On Sunday, a group of New York University journalism students and professors went to the Marco Rubio town hall in Bedford, New Hampshire, where they say they were racially profiled by the Florida senator's staff working the event.
The town hall marked the end of a largely successful reporting trip: the students were thrilled to gain field experience during the exciting days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, and had positive experiences at events for both Democratic and Republican hopefuls. But things apparently took a turn for the worse for three black women at the Rubio event: professor Yvonne Latty and two of her students, Taisha Henry and Ugonma Alaoma Ubani-Ebere.
In separate interviews, Henry and Ubani-Ebere explained that they entered the town hall, held at a school cafeteria, through an entrance intended for the general public without press passes. Two professors in their group were granted press badges, but the students were not.
Henry and Ubani-Ebere were setting up cameras in front of the press section when they were told that only members of the media were allowed to film. "I had the tripod in my hand, but I didn’t set up yet," Henry told me. "Ugo had the camera in her hand." So when they were told to put away their cameras, they obliged. "We started collapsing our stuff," Ubani-Ebere told me. "We notice[d] that we keep getting stares."
This was at odds with what the students say they saw: Some white members of the NYU class were able to access the press section without press credentials, no questions asked. Ubani-Ebere said she witnessed another student, a 26-year-old white man with glasses and a beard, set up a tripod and film without interruption from Rubio's team. When she and Henry pointed this discrepancy out to a staffer, Henry said "he didn't bat an eyelash."
Both students told me that all of the Rubio event staff that approached them were white.
Henry and Ubani-Ebere said that staffers continued to stare at them, even after they had stopped setting up for a shot. Eventually, another person came to ask the pair what they were up to—which, at that point, was simply attending the event. Ubani-Ebere said it was then that she started feeling that she and Henry were being targeted for their race. "It’s pretty clear what’s going on. We’re uncomfortable, it’s a terrible situation."
— Taisha Henry (@Taisha_Henry) February 7, 2016
After being questioned repeatedly, Henry and Ubani-Ebere started to get emotional. "We were crying in the corner. I regret that now," Henry told me.
While the situation was heating up inside, Latty was dealing with her own issues outside the town hall. "Everything was really delayed, Rubio was late and there was a really long line," Latty told me. But Latty said she also felt targeted because she was black. Latty didn't have a press pass herself, but a male, white colleague offered his to her. After some back and forth with resistant staff, Latty was finally allowed to enter the room.
"When they let me in I saw my students crying and really, really upset," Latty said. "It was a really, really bad scene."
Latty approached her students, and the three were in turn approached by a staffer, who tried to ameliorate the situation. But by then, Latty said, the damage had been done. "When you racially profile someone you can’t take that away by saying I’m sorry."
In addition to being an upsetting experience for the students, the disruption robbed them of a valuable opportunity, Latty said. "A clip that they could have had, that could have potentially gotten them a job or a really great internship, isn't going to be what it could have been," she said.
The professor pointed out how troubling that is, in light of how underrepresented minority women are in media. "We’re never, ever, ever going to be able to tell stories of people of color if people are color are treated [this way]," she said.
All three agreed that this treatment felt unique to the Rubio town hall. The group was received well at events for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich, they said.
The Rubio campaign did not respond to a request for comment; Latty, Henry, and Ubani-Ebere said they have not had contact with the campaign following the event.
Rubio's New Hampshire communications director, Michael Zona, told Wired that the incident was the result of a misunderstanding. “We reserve space for those who have RSVPed, and other than that, it’s first come first served,” he said, adding that he didn't know why the students were approached more than once.
The students speculated that staffers were on edge following Rubio's performance during the Republican debate the previous evening, where he was ridiculed on stage by fellow GOP hopeful Chris Christie for repeating canned lines.
Henry and Ubani-Ebere wondered if they were treated with suspicion because they had been mistaken for Black Lives Matter protesters, who have encountered violence at events for other Republican presidential candidates. Even still, Henry pointed out, if staffers assumed the only black people at an event were there to heckle Rubio, it would be just another way to profile attendees (and says something very bad about Rubio's ability to reach black voters).
For Latty, the experience also served as a sad reality check for her students: "It was an incredible opportunity for these students to see how our country works," she said, "and I guess they did."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.