The Hero Student Journalist Who Asked Richard Spencer About Getting Punched

We talked to Eman Elshahawy, a self-proclaimed "beautiful brown woman" who confronted the white nationalist during his speech at the University of Florida on Thursday.

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Oct 20 2017, 7:35pm

On Thursday, white supremacist Richard Spencer was allowed to give a speech at the University of Florida in Gainsville. The school's students made it clear that they had no interest in hearing his toxic ideology; chants of "Say it loud! Say it clear! Nazis are not welcome here!" greeted Spencer when he took the stage, according to USA Today. Counter-protesters who attended the event overwhelmingly outnumbered Spencer's supporters.

One student, Eman Elshahawy, attended the event to cover it for The Tab (US). The resulting article, which has the headline "We just asked white supremacist Richard Spencer how much it hurt to get punched in the face," pretty much sums up how the rest of the night went for Spencer.

When Spencer took questions from the audience, Elshahawy got on the microphone. "I'm Eman. My ethnicity is Egyptian and Puerto Rican. I am a beautiful brown woman here today," she said, to raucous applause from her peers. "My question for you is how did it feel to get punched in the face on camera?"

Read more: Doxxing White Supremacists Is Making Them Terrified

"It hurt," Spencer responded. "It hurts when someone punches you in the face."

Because we obviously needed to know more about this beautiful brown woman who made a neo-Nazi relive the moment a fist met his jaw, Broadly talked to Elshahawy, a 20-year-old, third-year journalism and political science major at UF, over the phone about her encounter with Spencer.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

BROADLY: Why did you want to attend Richard Spencer's speech?
Eman Elshahawy: We had been receiving a lot of emails about the event from the Deans's offices. Specifically, my Dean from the College of Journalism; she encouraged us to be safe but emphasized that this is a newsworthy event. The president of our school made it known that he was against anyone showing up to [hear Richard Spencer speak], but my Dean suggested it could be a learning experience for good journalism.

How did you feel about a white supremacist coming to speak at your school?
I felt uncomfortable going to the event because of my skin color. I also didn't know how many people would be on his side there. The ambiguity going into it, in terms of what could happen, made me feel unsafe. But I felt really protected by the amount of security. The school spent $500,000 on security.

When did you decide that you were going to ask Spencer about getting punched in the face?
I didn't plan to ask any questions. I was just there to cover the event, generally.

During Richard Spencer's speech, he really didn't get to speak at all. The audience was just chanting and didn't give him a chance to say anything. I feel like he thought opening up the Q&A early would give him a chance to speak. But the first question was, "Why are you still here?"

The audience collectively wanted to deter him from actually getting his ideas across. So when my editor at The Tab realized that—she was watching it live—she encouraged me to ask a question that would deter him from putting out words of hate.

Read more: How to Fight the Resurgence of Neo-Nazism in the Age of the Internet

How did he react to your question?
He was a lot more calm than I expected. He actually answered the question [laughs]. But then he did say, "Why would you ask me that? Are you saying that you condone violence?" He kind of went on about that, then he said he didn't want any more questions.

That's hilarious. I'm glad you got to make his day a little bit worse and were able to keep him from talking. Do you feel like journalists have a responsibility to be antagonistic toward white supremacist figures?
In traditional journalism they tell you not to be biased. But I would say for my journalistic integrity, I try to remain unbiased except when it comes to matters of civil rights and justice. That's where I draw the line. You have to pick a side when it comes to civil rights and justice. Not picking a side is picking a side, in my opinion.

I also love that you stood up in front of a white supremacist and said, "I am a beautiful brown woman here today" before you asked your question. Can you talk about why you thought it was important to say that?
When I said this, Spencer's supporters who were in the audience all turned their heads. I'm brown, but I'm still beautiful. I wanted to make that clear. They didn't deny it, so…