Ismael Belkoura was surprised to see half a dozen police officers gathered outside Curry Hall. The journalism student had arrived an hour early on March 2 to cover Republican Texas House candidate Jeff Younger’s planned speech at the oldest building on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton.
Belkoura figured it could be contentious; the cornerstone of Younger’s campaign is banning transgender healthcare for minors. But the police presence still got his attention. A nearby alley was blocked off and the back door to the building had been locked. Half a dozen more cops were stationed inside Curry 203. The room was quickly filling up; the university had capped attendance at 80 people.
The crowd began booing and heckling as soon as Younger entered at 6:55 p.m. Belkoura stood to the side of the room and pressed record on his iPhone. The video would make him a target for far-right trolls with huge online audiences and bring threats to his family.
“It’s really surreal when, when it happens to you, especially when it’s so far out of left field,” Belkoura said.
The video shows a few dozen attendees rapping their hands on the tables and chanting “fuck these fascists.” Younger clapped along, waiting them out. A few minutes in, he yelled back at them, calling them “communists.” The crowd chanted that he was a “deadbeat father.” He taunted them right back, proclaiming there “is no such thing as a trans person.”
Younger rose to prominence in the Republican ranks after using his blog and social media accounts to write about the custody battle of his twin 7-year-olds. One was assigned male at birth but had been living as a girl at the home of his estranged wife. As reported by the Texas Tribune, his wife testified in the divorce proceedings that “[t]heir child expressed a strong desire to be a girl from a very young age, therapists confirmed it and she began supportive social transitioning and therapy on their recommendation.”
Younger argued in court that the child was happy as a boy and that his wife was “pressuring” their child to transition, according to the Tribune. (The child has undergone no medical or surgical treatment and doing so would require Younger’s permission.) The case caught on among Republican circles, and the family would become the first in Texas to be investigated for child abuse by the state; the investigation found no evidence of abuse.
According to Tribune, Younger’s commentary lost him custody of his children. His wife is adhering to a gag order, allowing Younger’s version of the story to spread.
The foundation of Younger’s legislative run is built on barring the ability of minors to transition, both medically and surgically. (Doctors associations say that irreversible or surgical transitioning isn’t happening to minors in Texas.)
That set the table for his appearance at UNT. Belkoura, meanwhile, saw something newsworthy and showed up.
“For the first 30 minutes, after Jeff Younger came in, nothing happened besides chanting, yelling,” Belkoura said. “Jeff didn’t really say anything. He, of course, was trying to rile up the crowd.”
Before the event, Belkoura had mostly written about the FC Dallas soccer team for a fan blog. He’s been seeking out experience covering news stories. And so Belkoura captured the scene at Curry Hall and posted it in a Twitter thread. He continued documenting the rest of the chaotic scene around him, sending out declarative reports describing what he was seeing.
By the time it was over, the organizer of the event would be escorted out by police and a protester was struck by a police car and had to be transported to a hospital with minor injuries. (That incident is under investigation, and UNT Police would not comment nor would it release any documentation without an open records request. We have submitted one.)
By the time he returned to his dorm, the video had racked up 2.7 million views from his personal account. His video became the defining document of the event, finding its way onto local and national news outlets. It also attracted the attention of the far-right.
The next morning, a new problem arose. Belkoura’s Twitter was taken down. A theme spread across right-leaning accounts: Belkoura had folded amid pressure from “the left” to remove evidence of the protest. The reality, Belkoura says, is less interesting: he’d created his account before he turned 13, which violated Twitter’s terms of service. Someone flagged his account and it was temporarily pulled down.
Andy Ngo, a conservative activist and journalist, spread this narrative to his almost one million Twitter followers. Ngo called Belkoura a “far-left journalist,” an allegation picked up by several right-leaning websites in coverage of the event.
Belkour finds this assertion puzzling.
“Everything I did was editorial journalism, like, this is what happened, and that’s all I did,” Belkoura said. “I am not a far-left journalist,”.
As he was trying to gain access to his account, he says, he received a phone call from a company number he did not recognize. The company was called Cierra F Modeling, and the person on the line stated that they knew where Belkoura’s parents lived. Belkoura says he took it as a threat.
According to records from the Colorado Secretary of State, the company is owned by Joey Camp, a far-right activist who has a history of harassment. He is currently involved with the trucker convoy outside of D.C., where he was able to snap a picture with Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
The Younger event’s organizers were quicker to defend Belkoura. Kelly Neidert, one of the organizers of the event and a member of the Young Conservatives of Texas chapter of UNT, believes the moniker attached to Belkour was likely unwarranted.
“If they were truly just documenting what was happening, then I don’t think that left wing would really fit it,” Neidert said. “Now, if they were providing like biased comments, then I think it’d be fair to say that they’re left wing and I haven’t read what they were saying.”
Despite all this turmoil, Belkoura was one of the first people outside the Hurley Administration Building for the walkout protest last Friday.
He fired up another thread on Twitter, just like he had done when he saw those first few officers outside Curry. He began breaking news on how the building had been locked down a half-hour before the protest was set to begin.
Belkoura is resolute in becoming a journalist. He hopes to join the campus organization Hatch Visuals, a student-led photography agency, next semester. Even so, his experience over those few days taught him a lesson he never thought he would learn.
“I’m glad at least that the information and the videos went viral, so people know what happened,” Belkoura said.