College Republicans club hosts PragerU speaker, College Democrats club protests


Mohammed Islam

Amala Ekpunobi, guest speaker at the College Republicans club’s event this past Thursday, Oct. 21. Ekpunobi is a personality for PragerU, a conservative nonprofit that uploads content on various political and social topics, among other things. The event was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., Ekpunobi’s speech beginning a bit afterwards and not ending until after 9 p.m. due to many participants in the post-speech Q&A. The College Democrats club at Winona State University held a silent protest outside of Somsen Hall, where the speaker event was held, while also collecting food to donate to the Warrior Cupboard on campus.

McKenna Scherer, Editor-in-Chief

The College Republicans club hosted 21-year-old PragerU personality Amala Ekpunobi for a speaker event in Somsen Hall this past Thursday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. However, near the front steps of Somsen, the College Democrats club held a protest and food drive in opposition.

Although short for ‘Prager University,’ PragerU is not a school, but a 501 non-profit organization that creates free content on varied topics from a conservative lens. Ekpunobi hosts a show on PragerU’s website called Will and Amala LIVE, which describes itself as “a live and interactive daily break- down of news, culture and politics with PragerU personalities Will Witt and Amala Ekpunobi.”

Ekpunobi may be better known via her social medias, specifically her TikTok, where she has more than 540,000 followers and has garnered more than 5.5 million likes. She has already made videos and posts on her social medias about the Winona State University event and the protest.

President of the College Republicans club, Isaac Aldrich, said he was approached this past summer by a donor of the university to bring a PragerU speaker to campus.

“I got a call from a large donor to the school and he said, ‘Isaac, I want to bring you a speaker to the school. I think it could be really good for your club and raise some awareness about some topics that are going on.’ So, I said, ‘Okay, I know who this person is [and] I know who this organization is; I think it would be a valid thing to have some discourse and have them come.”

Although the donor wished to remain unnamed, the event was “fully put on by him, but through the College Republicans,” according to Aldrich.

College Republicans Vice President, Madeline Hoppenrath, said the club mainly wanted the event to make space for civil discourse.

“We just want you to come and at least learn more even if you don’t agree because that’s kind of the whole point of civil discourse,” Hoppenrath said.

The event featuring Ekpunobi was advertised across campus and on social media by the College Republicans, which is how the College Democrats club caught wind of it.

President of the College Democrats, Eric Schultz, said he first heard of the speaker event during a club fair this fall. Schultz then brought up the event in a club meeting where they discussed wanting to take action in opposition of it.

“[Club members] made it clear they wanted to do something. We didn’t know what it was at first, so there were talks of just doing another event at the same time,” Schultz said. “A lot of us didn’t want to do a protest; I was one of those people.”

Schultz said he and members of the College Democrats wanted to limit the risk of any violence or aggression occurring at a protest, so they decided to make the event a silent protest as well as a food drive for the Warrior Cupboard on campus.

“We ended up deciding a silent protest with a food drive would be the most beneficial,” Schultz said. “People can voice their opinions in a way to make it clear that we don’t want any organization that we believe spreads hate or misinformation. We want to allow students to raise their voice, but we don’t want any violence or aggression in any way.”

While both campus clubs expressed wanting the coinciding events to remain as peaceful as possible with no ill wishes towards the other, many student protestors at the event expressed surprise over the amount of security at the event. Aldrich, however, was aware of some potential actions which could have been taken by the police and security members.

“I was talking with our advisor today [and] if someone were to spit on us or violate us personally, they would be arrested, so we just ask that [protestors] are respectful,” Aldrich said.

There were several Winona Police Department officers inside the auditorium where the speaker event was held, their cars parked around Somsen, as well as assisting Winona State security members.

Director of Student Conduct, Alex Kromminga, said he did not know any details about the Winona PD being at the two events, but did express the importance of freedom of speech, even if some language makes people uncomfortable.

“I am here to make sure that students can do what they want and now, it’s becoming an idea of, how do I get students to recognize that the rights I allow for you as [an administrator for the] university, I have to allow for other groups. That’s sometimes where the struggle comes out,” Kromminga said. “Even the idea of unpleasant speech is still protected and that’s the difficult part.”

Kromminga also said the biggest change he’s seen in his 20 years of working in student conduct is the seemingly instantaneous passing of information via social media among students and how, at Winona State, more tension seems to be forming “student-group-to-student- group” rather than student-to-administration.

“My concern is that when we start pressuring or we start doing things like [not allowing certain guests/events/language], I don’t want to see a chilling effect where people feel like they can’t express themselves at all,” Kromminga said.

The College Democrats, alongside other students, began their silent protest at 6 p.m., requiring face masks per university guidelines for club events, with dozens of students joining. The club ended up filling an entire bin of food for donation to the Warrior Cupboard by the end of the night, the Cupboard calling it an “extraordinary donation” in an email. The email also stated the food pantry’s shelves were better stocked and an amount of the donation was put into reserve.

