'Get out now': Violence erupts at the University of Pittsburgh over Michael Knowles event

Demonstrators threw flares at attendees trying to enter the building and lit an incendiary device outside of the venue.

Violent protest against Michael Knowles and Brad Polumbo shuts down streets in Pittsburgh.

Violent protests erupted in the heart of Western Pennsylvania on Tuesday evening as student activists attempted to shut down a debate at the University of Pittsburgh between political commentators Michael Knowles and Brad Polumbo concerning transgender rights.

The event was hosted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Pitt College Republicans.

Campus Reform has covered the turmoil connected to other conservative speakers at the university, including Cabot Phillips and Riley Gaines, but the Executive Director of Media Relations Chuck Finder told Campus Reform that Tuesday’s outraged crowd was not only larger and more aggressive than those at the Phillips and Gaines events, but was also more extreme than anticipated.

[RELATED: WATCH: ‘When they want you silent, speak louder’: Riley Gaines attacked at SF State]

Protesters gathered in a grassy area near the venue on campus at 6:30 PM, agitating for a combination of trans rights, defunding campus police, and increasing the university’s minimum wage. During this pre-event rally, organizers said they were going to “get in the faces” of those there to attend the debate. They began proceeding to the street directly outside the venue at approximately 6:45 PM.

Video obtained by Campus Reform shows the protesters marching and chanting, “If we don’t get it, shut it down,” as they made their way toward the venue building.

At 7:00 PM, half an hour before the event’s scheduled start time, protesters used a road flare to set fire to an effigy of Knowles. The effigy was adorned with a picture of Knowles’ face on which protesters had drawn a Hitler mustache.

Both University and Pittsburgh police were present at the scene, along with a Pittsburgh firetruck and rescue vehicle. The protesters had their own medics on site.

Protesters also lit flares and threw them into street drainage grates.

At approximately 7:15 PM, a lit flare was thrown by a protester into a crowd of attendees who were proceeding to enter the venue. The protesters then attempted to rush the security barricade, but the police presence was able to keep them at bay.

At 7:34 PM, the university sent an emergency alert via email to students and personnel warning of a “public safety emergency” after protesters lit an incendiary device outside the rear of the venue, with the blast shaking the chandeliers inside the building.

The full security report states, “In addition to several devices which produced significant smoke, an incendiary device was thrown in the direction of officers, triggering the message. As the situation evolved, several buildings were temporarily closed and visitors to residence halls restricted as a safety precaution.”

Nearby Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) also sent a security alert to students instructing them to avoid the area near the campus.

Once the debate commenced and Knowles took the podium, a group of four protesters inside the event began shouting, “Trans Rights are Human Rights,” but they were quickly escorted out of the building by university police.

Inside the venue, the event was peaceful. However, attendees seated in the back of the room were unable to hear portions of the debate due to the chants and drum-playing of the outside demonstrators.

The event officially ended at 9:00 PM, but attendees were told by university officials to remain in the building as the outside protests began to escalate. Attendees were also told to stay clear of the windows and remain in their seats for their safety.

At approximately 9:30 PM, attendees were escorted by police through a back entrance. The Chief of the University Police, James Loftus said that there was “no time” for the College Republicans, who hosted the event, to clean up the venue, ordering everyone to “get out now.”

[RELATED: Deirdre McCloskey cancels debate against Michael Knowles at Pitt]

Students who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal told Campus Reform that they felt secure inside the venue but “surprisingly unsafe” outside and were frightened to leave. They characterized the debate itself as “uniquely calm and composed,” but they had “no idea how polarized” the issue was to engender such violence. When asked if they felt safe leaving the building, they emphatically said “no.”

At approximately 9:40 PM, Pittsburgh police ordered the protesters to disperse, and by 10:00 PM the campus building returned to normal operations, according to the Pitt News.

The University has not yet issued an official statement on the events, nor responded to Campus Reform’s request for comment, but this is a developing story and will be updated accordingly.

Follow Gabrielle M. Etzel on Twitter.