At Rutgers New Brunswick, a Monumental Year in Campus Activism

Credits: Charles W. Kim File Photo

Editor’s note: This story is the second in a five-part series on the Rutgers Conservative Union. Through that lens, TAPinto New Brunswick intends to cover a historic year of on-campus activism at New Jersey’s flagship university. Read the first installation here.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — This past academic year—or two, depending on whom you ask—was one of Rutgers University’s most politically active.

The fervor began on June 16, 2015, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency. An escalator carried him down to the lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, where the longtime businessman and reality TV star blasted establishment politicians, vowed to revitalize the United States and decried some Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” It was the start of a campaign that ultimately upended conventional politics and won him the White House. Along the way, he gained many ardent supporters and detractors, a division that extended up the banks of the Raritan.

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In the run-up to the presidential primary elections, the campus came alive with fresh-faced political junkies, faculty members and students said.

Elizabeth Matto, a professor and the director of the Youth Political Participation Program at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute, felt that energy firsthand. “My colleagues and I were struck by the level of engagement among students—how much they were following the campaign, how closely they were following the primaries,” she said. “We were very impressed and thrilled to see them paying attention.”

Matto and her team hosted debate-night parties. Bernie Sanders, a self-described social Democrat, drew most of the attendees. But “strong” Trump backers showed up often and with enthusiasm, she said. For the most part, the students got along just fine. Invigorated by the turnout and civility, Matto organized more events and implored more students to vote.

When Trump secured the Republican nomination, it ignited a fire on both sides of the aisle—in greater numbers, at least, on the left. The flames burned from the start of classes in September through May. As liberals campaigned against Trump, a group of 15 to 20 right-wingers, which would eventually call itself the Rutgers Conservative Union, stumped for the dark-horse contender. 

Then he won the presidency. “After the election,” recalled Dylan Marek, the Conservative Union’s vice president and a freshman from North Brunswick, “it was a coming-of-age moment where we had to decide what we wanted to do. And we decided we wanted to continue to exist.”

At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric and policy ideas stirred minority groups and left-leaning activists at Rutgers.

“I am tired,” one woman shouted during a frigid anti-Trump rally, “and I am no longer going to try to prove myself to people who do not deserve to hear me.” Her cry elicited thunderous applause from the crowd. It also put groups like the Rutgers Conservative Union on notice: The left wasn’t about to tap out.

 Demonstrators came out in the hundreds for a pro-immigrant rally in November. A dozen or so students effectively shut down a Board of Governors meeting in December, demanding greater protections for undocumented students. Roughly 1,000 protesters marched in January through the city, in a rebuke of Trump’s temporary ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries. The anti-Trump left maintained its momentum throughout the spring, staging protests and sit-ins and lectures nearly every week. In May, activists held two rallies for Carimer Andujar, an undocumented student and activist who landed in the crosshairs of federal immigration authorities.

And so the Rutgers Conservative Union found its views validated on the national stage, but still shrugged off in New Brunswick. To them, that made their political efforts all the more important. Each left-wing protest demanded a counter-protest, each left-wing tabling event a counter-tabling event and each left-wing talking point a counterpoint. “There aren’t as many right-wing groups on campus, and we wanted to give some opposition to the left,” the club’s president, Nick Knight, said. “Just so everybody knows that we’re here.” 

Meanwhile, in Old Queens, Rutgers’ administrators were doing the same. Felicia McGinty, vice chancellor for student affairs, told TAPinto New Brunswick that her staff coordinated with activists of all ideologies to make their voices heard on campus. The political electricity that consumed the school provided learning opportunities outside the classroom, she said. 

But by helping students mobilize, McGinty also figured she could steer them away from poisonous influences. For the Rutgers Conservative Union, that meant white supremacists. For fringe left-wing groups, that meant anarchist sects geared toward violence. “White-nationalist groups are targeting college campuses,” she said. “We want our students to know that they have a voice, and this is their university. They don’t have to affiliate elsewhere.”

In the spring, the university recognized the Conservative Union as an official club. Its leaders were eager to walk through any door they could to reach more students, and a monumental year in Rutgers activism had already opened quite a few.

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