Battle Lines: Unresolved responses to racist incidents online
LSA sophomore Kori Thomas was confronted with two unpleasant surprises one Friday morning in October of her freshman year.
The first was a collection of racially charged flyers she found posted outside her dorm, with subjects like "Black and White IQ Distributions" and "Lifetime Risk of HIV Diagnosis by Race/Ethnicity.”
The second was the flood of aggressive and threatening replies she received after tweeting pictures of the posters.
— Kori (@itsjustme_17) October 21, 2016
Thomas was not expecting the high volume of replies, she said. There were 192 in total — some supporting her, but most reinforcing the message on the posters. In retrospect, she said, she might not have tweeted those pictures if she had known the reactions she would receive.
"I thought it might be a couple people, but it was so much, so I just kind of blocked it out," Thomas said. "After that happened I just didn't know how to deal with it. So if there was a better way not involving that (tweeting the pictures), I would have considered it, but I just thought that was the best way at the time."
According to Austin McCoy, Michigan Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral fellow, tweeting pictures of racially charged flyers found on campus is just what you shouldn't do –– a lesson he, too, learned the hard way after posting pictures of racist flyers he found.
"We posted them on social media, mostly as a way to raise awareness of what's going on. Like, 'This happened, here's proof.' But then, three hours, I just started getting all kinds of nasty tweets that were either reinforcing the messages on the flyer, or just attacking me personally," McCoy said. "But then I was like, 'Okay, I see what they're doing. They're basically using us trying to raise awareness around this to basically hijack it. They're trying to demonstrate what they're doing through what we post.' And that's when I was like, 'Okay, we just can't reproduce any of their fliers online.' "
And the public incidents of racism on campus have only grown more frequent since students returned to campus. Days before school commenced, racially charged writing was found on the Rock. On Sept. 17, racial slurs were found written on the dorm name tags of several Black students in West Quad. Hours earlier, graffiti was found on a mural downtown. During a protest of the incidents Wednesday night, a man observing got out of his car and, after shouting profanities and racial slurs at students, got into a physical altercation with at least one student.
The 24-year-old man, who was not affiliated with the University according to Diane Brown, Division of Public Safety and Security spokesperson, was arrested for disorderly conduct and later released pending warrant authorization.
"When the investigation is completed, it will be submitted to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office for review and authorization of any charges," Brown wrote in an email interview. "That should take a few days to a few weeks."
But more often than not in these incidents, the perpetrators' identities go completely unknown. Though DPSS opened an investigation into the vandalism at West Quad, nothing so far has come of it –– perpetrators have not been found for any of the racially charged graffiti, posters or emails this year or last.
Investigations were opened into some other incidents as well. When an anonymous source sent out a series of emails to Computer Science and Engineering undergraduate students, threatening to kill Black and Jewish students, and "spoofing" the emails to make them appear to be sent by a University professor, DPSS opened an investigation to find the source, partnering with the FBI.
"Spoofing incidents, particularly with email, can be very complex and difficult to investigate," Brown wrote. "Often these investigations require the involvement of federal partners to work with foreign governments to follow the international trail."
Sol Bermann, the University's interim chief information security officer, agreed on the difficulty of catching the people responsible for emails like the ones that were sent.
"It is very difficult to catch the perpetrators of these sorts of acts because of the wide availability of anonymous IT services, like email," Bermann wrote in an email interview.
Bermann explained how the University goes about finding and fixing holes in its online network.
"The university routinely monitors and responds to reports of new vulnerabilities along with information from intelligence sources and the U-M IT community," Bermann wrote. "We determine the risk of any vulnerability that could contribute to a serious IT security incident, looking at factors such as whether exploit code is available, whether exploits are occurring, if U-M systems are at risk, and more. Alerts, advisories and notices are then sent to the IT Security Community and other IT groups. Ultimately, online security begins with every student, staff and faculty member."
The DPSS-FBI investigation, however, remains open. For Thomas and many other students, that fact doesn't inspire confidence in the ability of the University to protect them from such attacks.
"I think it's good that they pursued an investigation, but I don't know if it's necessarily a priority, just because I feel like after they announced it you didn't hear anything," Thomas said. "Not to the best of their ability, in my opinion."
