WEST PALM BEACH—Protesters gathered Tuesday outside a conservative student organization's annual conference accused event organizers and featured speakers of filling impressionable young minds with white supremacist ideology, and "programming" attendees to be the "next generation of patriarchy."
These charges came from some of the approximately 30 protesters who turned up with a sign reading, "Hey Nazis, Leave those kids alone," outside the West Palm Beach, Fla., convention center where the Turning Point USA (TPUSA) Student Action Summit is being held this week. The demonstrators were met by about 60 counter protesters from TPUSA.
Alex Newell Taylor, a co-organizer of the protest and captain of the local Women's March chapter, said, "Our mission is to stand up for people in our society who are marginalized, who have their power taken away by institutional racism and institutional oppression. It is my responsibility to be out here, to say that some of the presenters at this conference are pushing an agenda that has been hateful, and divisive, and dangerous toward people in this country who are not the majority."
Taylor named the top white supremacist offenders at TPUSA as Steve Bannon, who did not attend the conference, and Tomi Lahren, a Fox News commentator scheduled to speak Thursday.
"I wouldn't call anyone a white supremacist who doesn't call themselves that," Taylor added.
Many protesters called out Dinesh D'Souza, an Indian-American conservative commentator who has been criticized by the political left and right who spoke at the opening ceremony Tuesday night, as an example of TPUSA racist speakers. D'Souza quotes seeming to offer defenses of slavery were posted ahead of the event on the demonstration's Facebook page.
Ryan Hartman, another protest organizer, said the African Americans, Hispanics, and members of religious minorities attending the conference were letting themselves be used as mascots of racial diversity.
"In the concentration camps, there were Jews who collaborated and worked with the Nazis," he said. "That's tokenism."
When counter-protesters chanted, "all lives matter," Hartman called the line "overtly racist."
"Of course all lives matter—that doesn't need to be said. But the people in power in politics, in corporations are white, and it's black people who are being systematically oppressed" Hartman said. "It's like if there's a burning house down the street, and when the firetruck rushes to put it out, people in the houses nearby that are not on fire say, ‘Hey, our houses matter, too.' Yes, but they aren't the ones who need the help."
Elements of the TPUSA crowd yelled "fag" and waved a "Kekistan" flag, a symbol of the alt-right. Many wore pro-Trump paraphernalia, including "Make America Great Again" hats sold at the conference.
A woman affiliated with one of TPUSA's sponsors, who was not authorized to speak with the media, was dismayed by such behavior and language by conference attendees, calling it "nationalist shit."
She encouraged the TPUSA students to stay behind the police tape and tried to referee between the two sides when tensions rose as counter-protesters pressed forward.
A few conference attendees "trolled" the protesters, mimicking their chants and dress. Kassy Dillon, the pro-Trump co-founder of a student group called Lone Conservatives, joined the demonstration dressed in a shirt reading, "Empower Women," adding in pen on her exposed stomach, "Love Trumps Hate." She celebrated her antics as "infiltrating a liberal protest."
One TPUSA student brought popcorn to observe the protest.
Still, for some, the incident turned into an unexpected opportunity for dialogue. Throughout the evening, ever growing numbers of TPUSA students crossed the police tape and quietly began conversations with protesters.
As demonstrators stood behind signs reading, "We are the spark that'll light the fire that'll burn the first order down," and "F&ck White Supremacy," students grilled them on the meaning of buzzwords like patriarchy and racism.
A group of libertarian TPUSA students debating with a long-haired protester found they shared many of the same views on social issues, including gay marriage and marijuana legalization.
Mateo Haydar, a TPUSA attendee from the University of Florida, said he found it challenging to get straight answers from either side.
"When you ask a direct or challenging question, people shut down and say, ‘Are you with me? Are you against me?'" he said.
Approximately 2,500 students, some as young as 15, are in attendance for the TPUSA conference, a four-day affair of conservative activist training.