FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Protests around a conservative speaker at Colorado State University on Friday night started peacefully, but quickly turned violent when a group wielding riot shields, large flashlights and face masks emblazoned with skulls stormed a dwindling crowd while chanting a Nazi slogan.
Campus police, who were wearing helmets with riot masks throughout the event, shut down the clash and drove the groups off. Members of the Larimer County Sheriff's Office later showed up wearing tactical gear.
Protesters were drawn to campus because of a speech by conservative activist Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, which says on its website is devoted to the promotion of the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government.
Protests prior to and during the speech were orderly. The violence broke out while the event was concluding inside the Lory Student Center.
Emeshe Amade, a CSU student, said at first she thought the group chanting the slogans were police breaking up the argument because of how equipped they were. Members of campus socialist groups and self-described anti-fascists were arguing with others at the protest about politics when about a dozen members of the third group stormed.
Protesters gather during conservative speaker visit to campus
CSU police's Chief Scott Harris issued a dispersal order due to "a risk of an imminent threat of potential violence" following the speech, CSU spokeswoman Dell Ray Ciaravola said. "A group was moving into the area and was confirmed to be armed with bats, shields and gas masks." She said fewer than 200 people were on the plaza at that time.
Amade and two friends who also witnessed it believe members of the Traditionalist Worker Party — which CSU President Tony Frank described as a Nazi group in an email to the campus Thursday — were the ones who stormed in. Traditionalist Worker Party supporters left anti-immigration fliers around campus earlier in the week.
Amade and her friends said they saw one of the anti-fascist members, or antifa, charge at the other group and get slammed on the back of the head with a heavy flashlight. One person clubbed an attacker in the knee with a cane.
CSU police could not confirm immediately that it was the Traditionalist Worker Party that was involved. No arrests had been made as of a 10:45 p.m. update from the university.
Frank issued a statement after the violence, thanking police and emphasizing the university's priority of safety and protecting the right to peacefully protest.
"In a crowd this size, where emotions are running high and various groups arrive with a goal of violence to spread their fear, it's sad but not unexpected to have some level of conflict, but we had a solid security plan in place and it worked well to minimize any violence," Frank said in the statement.
"Our paramount concern from the beginning was to ensure that the student event could take place as planned and that those who wanted to exercise their right to peaceful protest could also do so.
Kirk started his speech by distancing himself from ethno-nationalists.
"That BS they're trying to say out there, it's not who we are, it's not what we believe, it's not what Turning Point believes," Kirk said.
"It's very funny, they say, 'Oh Charlie, you must be an ethno-nationalist because these four people with no lives show up outside your event. First of all, that's a bunch a nonsense. Second of all, I don't remember anyone saying that when all the communists show up to the Democrat events."
But Haley Dallas, a CSU student who wore T-shirt that said "White supremacy is terrorism," on it, suggested some soul searching, even as she supported the right for speech. The Traditional Worker Party describes itself as a socialist organization, and Kirk's event was titled "Smashing Socialism," she noted.
"I just wonder what the draw is," she said. "If they're advocating for socialism and he's not, then there must be something that attracts them to Mr. Kirk."
Early in a question-and-answer session, Kirk called the concept of white privilege inherently racist because it foisted prejudice based on skin color. People advancing the theory of white privilege usually characterize it as white people not understanding inherent advantages they have in a society where white people are the dominant demographic.
Kirk cited Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, where King advocates for a society of people judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
"They're trying to discredit good ideas and good arguments, just because you're white," Kirk said. "And that's ridiculous."
Unrelated to the clash, a CSU police officer was injured in a one-vehicle ATV crash on campus away from the protest area, near the Oval, after the crowd was moved off campus, Ciaravola said. The ATV hit a patch of ice and tipped to its side. The officer was transported to the hospital for evaluation, and the injury was not life threatening, she said.