McCoy also indicated he did not feel like the University was doing all it could in terms of identifying perpetrators, noting that he was able to find the Twitter account of someone claiming to have put up some of the racist posters.
"We were able to actually locate an account, where someone was bragging about hanging up the posters. Now, we don't know if that was just the person taking credit for something they didn't do, or if they did it, and then the account name wasn't a regular name, it was just an alias," McCoy said. "So I know it's tough, but we at least had an idea of who might have been doing in terms of who's willing to come out and say 'We're doing it.' "
Given the difficulty of catching online harassers and anonymous posters hangers, the University must take alternative steps to protect students, according to McCoy. Though there is no panacea, McCoy said there are "subtle strategies" the University can take as initial measures.
"One that administrators could take is finding ways that some authority can track where these posters tend to show up more," McCoy said. "So I think they tend to show up near the dorms and on central campus. And just having someone monitor those spaces a little more in the evening –– I presume that a lot of these posters go up in the evening or during night. So, the targeted strategy of 'Let's just try to figure out where they typically show up, and let's just monitor those places a little more.' "
He also said the University should prepare professors –– and professors should prepare themselves –– to be able to talk about the issue in class or to students.
"You know, with professors and staff, just being ready to talk about the importance of this propaganda campaign –– because that's what it really is," McCoy said. "It's a propaganda campaign. So be ready to talk about this, or have some material that explains what's going on."
It is currently unclear what the punishment would be if it was discovered to be a student engaging in these activities. Depending on the severity of the action, McCoy says, suspension or expulsion would be warranted.
Angela Dillard, the associate dean of undergraduate education for LSA, said the University has to use its powers to sanction students wisely, in a way that couldn't be turned against marginalized students.
"It's not clear (if they should be expelled), I think is really the answer," Dillard said. "And I know that's really frustrating, but I think we really want to be careful about expelling people because of the things that they believe or because of something they said. That has to be a really high bar. Because that's really dangerous –– that can get turned against people really quickly."
To contextualize and better understand the University's abilities and limitations in protecting students from hate speech on campus, Dillard said she has been closely studying the University's unsuccessful attempt in the late 1980s to implement "speech codes," which sought to sanction students for behavior which "stigmatize(d) or victimize(d) an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap or Vietnam-era veteran status."
The campus atmosphere in 1987 was in many ways similar to the atmosphere today. At the beginning of the winter semester, a student slipped a flier under the door of a lounge in Couzens Hall where a group of Black women were meeting, declaring it was "open season" on Black people. A week later, a DJ on a student-run radio station broadcasted racially charged jokes phoned in by listeners to several University buildings.
The Black Action Movement, a student group on campus at the time, demanded the University add a racial harassment clause to its rules and regulations to punish such activity. In the months following the announcement of their demands, racially charged fliers were slipped under staff members' doors in Mosher-Jordan Hall twice, a white DJ at another campus radio station played a song titled "Run, N*****, Run," and Peter Steiner, dean emeritus of LSA, made remarks which many students interpreted as racist.
In April 1988, the Board of Regents approved the Policy on Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment by Students in the University Environment –– it was eventually overturned by a federal district court in Detroit. Prior to that decision, Dillard said enforcement of the speech codes became corrupted and used against the same people they were intended to protect.
"They brought Black students up on charges of speech code violations, they brought feminists up on it –– it got turned against these populations, and that turned out to be really easy to do," Dillard said. "It tends to be the case that the law gets used against people without power, and speech codes can work in the same way."
Along with McCoy, Dillard was one of the targets of a homegrown social media campaign against members of the University community speaking out against the hatred on campus. At times, she said, the amount of hatred she received made her want to stop speaking out. But that's precisely why she thinks the right to free speech is so important.
"It was really, deeply racist and disturbing. A lot of it was really violent. It does actually make you afraid about taking a public stance or identifying yourself publicly in the way that we were doing," Dillard said. "Still, you have to stand up. You have to not let that prevent you from speaking about what you think is right and what you think is wrong. To be able to really, vigorously exercise your own free speech rights."
Correction: this article has been corrected to clarify that in April 1988, the Board of Regents approved the Policy on Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment by Students in the University Environment, a decision that was eventually overturned by a federal district court in Detroit.