Racist hate won’t be tolerated at UMass

November 15, 2018

Sean Tousey-Pfarrer reports on a series of racist attacks on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus — and the anti-racist resistance that is taking shape.

IN THE face of growing racist vandalism and intimidation on campus and a wave of far-right violence across the U.S. and the world in recent weeks, a group of students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) organized a walkout and rally on November 7.

The rally in front of the Student Union building drew in a crowd of as many as 250 at its height, with some 70 people staying for the full hour and a half. Many students, faculty and community members spoke strongly about the threats of fascism, racism, transphobia, anti-immigrant xenophobia and sexual assault and the need to continue the fight and build upon this showing of solidarity.

The urgency of confronting racism and fascism was made clear that very day when flyers for Identity Evropa — a white supremacist group known for its role in the deadly fascist rampage in Charlottesville last year and for its recruitment efforts on college campuses — were discovered at Franklin Dining Commons, throughout Herter and right on the front of the Student Union where the rally was to be held.

Students protest racist attacks at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Students protest racist attacks at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Labor Center)

The very next day, the n-word was found scrawled across a poster “signed by many students to denounce hate” in the Melville dorm — the third racist threat made in that dorm this semester.

How did the situation at UMass, which markets itself as a haven of “dignity and respect,” get to this point?

Like other cities and areas with a reputation for progressivism, such as Portland, Oregon, UMass and the local community aren’t exactly bastions of equality and tolerance and never have been.

One of the more egregious recent examples is the case of Eric Matlock, a Black houseless man who was charged with assault on a police officer when the police attacked him in broad daylight on the steps of Northampton City Hall for protesting his forcible separation from his children.

But the most recent series of racist attacks at UMass seems to reflect the rise of the openly racist far right nationally and internationally.

EVEN BEFORE this school year started, a worker at Smith College in nearby Northampton called the cops on student-worker Oumou Kanoute while Kanoute was relaxing in a common area during her lunch break.

The incident — and in particular, the caller’s use of the phrase “seems to be out of place” to describe Kanoute — drew instant parallels with other cases nationally of white people calling, or threatening to call, the cops on people of color living their daily lives. Thanks to Kanoute speaking out via social media, the story immediately made it to national news.

Despite what the Daily Hampshire Gazette described as “a pattern of faculty members of color leaving the institution and racial tensions in a specific residential hall,” indicating a more widespread problem with racism at the college, the Smith administration singled out staff for mandatory “anti-bias training.”

This likely helped fuel a backlash on the part of some staff members that threatened to pit students against workers as the semester kicked off with student protests. A third-party investigation of the incident eventually found no wrongdoing on the part of the caller.

While Smith policies concerning responses to “suspicious activity” have rightly come under fire, there is a wider issue: the racism built into the federally instituted “see something, say something” paranoia in this country.

Barely two weeks after community activists organized a march in support of Kanoute, the cops were called again — this time at UMass. And instead of a worker calling the cops on a student, this time, the person profiled was a campus worker, Reginald Andrade.

The caller described Reggie — who was walking from the gym to his workplace, as he does every morning — as “agitated” and carrying a “heavy backpack that is almost hitting the ground.” The caller used the University of Massachusetts Police Department’s anonymous tip line.

Police came in full force: nearly a dozen police cars descended on the Whitmore administration building where Reggie works, and the building was locked down for almost half an hour until the police identified that — surprise, surprise — Reggie was no threat.

This is the third time that Reggie has been racially profiled over the course of being a student and worker at UMass. “The surveillance and policing of my behavior have taken a toll on my mental health,” he wrote in a blog post on the ACLU website. “I feel paranoid and unsafe on a campus that claims to be inclusive. It feels like any move I make, no matter how ordinary, can trigger a stressful encounter with the cops.”

RECOGNIZING THE clear patterns, both nationally and locally, and the bubbling anger on campus, the Student Government Association (SGA) scheduled a Community Forum for members of the UMass community to air their grievances.

But then Melville happened.

The weekend before the forum, a black resident of the Melville dorm walked into the lobby bathroom to find a racist death threat — “Hang Melville n — — s” — written on the mirror. Police were called to investigate, and the dorm residence director sent out an e-mail saying that a “bias-related incident...involving the writing of a racial slur” had occurred, and a meeting would be held that evening.

Students who attended the meeting — upon learning that the graffiti was not merely “bias” but constituted a direct threat to the lives of Black residents — were angry at this language that downplayed the severity of the issue. “It shouldn’t have been called biased, because that makes it seem like it’s not as important as it is,” Kiara Batista, a first-year Melville resident, told the Daily Collegian.

What’s more, the administrators who facilitated the meeting told students not to talk about the incident to anyone outside of the dorm.

In fact, it would appear the UMass administration has worked overtime to hush up racist incidents on campus since the profiling of Reggie Andrade, as there has been no coverage of the racist graffiti in Melville by any national media outlets.

It has been typical in recent years for the UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy to send an e-mail to the whole campus about significant political events that represent a threat to the lives and livelihoods of campus community members — including in response to the profiling of Reggie — in which he reaffirms the UMass values of “equity and inclusion.”

No such thing occurred this time. This further angered students, and many of them spoke out on social media, making sure the story reached the wider campus.

Members of the UMass chapter of Amnesty International responded to this explosive situation by calling on all the student organizations in the Cultural Council to show up for a “March on UMass” the same day as the SGA’s community forum on September 27.

