For most, it was an ordinary town hall meeting in which attendees could address issues and topics with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. However, for five Rowan students in attendance, it was a chance to do something else.
The students, who would eventually coordinate a verbal stance against the governor’s speech, were escorted from the meeting at the Mount Laurel YMCA on March 14, and made headlines for their actions.
Michael Brein, a sophomore sociology and communication studies dual major, wrote in an email that he was extremely nervous when other meeting-goers began inquiring why a college student was at the meeting.
“I realized (the people) around me were going to be angry when I inevitably stood up,” Brein said.
Leah Ly, a senior radio, television & film major, and one of the five Rowan students who was eventually escorted out of the meeting, described the situation as “extremely nerve-racking,” and in one instance, “terrifying.” The students were hoping to have their questions answered, but were prepared to disrupt the meeting if their questions weren’t answered.
“We all took our seats in the meeting, and I could just feel my heart pounding,” Ly said. “I was extremely nervous.”
News outlets dubbed the students as “hecklers,” with headlines that read “Christie heckled by Rowan University students at town hall,” from nj.com, “Rowan student among hecklers ejected at Gov Christie’s town hall,” from newsworks.org and “Hecklers booted from Christie’s town hall,” from MSNBC.
Ly said that the students’ intentions weren’t to “heckle” the governor, but to hold him accountable for his “corruption and scandal.”
“The way he ran his meetings was that you had to raise your hands and he would call on you, and we originally tried that,” Ly said. “But we don’t look like typical Christie constituents, so we knew that we weren’t going to be called upon.”
Using coordinating Facebook messages, the students organized who would rise from the crowd and display their concerns.
“We came to the conclusion that he would not call on us during the Q&A portion — so we decided to disrupt,” Brein said.
Brein was the first to jump up.
“Everyone booed at me, and cheered him on,” Brein said. “But I continued to yell about how he abused Sandy money until a police officer escorted me out.”
Brein said that since the scandals regarding “Bridgegate” and the misappropriation of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, Christie’s approval rating has dropped, resulting in him specifically arranging meetings in locations that supported him.
“He was visiting towns heavily populated by his supporters, inviting them to ask questions, knowing they wouldn’t ask hard ones, and having media cover it so it appeared to the public that ‘New Jerseyans’ were no longer concerned,” Brein said. “We didn’t want to let that continue.”
Ly remained in the room to hear the comments being made toward Brein on his way out.
“People were telling us to ‘get outta here, you’re an idiot,’” Ly said. “I heard someone through the door apologize to Christie for us, and asked the officer if he could slap us upside the head.”
Members of the press followed the students out of the meeting, asking them questions regarding what they were doing.
“I thought some of the papers did a good job, and some didn’t,” Ly said. “But calling us ‘hecklers’ adds a negative connotation to us and we didn’t want to be perceived that way.”
The students were compliant with police, allowing themselves to be escorted from the premises, and described their relationship with the Mt. Laurel police as normal.
“I don’t think any of us plan on disrupting future town hall meetings,” Brein said. “Our goal was to bring media attention to his scandals so he could not sweep them under the rug.”
In the week following, students from Rutgers New Brunswick attended a similar town hall meeting and took similar action, Brein said.
As to what plans are in the future, Ly said the action was to show that people care about things that they accused the governor of “wiping away,” and to show others who feel the same that they are not alone.
“People tell us that our generation isn’t involved, but that’s not true,” Ly said. “We are involved. We are just very young, and dealing with an outdated system that doesn’t recognize us.”
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