A protestor walks past a smoke bomb outside of the O’Hara Student Center on Tuesday evening during the second of two protests against a debate featuring Michael Knowles on campus. (Amaya Lobato | Staff Photographer)
A protestor walks past a smoke bomb outside of the O’Hara Student Center on Tuesday evening during the second of two protests against a debate featuring Michael Knowles on campus.

Amaya Lobato | Staff Photographer

Protesters criticize ‘dangerous’ rhetoric at Knowles, Polumbo debate

April 19, 2023

Standing in a haze of smoke as their fellow protesters chanted behind them, Luciana Gaige Swogger said they felt more than just anger. 

“I’m angry because I want change, and that is justified,” Swogger said. “But at the same time, I feel so much love from the community around me, from the friends that I traveled with today, and I mean, this is a protest, but you can hear the music in it.” 

More than 250 people protested on O’Hara Street Tuesday evening outside the O’Hara Student Center, where Michael Knowles debated Brad Polumbo on the question, “Should transgenderism be regulated by law?” The debate was the third in a series of “anti-trans” events on Pitt’s campus, including appearances by Riley Gaines and Cabot Phillips

In a speech at Conservative Political Action Conference in March, Knowles called for “transgenderism” to be “eradicated from public life entirely.”

Students called on the University to cancel the events, which it declined to do on free speech grounds, despite calling the events “toxic and hurtful for many people in our University community” in a media statement in March. 

Pitt police sent out an emergency notification service message around 7:30 p.m. alerting the campus community about a “public safety emergency” in the vicinity of the protest. The University restricted access to several campus buildings and all residence halls during the public safety emergency, which was resolved by about 10:20 p.m.

Police sent the alert after smoke bombs, as well as a combination of a firework and smoke bomb, were set off on O’Hara Street, causing a loud explosive noise. Protesters also burned an effigy of Knowles in the street. 

University spokesperson Jared Stonesifer said police officers temporarily detained multiple individuals in response to the “incendiary device” used at the protest, but did not make any arrests and an investigation is ongoing. Medics evaluated three police officers but did not transport them from the scene, Stonesifer said. 

Sofia King, a senior microbiology major, said she felt “frustrated and sad” about Knowles’ “transgenderism” comment at CPAC and his appearance on Pitt’s campus.

“I think it’s super screwed up that we’re letting people spread really dangerous information about, like, eradicating ‘transgenderism,’ or whatever they’re saying,” she said.

State legislators have introduced almost 500 “anti-trans” bills in 49 state governments in 2023, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker. These bills include legislation that would limit trans people’s access to healthcare, education and legal recognition. Point Park student and protester Nik Tymczyszyn said this legislation is a step back in LGBTQ+ rights. 

“It’s really scary to see everything devolving into this when in 2013, LGBTQ marriage was legalized and stuff like that, and ever since then, we’ve been taking steps behind, and it’s really, really depressing to see,” Tymczyszyn said. 

Beyond protesting the debate between Knowles and Polumbo, demonstrators also called for Pitt to provide marginalized students with more and better mental health resources. 

“I want to see them implement, like, actual mental health resources to support these students and not just being wishy-washy about people who are saying dangerous things on the campus. I want to see them actually take a stand to support their students,” King said. 

Earlier in the day, nonprofit group TransYOUniting hosted a separate protest on Forbes Avenue. Protesters blocked the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard for more than an hour and a half. TransYOUniting organized a similar protest in response to Gaines’ appearance on campus in late March. 

A YouTube “street evangelist” and counter-protester — who goes by “WHAT HE DO?” on YouTube and declined to share his real name — repeatedly attempted to interrupt the protest. He said protesters needed to “repent” and “don’t stay in your sin.” To drown him out, protesters chanted phrases including “Trans lives matter,” “Whose streets? Our streets” and “Trans rights are human rights.” They also held up pride flags and walked around the counter-protester to limit his mobility in the street. Eventually, he was escorted out by police. 

Dena Stanley, TransYOUniting’s executive director and founder, said the counter-protester represented the discrimination trans people face across the country. She said he didn’t realize how “dangerous” his actions were. 

“It’s disgusting,” Stanley said. “People like this, they’re only doing this for the views. It shouldn’t be happening. And we’re fighting for our lives.”

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