Melville students also organized their own “End White Supremacy” rally for the following day, but it was canceled due to weather. The March on UMass was attended by hundreds and was the first political high point of the semester after the first month of racist attacks.

ABOUT 200 also attended the Community Forum that evening. The University of Massachusetts Police Department’s chief of police, who is Black, was a scheduled speaker, but attendees weren’t there to make false reconciliation with campus police. They were there to express their anger and their solidarity with one another.

Melville students spoke powerfully from the front, and a conversation began about student demands. The concerns of Melville residents were central, but the meeting reached beyond them with the recognition that Reggie Andrade was profiled and the death threat at Melville is just the tip of the iceberg where racism at UMass is concerned.

Energy stayed high through to the next week, when the Afro-American Studies Department and the W.E.B. DuBois Center co-hosted a teach-in titled “The Problem of the Color Line” on October 2 that was also attended by hundreds.

Panel speakers, including students and faculty of various academic backgrounds, had been asked to respond to a generic prompt in framing their contributions, but almost none stayed on-script — the tone of the speakers was very militant.

But the tone from the audience was even more militant — people wanted further anti-racist action on campus and were hungering for politics and strategy to make it happen. Students demanded explanations from the administration, but the few administrators in attendance remained silent throughout the event.

During the event, student leaders from Amnesty International confronted Enobong Branch, the Associate Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer — who was not actually in the room in which the teach-in was occurring, but hovering in the hallway outside — about the administration’s lack of regard for community members of color. The students say that Branch “had a prepared answer for everything” and was extremely dismissive.

An Afro-American Studies professor made a point of circulating a sign-up sheet, saying that the teach-in shouldn’t be the last event of this kind, and it would take further meeting and organizing to make a difference.

Unfortunately, no follow-up event has yet been organized, and there was no further discussion or activity on the issue other than the ongoing work of the SGA and others to consolidate and articulate pages’ worth of student demands raised at the Community Forum and to analyze the successes and failures of the university’s many “diversity and inclusion” initiatives.

FAST FORWARD to October 30 when — in the wake of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, the white supremacist murders in Kentucky, the sexist mass shooting in Florida and other incidents of right-wing violence — the UMass-based chapter of the International Socialist Organization put out the call for an emergency organizing meeting that evening to discuss building a response on campus.

The 16 students and community members who attended the meeting decided to call for a “Campus Walkout Against Right-Wing Terror” on November 7, the day after the elections, to highlight the need for the left to continue the struggle beyond the ballot box.

The weekend prior to the walkout, a story surfaced that Black residents of Melville had again been targeted by racist vandalism — a drawing of the Confederate flag on a dorm wall — and were again snubbed by the administration when police concluded that the drawing wasn’t of the flag.

Organizing for the November 7 walkout increased in urgency — and all the more so when the Identity Evropa flyers were discovered the morning of the walkout.

The walkout and rally successfully interrupted the growing fear on campus and directed community members’ anger into action and words of solidarity.

Chants from across different struggles intermingled: “Black lives matter! Trans lives matter! Jewish lives matter! Immigrants’ lives matter! Women’s lives matter!”; “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” “Two, four, six eight, no more violence, no more hate!”

A resident assistant spoke about being silenced by their bosses when they reported a student loudly chanting “I hate n — — s” in his dorm room in September and the student received a mere slap on the wrist.

The point was driven home that racism at UMass is a systemic issue. It isn’t isolated in Melville as the administration had framed the question — when administrators acknowledged it at all.

THE FOLLOWING day, Melville residents found themselves targets of racist graffiti for the third time this semester.

Facing the pressure of rekindled anti-racist organizing on campus and unable to deny the pattern of racist attacks any longer, Chancellor Subbaswamy sent out the standard e-mail condemning hatred and intolerance and announced that the administration would take action — by stationing police in Melville and increasing surveillance.

This attempt to look bold and serious about protecting students of color only reaffirmed the administration’s implicit narrative that racism is a problem of hateful outliers who can be individually caught and punished, rather than a systemic problem — of which the police are an essential part.

The emergency meeting that administrators organized in Melville that evening to listen to residents’ concerns was just as much to deter the residents from initiating further anti-racist actions as it was to make them feel heard.

As this article was being written, the chancellor has sent out yet another e-mail, this time addressing an incident in a different dorm in which “the door to [a] student’s room was defaced with homophobic and transphobic slurs and a swastika.”

Again, the administration has launched a police investigation and is holding an emergency meeting in the dorm to discuss the incident. But it should be clear by now that, in attempting to hunt down perpetrators of hate crimes one by one, administrators are playing a losing game of whack-a-mole.

The illusion of “equity and inclusion,” “dignity and respect” has long been shattered, and the root problem — the systemic oppression of capitalist society — needs to be addressed.

The demands of the Melville residents and many others, first raised at the September 27 Community Forum, have still not been met, and it is clear that the administration’s only solution to the growing prominence of bigotry and racist terror on campus is to throw more cops and cameras at the situation — and, above all, to protect their image as a haven of liberalism and diversity.

We know this much from history: university administrations don’t act in the interest of the students and workers — and the far right must be directly confronted by the greatest numbers possible to be defeated.

It is up to all the students and workers of UMass who oppose right-wing violence and hatred to forge solidarity and win real justice.

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