College Democrats club President, Eric Schultz, said, “We want to allow students to raise their voice, but we don’t want any violence or aggression in any way” in regard to why the club chose to do a silent protest against a PragerU speaker event on Oct. 21.
College Democrats club President, Eric Schultz, said, “We want to allow students to raise their voice, but we don’t want any violence or aggression in any way” in regard to why the club chose to do a silent protest against a PragerU speaker event on Oct. 21. (McKenna Scherer)

As fall has wrapped around Winona, the day of the coinciding events sat at a cool 50 degrees, the dozens of student protestors donned heavy jackets and hats alongside their homemade signs with various statements. Statements included, “Hate has no place at WSU”; “Climate change is real”; “Women’s rights = human rights”; “Black Lives Matter” and more.

Schultz said his main hope for the event was to give students the space to voice their opposition in a safe way and to educate others.

“I think that allowing students to share their views is really important in my role. As you can tell by looking at me… I’m a white, cisgender male, but I have lots of members of my club and lots of friends who can’t say the same. As much as I can empathize, I will never fully understand how it feels to be in their shoes, so I just hope that I’m doing enough… and when they turn out at the protest, they’ll feel better,” Schultz said.

Ekpunobi did come out of Somsen before 7 p.m. and approached the student protestors, initially recording them with a phone and then putting it away before speaking with Schultz. Ekpunobi, as well as members of the College Republicans, also donated food to the College Democrats’ food drive.

There was some confusion surrounding both clubs’ involvement with the food drive as the College Republicans’ Instagram account announced the club was “partnering” with the College Democrats on the food drive. However, both Schultz and Aldrich clarified it was not a collaboration, but both were simply hoping for a good turnout to make a plentiful donation to the Warrior Cupboard.

Schultz also explained how the College Democrats’ silent protest was more so in opposition to PragerU rather than Epkunobi.

“I definitely don’t agree with a lot of [Ekpunobi’s opinions], but PragerU as an organization, I don’t like their mission. I don’t agree with the stuff they spread and it can be very hurtful to certain students, especially those marginalized communities,” Schultz said.

Student protestors outside of Somsen Hall on Oct. 21, protesting the PragerU speaker event.
Student protestors outside of Somsen Hall on Oct. 21, protesting the PragerU speaker event. (McKenna Scherer)

The speaker event began shortly after 7 p.m, Aldrich introducing Ekpunobi on stage and sharing a brief look into Ekpunobi’s background.

“Raised in a far-left activist household, Amala Ekpunobi began a career in leftist organizing until unanswered questions led her to a complete ideological transformation. Upon passionately speaking out as a conservative, she became a viral social media sensation and amassed millions of views…,” Aldrich said.

Ekpunobi, originally from Florida, began her speech by addressing the student protest outside. She said nothing about the “left” surprised her anymore and that it was especially interesting for her to see since she used to be a leftist organizer herself before becoming a conservative.

“I’m no political expert, but I’m observant and I think a lot of us are here because we see what’s happening in the world right now and a lot of it is very, very crazy and we’re looking for answers,” Ekpunobi said in the initial minutes of her speech. “We’re looking for what to do and we’re looking for civil discourse–something that seems to not be so common in America anymore.”

Ekpunobi shared her personal background of being raised in a single-parent household after her parents got divorced when she was six years old. She grew up with two siblings and her mother, who was and is an active leftist activist, she said.

“My mother was a fantastic mother. Her politics? Not so great,” Ekpunobi said. “Growing up in a left-leaning household, I was extremely cognizant of my race and gender; that seems to be all the language these days.”

Ekpunobi described one of her earliest memories in relation to politics, which was when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, when she was eight years old. She said she remembers her mother sitting in front of their television crying, emotional over the news of the United States’ first Black president.

“I remember thinking, ‘wow, my mom’s crying that a Black man is president. This must be really, really important that he’s Black,’” Ekpunobi said.

She described being told as a child that being part Black would make things like getting jobs and scholarships for school harder and that “police were after [her] on a day-to-day basis and [she] always had to be cognizant of that.” Ekpunobi said it created a sense of victimhood for herself, as well as a deep hatred towards certain ideologies and institutions of power, which she believes “the left” instills in its supporters.

Ekpunobi described how she grew up in middle and high school having spoken often and passionately about politics in school as a leftist, organizing student protests and talking about “being pro choice” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” during speech class.

“Anybody who came against me with a dissident opinion, I was right in their face,” Ekpunobi said. “I was screaming at them, ‘how dare you?’, ‘you’re a racist,’ ‘you’re a bigot,’ ‘you’re a fascist’; the language that now gets thrown at me,” Ekpunobi said.

After graduating high school, Ekpunobi was still involved in and working for liberal organizations. However, she recounted three “strikes” which led to her ideological shift.

