Conservative speaker faces off against student activist during packed event

Turning Points USA founder Charlie Kirk debated student activist Randy Perez

One man says privilege is waking up and knowing that every system in this country will work for you, the other says privilege is nonsense and perpetuates victimhood. One man says the Department of Education should be streamlined, the other says it should be abolished. 

On Thursday night, students gathered to watch A Millennial Moment, an education and economic policy debate between conservative activist Charlie Kirk and progressive activist Randy Perez. According to the event description, the mission of the debate was “to educate attendees on the different viewpoints on the solutions to economy and education.”

Charlie Kirk is the 24-year-old founder and executive director of Turning Point USA. Turning Point USA aims to “promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government”. Randy Perez is a democratic activist who works for the Obama Foundation

The debate started with a question about taxation – why should millennials care?

“I believe taxation is theft,” Kirk answered. “I believe you have a right to keep what you earn.”

But Perez was quick to point to tax-funded public works and infrastructure. 

“I don’t know if you drove on a road today or breathed any clean air,” Perez said.

There were moments of agreement between the two.

“I think that both parties really struggle to engage young people because we don’t want to identify with the Democratic party, we don’t want to identify with the Republican party,” Perez said.

This was the last time the two seemed to find common ground in the hour left in the debate.

Although Kirk’s style is boisterous and argumentative, Perez was able to keep his cool – most of the time.

Kirk was responding to Perez’s point about students being discriminated against in school. Kirk said that if a student was being discriminated against, the answer was to go through the court system, rather than “a federal bureaucracy."

“That’s why we have a Supreme Court,” Kirk said.

Perez countered, saying a mother in south Phoenix who works three jobs cannot afford a lawyer. If she does get a lawyer, it may be an overworked public defender, Perez said.

“This becomes, again, the idea of privilege,” Perez said. “You assume that everything will always work for you. You wake up every day and every system works for you without ever having to worry about whether or not you can access it.”

Near the end of the event, three audience members were allowed to ask questions. One of those was Shay Khatiri, a political science and history senior.

But when Khatiri was explaining his question for Kirk, Kirk interrupted him and began speaking.

David Huff, a political science and pre-med sophomore, called out from the audience, telling Kirk to allow Shay Kathiri to finish asking his question.

“You’re not up here, I am,” Kirk said, pointing at Huff. “So thank you very little.”

Half the audience erupted in laughter and applause. The other half looked at each other, seemingly surprised that Kirk would use his tactics on the students in attendance.

Huff said he had been looking forward to the debate and wished it had been more civil.

“Charlie could’ve given more respect,” Huff said. “I don’t feel like you should attack someone who’s trying to ask a question. We have really busy schedules and for us to take the time to be here … it’s totally immoral and rude … and disgusting to attack people in the audience.”

Khatiri, the student who was interrupted by Kirk, said he “overall agrees” with Kirk’s ideology but wasn't impressed with either performance.

"People want to know how their lives are being changed," Khatiri said. "And I think on both sides, their arguments are very weak. Randy's are very emotionally charged and Charlie's arguments are very superficial."

Perez said he and Kirk were “living in two very different realities." According to Perez, Kirk’s reality was one where “everyone could make it … if you just want it bad enough”.

“Turning Point is dangerous,” Perez said.

“To socialism, absolutely,” Kirk interrupted.

“The danger of Turning Point … is that they’re couching this economic freedom argument without acknowledging the realities and inequities of what it’s like being a person of color in America,” Perez said.

Although some students viewed Kirk’s style as aggressive, others saw it as necessary.

“I think, in debate, you have to be aggressive to get your point across and say it more convincingly,” said Andrew Spencer, a biological sciences senior and member of Turning Points ASU, in an interview the morning after the event.

On Friday morning, Perez reflected on the event.

“He wasn’t there to exchange ideas,” Perez said of Kirk. “He was just there to yell. They wanted it to be something he could get into one of his 90-second Twitter videos so they can post ‘Charlie Kirk takes down idiot liberal socialist,' whatever the hell. That’s what they wanted. I tried not to give into that.”

Perez said he woke Friday morning thinking about the parallels between Kirk and President Trump.

“It’s almost like sitting there and trying to debate Donald Trump where you’re faced with someone who doesn’t shut up … and loves the sound of their own voice.”

Editor's Note: The debate was moderated by Allie Bice, editor-in-chief of The State Press.

Editor's Note: Perez is an activist who is employed by the Obama Foundation and did not participate in the debate on its behalf. The headline and subhead have been updated for clarity.


Reach the reporter at flatifi@asu.edu or follow @fortesalatifi on Twitter.

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