In a speech to UNC students on campus this week that drew mild protests, former Vice President Mike Pence said American freedom is under attack and there’s a “pernicious woke agenda designed to control the American people and destroy the American dream.”
Pence spoke to more than 500 people inside Great Hall at the Carolina Student Union in a speech titled “Saving America from the Woke Left.” Pence’s speech, which was sponsored by the UNC College Republicans and the conservative group Young America’s Foundation, began shortly after 7 p.m. and was peppered with loud applause, cheers and occasional boos. Pence didn’t announce his candidacy for president, though it’s widely believed he’ll run against former President Donald Trump, with whom he served as vice president and who recently announced his re-election bid.
Pence proudly proclaimed he’s a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, and said he’s unapologetic about his faith and his stances on abortion, the woke left and the LGBTQ community.
In the past two years, Pence has visited several college campuses, including Stanford University, the University of Virginia and the University of Alabama, all sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation, which is based in Reston, Virginia, and says it aims to ensure young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise and traditional values, according to its website.
“With your generation in the lead, I know we will keep the torch of life and liberty burning bright for generations to come,” Pence said. Later, he added, “Participation in sports should be determined by one’s gender at birth.”
Pence did not directly mention Trump, who has accused Pence of betraying him by not overturning the 2020 election results, but said he’s proud of what the Trump administration accomplished. During his speech, a man who shouted “You betrayed Trump” and “Trump trusted you” was escorted from the venue.
Many college campuses are intolerant of conservatives and traditional views, Pence said, adding “freedom of speech is a God-given right of every American, and we will never let the woke left take that away.”
UNC Board of Trustees Chair Dave Boliek Jr. ’90 attended the speech and said he was proud of Carolina students for hosting and enabling civil discourse. “What I’m encouraged by is the fact that Republican leaders can come to Carolina and voice their opinion the same as Democrat leaders,” Boliek said, adding he thought the student protests against Pence were “fantastic.”
“Students should be able to voice their opinion, and that’s what civil discourse is all about,” Boliek said. “It’s about students. It’s about citizens. It’s about understanding that freedom of speech in this country is vital. I do agree 100 percent with Vice President Pence on that.”
Before Pence spoke, hundreds of people gathered in the Pit at a “This is The Woke Left Rally” sponsored by UNC Young Democrats and other campus and community organizations.
About three dozen students stood on the Pit steps holding signs with slogans including, “Books not bullets,” “Health care for all,” “Love is love,” “Black Lives Matter,” “No human is illegal” and “Drag is not a crime.”
“We’re here today because we’re rejecting Mike Pence on our campus,” said UNC Young Democrats Secretary Sloan Duvall. “We’re rejecting his radical, right-wing agenda that ignores and endangers the futures of countless Americans. And we’re rejecting the meaning behind the label he’s putting on us, ‘the woke left.’ ”Duvall asked whether it’s woke to want women to have rights, to want kids to feel safe in school, to think books shouldn’t be banned or for kids to say gay. “If it’s woke to care about these critical issues, then call us woke,” she said.
Duvall said UNC Young Democrats and its supporters are more interested in action than labels and what she termed divisive, dog whistle rhetoric. “Like so many MAGA Republicans, Mike Pence is anti-LBGTQ, anti-gun control and anti-choice,” she said. “Pence’s values don’t represent the students of Carolina and the vast majority of Americans. We’re inclusive. We’re looking to go forward, not back.”
UNC Young Democrats President T.J. White said the protest was much bigger than Pence. “If we want a sustained movement, … we must not only stand against right-wing extremism but [also] stand for genuine equality,” he said.
Garrett Powell, a UNC freshman from Wilmington who’s majoring in peace, war and defense, said “given UNC’s tendency to lean more left,” he thought it was helpful that Pence was invited to speak on campus.
“I’m just hoping that he’s going to give some words of encouragement to everyone,” Powell, a registered Republican, said while standing in line before the speech. “We’re divided as a nation and he has influence. I hope that he gives some words of encouragement to conservatives, liberals and everyone alike that we’re American first, before conservative, before liberal. We’re Americans. Let’s be united first.”
State Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton was in attendance and said for more than 200 years, UNC has stood as a beacon of a better South, and when people think of Carolina, they think of historic leaders like Bill Friday and Dean Smith. What UNC does best, she said, is educate young people and prepare them to become tomorrow’s leaders. “When we think of UNC, we think of progress and opportunity,” Clayton said. “We don’t think of Mike Pence. The former vice president is here tonight in hopes of running for president, and we’re here because his vision leaves out too many people.”
Duke University graduate Vanessa Real Williams of Raleigh attended Pence’s speech to “listen to what the previous administration had to say” and to understand “why Pence is still a thing.”
Afterward, she said his remarks could have been given by any white conservative.
“He hit all the points spouted by those against the ‘woke left,’ like claiming there’s a whole gender insanity poisoning our public discourse and that Critical Race Theory doesn’t belong in our schools while hypocritically touting his belief of doing unto others,” said Real Williams, who said she is a registered independent. “I found myself bored by his speech and don’t see how he can appeal to a younger demographic.”
— Laurie D. Willis ’86