Students protest Richard Spencer’s potential visit in wake of racially charged incidents
After confirmation that prominent white supremacist Richard Spencer requested to speak at the University of Michigan, the NAACP and Black Student Union released statements requesting action to bar Spencer from speaking.
The Black Student Union sent a letter to University President Mark Schlissel and the Board of Regents Tuesday night that demanded Schlissel deny Spencer’s request, especially in light of recent racist events on campus.
“Allowing such a person to speak on this campus is a threat to the physical and emotional safety of many students on campus,” the letter read. “Too many times already have students of color been placed under emotional distress due to racist campus climate.”
With the University set to take part in a weeklong summit to examine the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, the letter explained the hypocrisy in advocating for a welcome and secure environment yet allowing speakers like Charles Murray and potentially Spencer on campus. Furthermore, the letter explained worries about potential violence if Spencer were to speak — schools including the University of Florida and Michigan State University have denied Spencer’s request to speak in order to protect their students’ safety.
“Richard Spencer is a violent white supremacist who advocates ethnic cleansing, and while he may deny promoting physical violence, his supporters engage in violence against marginalized people with the intent of protecting white supremacy,” the letter continued. “His rally in Charlottesville this summer drew hundreds of armed protesters that resulted in the murder of a Ms. Heyer. His rhetoric is nothing less than hate speech and goes against everything the University claims has no place on this campus.”
The University’s chapter of the NAACP also wrote a letter to Schlissel and the Board of Regents, specifically outlining how Spencer’s beliefs directly undermine those of the University and those Schlissel promised to uphold.
“As President Schlissel has stated through various forms of communication, administration ‘holds the firm belief that all members of our community have a place here at the University of Michigan,’” the letter read. “Richard Spencer, as an advocate for ethnic cleansing, does not believe that all members of our community have a place here at the University of Michigan.”
LSA junior Timberlee Whiteus, vice president of the University’s chapter of the NAACP, said the argument that the University can’t deny requests based on content is directly contradictory to the University’s promise to uphold a safe community.
“I find it absurd that the University has released a statement saying they don’t deny requests based on content seeing that the content contradicts the beliefs of the University and those in administrative power,” Whiteus said. “Seeing that administration supposedly ‘supports’ all marginalized groups, allowing Richard Spencer — who advocates for ethnic cleansing — to speak challenges what it is they’ve told us they will do, protect and prioritize students. How long will administration allow hate speech to occur on campus without taking action?”
After citing the white supremacy march through the University of Virginia, the letter said denying Spencer’s request to speak is an opportunity for University administration to improve tensions on campus after multiple racist incidents.
“This is an opportunity for President Schlissel and the University of Michigan administrators to show that they prioritize the safety of their students. With other racist events that have happened earlier in the semester, the student body is still recovering and awaiting to hear and/or see tangible improvements on campus. By denying Richard Spencer a platform on this campus you have the opportunity to make strides towards those tangible improvements and build a strong relationship with UM students,” it read.
In addition to these letters, a change.org petition is circulating around campus. The text along with the petition differentiated free speech from hate speech and said the language Spencer would spread encourages racial hate on campus and systematically.
“His sentiments include advocating for a White-Ethno State through ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing.’ While this may seem like Spencer exercising his 1st Amendment rights, it is far more than that,” the petition read. “These pervasive sentiments, expressed to his millions of supporters, serve to empower the same groups who wrote the n-word on West Quad doors, spray painted ‘Free Dylann Roof’ on downtown buildings, and posted flyers claiming Black intellectual inferiority to white people. On a macro level, they were the driving forces behind slavery and the Holocaust - and one of the core reasons why the systematic and institutional oppressions of racism have been upheld and propagated for so long. If you choose to ignore this history, and allow him to speak, you are only aiding this system.”
The petition text was written by LSA seniors Gabe Colman and Hoai An Pham. Social Work student Armaity Minwalla started the petition and said she did so hoping Schlissel might respond to a large collective of students. However, she said that ideally a petition wouldn’t be needed in the first place.
“If Schlissel and the regents will not respond to emails from individuals, perhaps they will see and respond to the signatures of thousands,” Minwalla said. “We should not need to create a petition or send countless emails to President Schlissel and the Regents. It should be common practice that any institution make strides to protect its students.”
Minwalla has worked as a peer educator at the University, making her accustomed to dealing with racial situations. But considering the violence of the Charlottesville, Va., protest, Minwalla said, she wouldn’t be comfortable protesting if Spencer visited.
“Should Richard Spencer be given a platform, I will not be present even in protest because campus will automatically become unsafe for me and all people of color on campus,” Minwalla said. “Racism is an ever-present issue on campus that has only grown in the last year.”
Similarly, History prof. Matthew Countryman said Spencer's visit would not contribute to the educational agenda of the University.
"Richard Spencer is not a serious figure," Countryman said. "He has nothing of educational value to offer. Thankfully, his racist message--with its echoes of Nazi Germany, the Jim Crow South, and Apartheid South Africa--was discredited more than a half-century ago. His presence on campus would only distract the university community from the essential tasks required to build a more equitable and inclusive institution. If the university administration will not say no to Spencer, then it will be up to the rest of us."
Following these letters, on Wednesday morning students at the University, along with other universities across the country, woke up to posters that read, “It’s okay to be white.” Posters on campus were located on the pillars outside the Union, Angell Hall and the Natural Science building.
Posters appear to be connected to those found across North America between Oct. 29 and Nov. 1.
The Boston Globe reported Wednesday morning that stickers with the same phrase were found around Harvard Square. Metro News reported yesterday that a similar poster was placed on the door of the native studies building at the University of Alberta
— Chris Andersen (no, not that one) (@DrChrisAndersen) October 31, 2017
Students at the University of Maryland and Tulane University also found the posters Wednesday on their campus.
— Jen&Juice (@nnekasensei) November 1, 2017
— Hullabaloo News (@hullnewsTU) November 1, 2017
On Twitter, users posted others had been found in Seattle and Chicago, as well as at Purdue University.
Boston Magazine reported a thread online suggests the posters were a coordinated effort planned to be done on Halloween. A thread that started on Oct. 30 on the website 4Chan includes one person’s plan to hang the posters around their high school, and others informing them on how to not get caught doing so.