A state senator clashed with three students over their presentation on the threat of concealed firearms to young African-American men, and threatened to cut off funding for their professor, witnesses say.
Two of the presenters and a facilitator of the event said Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R, SD-6, Cheyenne) engaged in an “aggressive” and “intimidating” manner with the three students giving the presentation. Witnesses contend the senator used his legislative position to threaten their professor’s position. During the last legislative session, Bouchard co-sponsored failed legislation to allow concealed carry on college campuses.
“I feel we do deserve an apology,” said Tyrell Proby, one of the presenters who was upset with Bouchard’s tone and his subsequent posting of their names on Facebook.
Another student, Desmin Lewis, said Bouchard told them he wanted to bring bombs on campus, set them off and see how long it took campus police to react, to prove a point about the need for concealed carry as protection against acts of violence. “We all looked at each other and were like did we just hear that right?” Lewis said.
Bouchard told WyoFile his comments about cutting funding were mischaracterized as a threat. He declined to comment on whether he’d mentioned bringing explosives on campus, saying the claim was exaggerated. Chris Boswell, UW’s Vice President for Governmental and Community Affairs, said that in a conversation with Bouchard the senator told Boswell he’d talked about setting off an M-80, which is a firecracker, to see how the police would react.
Overall, Bouchard characterized accounts of the event as “fake news,” being blown out of proportion.
The three students giving the presentation were freshmen at UW, and their presentation started as a project for their English class.
Observers say Bouchard asked the professor for her name and department, which she declined to give him. He then said he would find it out and cut off funding for her department, or get her fired, Lewis and Proby said.
Bouchard said he did not threaten to fire her or suggest he alone could shut off funding for her department. He characterized his remarks as “I vote on funding for the school and I should know what I need to vote against,” he said, “and I said that because I feel the teacher is pushing an agenda that doesn’t reflect the values of Wyomingites.”
Bouchard didn’t want to be introduced
The incident occurred on April 6, at the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, a three-day event on campus. Lined up with other presenters in a hallway of the Student Union, Proby, Lewis and a third freshman, Jerard Swan, presented a short public-service announcement they had produced called “Conceal and Carry: A Threat Against Young African American Men.” All three students are African-American.
The Shepard Symposium is held annually and has been since 1997, according to UW’s website.
“The goal of it is to provide a space to have difficult conversations,” organizer Christi Boggs said. However, she said, Bouchard’s interaction with the students did not fit that bill. Boggs came from a different part of the building to end the argument, she said, after she was asked to intercede by Allison Gernant, the students’ professor.
“If Senator Bouchard had come in and had a discussion and had a dialogue with them that would’ve been totally OK,” she said. “It kind of violated the space that we had hoped to create. It wasn’t respectful in any way.”
It was disappointing behavior from a state senator, she said. “In Wyoming going around and intimidating people isn’t what we do.”
The presentation consisted of a 60-second video, according to the event description. The video, Proby said, was about two young men, one wearing a sweatshirt with his hood up, entering a gas station separately. Upon leaving, one man forgets his cell phone, and the man with the hood on runs out to give it to him. This spooks the first man, who turns, pulls out a gun and shoots the hooded man.
It’s an example of the threat that stereotypes combined with concealed carry can represent for African-American youth, Lewis said. The video ends with the tag line, “be smart before you stop a heart,” he said.
The description on the event schedule said the students would “suggest that individuals who want to get a conceal and carry permit should have to learn more about the negative effects of stereotyping young African American males as part of their permit training. And, we will touch on how this topic affects us all in Wyoming, in the context of recent Wyoming Legislative actions about conceal and carry permits on campuses and in schools in our state.”
Lewis and Proby told WyoFile they were not trying to make a presentation in favor of increased gun control, but instead in support of increased education for concealed carry permittees. Their fathers and family members are gun owners, Lewis said.
The two students said Bouchard was present during their talk but did not engage with them at first. Sara Burlingame, the education and outreach coordinator with gay rights advocacy group Wyoming Equality, introduced the senator to them as the one behind the gun control bill. Burlingame testified against the concealed carry bill during the legislative session, saying it was a concern for LGBTQ people.
The first words out of Bouchard’s mouth, the students said, was that he had not wanted to be introduced.
The conversation was heated from the beginning, the students said. When Boggs asked Bouchard to end the discussion he did so, she said. Then, while the students had begun giving their presentation to a new group of listeners, he returned and took photos, which he posted to Facebook. Other Facebook users, including Wyoming Gun Owner’s Michelle Sabrosky, subsequently posted screenshots of Gernant’s name and title, along with the names of the students.
In the post, Bouchard wrote the students “are good kids,” but were being “steered by a liberal teacher,” naming Gernant. Boswell said Bouchard had told him the students were “good kids” as well.
“The most impressive part of this,” Boswell said “by all accounts including Sen. Bouchard, is how well the students acquitted themselves in a passionate confrontation with a legislator.”
Boswell said the University is looking into the incident and working to formulate a response. UW President Laurie Nichols has been informed, Boswell said, and is scheduled to meet this morning with the three students and watch their presentation. Boswell also left a voicemail informing Senate President Eli Bebout (R, SD-26, Riverton) the incident had occurred, Boswell said. Gernant has also filed a report with campus police, he said, which is being looked into.
“While I do maintain that Senator Bouchard has every right to his passionate opinion about guns on UW campus,” Gernant wrote in an email, “I also maintain that he has no right whatsoever to aggressively disrupt a student presentation and then ‘cyberbully’ us for not seeing the world as he does.”
The clash is not wholly unprecedented, Boswell said. “Members of the Legislature are on occasion irritated by what may be said at the University of Wyoming, and they occasionally offer their opinions about whether or not they’re going to support funding for a particular program,” he said.
Bouchard is well known in political circles for his advocacy on second amendment and gun issues. “I’m not surprised the students might have had the perception his opinions are fully formed, because I think they are,” Boswell said. “These students really did handle themselves well, in an awkward and frankly difficult situation for them,” he said.
Proby and Lewis however said they were surprised by the senator’s attitude and apparent refusal to listen to their points.
“It upset me that our own senator, we told him that we’re from Cheyenne, Wyoming, that we love this place, that he came at us in such a negative way,” Lewis said. “He didn’t treat us with any respect or listen to us at all.”
“We kept bringing up the fact that he’s off topic and it’s not about gun control and taking away weapons and stuff,” Proby said.