Despite heavy rainfall, a small group of Yale students gathered in front of College Street Music Hall to protest Aziz Ansari’s back-to-back comedy performances on Tuesday night while more than 200 students stayed away from the venue to boycott his presence.
Ansari was scheduled to perform in New Haven as part of his comeback comedy tour, “Working Out New Material.” The tour comes almost a year after the comedian was accused of sexual misconduct by an anonymous source in January, during the initial months of the #MeToo movement. Ansari was originally slated for just one show in Elm City Tuesday night but added a later performance when the first sold out. In response to the booking and overwhelming demand for Ansari, five Yale students held signs and stood in silent protest before doors opened for the event.
“What our presence is doing is trying to serve as a reminder of all of the silence that is around these powerful and potentially abusive men, and to disrupt that silence, to disrupt through silence,” said Casey Odesser ’20, one of the organizers of the protest. “We want it to be in solidarity with the victims and with the people that, in general, are part of this cultural phenomenon.”
In a January article for Babe.net, a women’s news and lifestyle site, reporter Katie Way interviewed “Grace,” a pseudonym for a Brooklyn photographer who described to Way a date with Ansari a week after the September 2017 Emmy Awards. After what she characterized as an awkward dinner, Grace said that Ansari ignored physical and verbal cues that she did not want to engage in a sexual encounter, instead pressuring her to perform multiple sexual acts. Grace said she cried in the hallway outside of his apartment and in an Uber on the way back. She added that she texted Ansari the next day to express her discomfort with his behavior.
Ansari released a statement shortly after the article’s publication in which he stated that he believed the encounter to be consensual, but did remember feeling “surprised and concerned” that she was uncomfortable.
After finding out about Ansari’s show on social media, Odesser and Zulfiqar Mannan ’20 used Facebook to organize a boycott of the event. The idea for an accompanying protest emerged through subsequent conversations with student comedy groups, according to Odesser.
“Boycott Ansari’s show. Become conscious Yale students and take accountability of what makes the culture around you. Ensure comedy has a feminist future,” read the Facebook event description for the boycott.
More than 200 people expressed interest in the boycott on Facebook.
Inside the hall on Tuesday evening, Ansari went through the show without explicitly acknowledging the protests or the allegations against him. Audience members were required to lock their phones in designated pouches during the show, with Ansari claiming that comedians preferred attendees to be present during the show instead of checking notifications.
Major themes of his hourlong set included social media, race and his current romantic life with a new girlfriend, a Danish physicist. He criticized people attempting to “outwoke” each other on the internet when discussing social issues. Ansari claimed that truly racist people are often brief in their comments, whilst “newly woke white people are exhausting” in their politically correct fervor. He parodied a points system in which people competed with each other to craft the most liberal sounding comments. Aziz included a high-pitched song in his performance that ended with him describing such a person as “a bit of a self-righteous piece of shit.”
Ansari portrayed these “really woke people” as bullying others with terminology such as “microaggressions” and claimed that the majority of the population were afraid to express their opinions for fear of being labeled as racist or bigoted. He also mentioned people’s propensity to lie on the internet to attract attention. He added that people were too willing to believe what they saw online without corroboration and often resisted challenges to their preexisting ideas.
“A YouTube video can convince you of anything,” he said.
Emily Cornett ’19, who also attended the protest, said that she felt that the boycott was especially important for the #MeToo movement because the allegations against Ansari reflected an all-too-common experience for women. Cornett said that while Ansari’s alleged conduct seemed to pale in comparison to the allegations leveled against the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., she knew many people who identified with “Grace.”
According to Odesser, participation in the boycott and protest of Ansari’s show is especially important for the Yale community. The University has been a prominent feature in the national conversation about sexual misconduct following the surfacing of sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90.
“Yale students are, first of all, obviously in the middle of an insanely powerful and prestigious institution that we don’t have the tendency to question, to call out,” said Odesser. “Something as simple as attending a show, something that we normalize as just a part of daily life actually has huge world stakes, and we need to be looking at those world stakes as Yale students.”
New Haven resident and co-founder of Nasty Women Connecticut Luciana McClure also commended the Yale students for reaching out to cooperate with New Haven activists. Although she could not attend, she said that she appreciated the efforts they made to “address their privilege and stand together.”
Even as lines curved around the block, the five students who attended the protest remained committed to standing silently with posters. They received mixed reactions from those passing by — one woman stopped to thank the students for their activism, while Cornett mentioned that another pedestrian had given the group a “disapproving look.”
Odesser told the News that the College Street Music Hall staff had threatened to call the police on them because they were concerned that the protesters would block the sidewalk. The Music Hall could not be reached for comment.
Ansari’s publicity team also could not be reached for comment.
“Someone with Aziz Ansari’s power comes only at the expense of someone powerless, it doesn’t come just because it’s raw power,” said Odesser. “Power needs a powerless to act upon, and we do not want to be complicit with the power, and we want to stand with the powerless and understand how those are mutually reinforcing each other.”
College Street Music Hall is located at 238 College St.
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