

Bob Frantz, a host on WHK radio in Cleveland, commended Rittenhouse for speaking out about what happened to him in the question and answer portion of the event.

"You showed up with a scrub brush to clean graffiti off of a building that was being vandalized," Frantz said. "You showed up with a medical kit because you're a trained lifeguard. You were giving first aid to people, and yet you have been called a white supremacist who was there to kill people at a BLM rally."

A group of campus student organizations hosted a press conference before Rittenhouse's speech Tuesday afternoon and organized a "teach-in" to take place around the same time as his speech. The group condemned Rittenhouse and his connection to far-right movements in a press release issued before he spoke.

"Kyle Rittenhouse's presence as a guest speaker not only disrespects the legacy of bloodshed endured by protesters on Kent State's campus but also embodies a deeply disturbing ideology of white supremacism, which students across Ohio find intolerable and a threat to our safety," the student groups wrote in a press release. "The events of May 4th, when the National Guard callously took the lives of four student protesters and left nine others wounded, continue to cast a long shadow over the collective."

Paul Prediger, formerly known as Gaige Grosskreutz, a protester shot and injured by Rittenhouse during the protest in Wisconsin, was invited to Kent State to speak by the student organizations. Prediger testified at Rittenhouse's trial that he had pulled a gun on Rittenhouse at the event but argued that he did so to defend himself against Rittenhouse.

"He has used every moment to gloat and make light of taking life," Prediger said during the press conference. "As if that weren't enough, Kyle has embraced — and been embraced by — those who peddle hateful rhetoric, who believe in nationalism that excludes those who do not look like or think like them, and who have sought to amplify a troubling desire for violence against supposed political, cultural and religious enemies."

Prediger has filed a civil lawsuit against Rittenhouse; Rittenhouse during his speech said he's filed a countersuit against him.

Michelle Stanley, president of IGNITE, a student organization that focuses on empowering women and non-binary students, said she was "tired" of not feeling safe on campus, arguing Black students deal with racism regularly. She said Rittenhouse's visit makes students like her feel less safe.

"We have a touring murderer spewing offensive rhetoric, and we can't do anything about it because it's not against policy," she said. "Shouldn't student safety be policy? Students already aren't feeling safe, and we explained this to our university."

Rittenhouse is profiting off the deaths of two people, arguing Rittenhouse-endorsed body armor is being sold and a turkey hunting video game is being developed featuring his likeness, said Yaseen Shaikh, president of the Kent State Students for Justice for Palestine chapter, which helped organize the press conference. He also took the campus Turning Point USA chapter to task.

"Are you so lacking in moral leadership that you feel the need to bring Rittenhouse to Kent State? To advocate for gun rights? Which you're welcome to do, as per your right to free speech, but is there no other option for you to choose, except for a teenager who became famous for killing two people?" Shaikh said.

Updated: April 16, 2024 at 9:42 PM EDT
This story has been updated with quotes from Rittenhouse, protesters and attendees of his speech Tuesday night.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.
Des Torres is an intern at Ideastream Public Media.