Inside of the Harriet Johnson auditorium where Ekpunobi's speech took place on Oct. 21.
Inside of the Harriet Johnson auditorium where Ekpunobi’s speech took place on Oct. 21. (McKenna Scherer)

Strike one, she said, came during a liberal organization’s meeting she was part of at the time, when they asked white people at the meeting not to speak so marginalized members could.

“The leader said she wanted to give space to, ‘the most oppressed people in the room… and by oppressed, I mean Black, I mean brown, I mean gay, I mean trans.’ And again, that was fine, that was the ideology I subscripted to. She finished by saying, ‘to all the white, cisgender, heterosexual people in this room, don’t talk at all. You’ve had the stage for long enough and you’re done in this conversation.’”

Ekpunobi did not agree with this and recounted viewing that moment as “strike one.”

She said “strike two” occurred after she was pulled over by a policeman who did not ticket her, although she had been speeding a bit. She described how her body had begun shaking when she was first pulled over, keeping her hands at 10-and-2 on the wheel and finding her worries unfounded. She described how the policeman assured her he was not there to hurt her, although she had been told growing up, officers treated Black people harsher, she said.

“Strike three” came while she was working for a liberal organization during the time where the news of sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh broke out and her boss deemed Kavanaugh guilty “immediately.”

“In the court of public opinion, he was guilty immediately,” Ekpunobi said. “[My boss] looked me dead in the face and said, ‘Well, he’s a white frat-boy type. He did it. He should hang.”

This third “strike” caused Ekpunobi to leave the organization in the winter of 2018, thus marking the beginning of her conservative ideology switch. She began researching on the internet, where she first came across PragerU. It wouldn’t be until a video of Ekpunobi denouncing white privilege got notable attention on the social media app TikTok that she would get the opportunity to work for PragerU.

Ekpunobi also discussed her views that mainstream media is controlled mostly by leftist media organizations while the right only has FOX; social medias like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram being leftist; schools pushing for CRT (Critical Race Theory) and diversity, equity and inclusion teachings; “Big pharma” and the American Medical Association being “more concerned about police brutality in America than they are about diabetes, cancer, even COVID-19”; COVID-19 being “a really great excuse to take advantage of people’s freedoms and liberties”; the gender wage gap not being a reality in the U.S.; Marxism having a hold in America.

Student protestors outside of Somsen Hall on Oct. 21, protesting the PragerU speaker event.
Student protestors outside of Somsen Hall on Oct. 21, protesting the PragerU speaker event. (McKenna Scherer)

Near the end of her speech, Ekpunobi said she believes conservatives and those with right-leaning political views were the counterculture, as opposed to liberals and “the left.”

“Everybody [on “the left”] will look at you and go, ‘Well, I know this feels like chaos; I know it looks crazy that you can’t say this certain word anymore; I know it sounds crazy that you don’t know what a man or a woman is anymore; I know it sounds crazy that we’ve alienated [and] stratified everybody based on race, that we’ve created a racially Marxist country; I know it looks like chaos, but it’s normal. I promise you it’s normal,’” Ekpunobi said.

“In my personal opinion, I was very surprised that the university was allowing them to come; I was kind of sickened,” Schultz said. “But then I realized, anyone can argue that something’s hate speech and I don’t think censorship is necessarily the answer. I just believe that our protests will hopefully tell students these events can go on, just don’t go and eventually they will stop.”

Dr. Jonathan Locust, associate vice president of the equity and inclusive excellence office, also did not agree in censorship in this case.

“I’m not opposed to this speaker coming. Now, do I agree [with PragerU and Ekpunobi’s views]? Absolutely not, but I’m not opposed to it.”

Locust went on to describe personal experiences in which he heard out other individuals with opposing views to his own and having positive experiences come out of it, which he hoped would be the case with Oct. 21’s coinciding events.

The speaker event, which began a few minutes late, went well past 9 p.m. with a Q&A session at the end of Epkunobi’s speech. Some student protestors remained outside until this time as well, bundling in blankets outside of Somsen.

Epkunobi’s speech was well attended by community members, with about half of the 480 free seats/tickets being reserved, according to Aldrich. Vice President of Student Life, Denise McDowell, was reportedly seen at the event among other administrative leaders.

McDowell said she connected with others on campus to monitor and ensure “campus protocol was followed and enforced,” although many attendees of the indoor club event were maskless.

This was a concern Schultz had expressed in the week leading up to the events, but it is unclear if action can or will be taken to address the lack of masks worn at the speaker event.

At half capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions, the College Republicans Oct. 21 event was held in the Harriet Johnson Auditorium in Somsen Hall. With 480 seats available, President of the College Republicans, Isaac Aldrich, said roughyl half of the 480 seats had been reserved. A mix of Winona community members and university members attended.
At half capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions, the College Republicans Oct. 21 event was held in the Harriet Johnson Auditorium in Somsen Hall. With 480 seats available, President of the College Republicans, Isaac Aldrich, said roughyl half of the 480 seats had been reserved. A mix of Winona community members and university members attended. (Mohammed Islam)