Letter to the Editor: Support Student Protesters

Dear Mr. Schapiro and Mr. Lewis,

We are writing this open letter to express our extreme shock and dismay at the university’s violent and repressive response to the student protest of Northwestern University College Republicans’ Jeff Sessions event on November 5, 2019.

Namely, we are appalled at the ways in which Northwestern University Police Department (NUPD) officers suppressed multiple student protestors who sought to stand for justice and against the fascist ideologies for which Sessions stands. We write as faculty members, staff, alumni and as those in community with the students brave enough to directly challenge the vitriolic hatred of the right wing, even in the face of the university’s intense suppression.

We are choosing now to submit this letter because of recent citations and disciplinary procedures against student protesters. In early December, a number of student protesters received citations issued by the City of Evanston through the NUPD and currently face potential disciplinary measures.

This is a particularly grave offense following the university’s highly publicized, self-congratulatory celebration of the Bursar’s Takeover’s 50th anniversary in 2018. The 1968 Bursar’s Takeover was a sit-in led by black students in which students occupied the Bursar’s office for 38 hours to demand improved conditions for black students at Northwestern. It is hypocritical, insulting and exploitative for the University to celebrate the student activists of the past while it continues to target, punish and suppress the student activists of today.

Also following Provost Holloway and Vice President Payne-Kirchmeier pledge to support first-generation and low-income students, of which many student protesters facing disciplinary measures identify as, we question their commitment to creating a “safe learning and living environment where all students can thrive, especially those who have been historically underrepresented and often marginalized on our campus.”

We, as faculty and staff, are outraged at the presence of and violent behavior exhibited by Northwestern police at this event. We are aware that members of the NUPD physically assaulted students who were exercising their right to free speech by protesting this event; we know that NUPD officers forcefully grabbed and shoved students, and multiple students were pushed onto the ground.

The university released a statement explaining that students received citations for “pushing, grabbing or kicking police officers.” The citations issued to students do not indicate any of these claims. The university has used these lies to vilify students for their nonviolent protests.

In 2018, students urged university administrators to disarm and remove police presence from protests to prevent violent altercations such as the one that occurred on November 5, 2019. The university neglected to act on that demand and instead gave armed campus police officers the purview to exercise force as they see fit against students. Officers flashed their weapons, taunting protesters with their power. This failure is irresponsible, dangerous, and potentially deadly, especially considering the fact that the majority of student activists are black students and other students of color.

Though we are expressing our concerns about this particular event, there are broader implications for how the university constrains or respects students engaging in protest. Northwestern’s administration has historically cited freedom of expression and academic thought as rationale behind allowing dangerous entities to be present on campus, including Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a string of right-wing political pundits and figures, and Satoshi Kanazawa, a “scholar” and champion of scientific racism.

However, we believe it is irresponsible and dangerous for you, Mr. Schapiro and Mr. Lewis, to prioritize such freedoms over the lives and safety of marginalized students. In doing so, the university has consistently positioned the humanity of marginalized students as an intellectual playground or site of political debate. In allowing these same students to be physically punished by police and the university, Northwestern has sent a loud and clear message: speech is free, but only for the powerful. Free speech is only acceptable if it does not make the powerful uncomfortable.
The violently racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic hatred that Jeff Sessions spews has real-life deadly consequences for marginalized communities. On November 3, two days before Sessions came to campus, a white supremacist in Milwaukee threw acid into the face of Mahud Villalaz while simultaneously hurling racist and anti-immigrant insults. This event is only the most recent in a countless series of hate crimes that have been committed across the nation since the election of President Donald Trump, some of which have been committed by Northwestern’s very own students.
As attorney general, Jeff Sessions played a significant part in the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies of the Trump adminitration that led to the tragic death of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, who died needlessly in the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Platforming such a person at Northwestern not only endangers students who are directly affected by Sessions’ political actions, but also directly enables the spread of hateful and oppressive rhetoric. The student organization, Northwestern University College Republicans, has a history of bringing speakers with such practices. Due to Northwestern’s repeated prioritization of bigoted voices, exploitation of black student action, and active harm against student protestors, we have no choice but to conclude that our university has failed to uphold justice and favored the unethical moral ambiguity that has, historically, allowed white supremacy to maintain a place in mainstream discourse and is explicitly present within the Trump administration.
As faculty and staff of this university, we refuse to stand by idly in the face of such news. We are deeply troubled, disgusted, and outraged that our university would suppress student activists in the defense of fascism, especially considering students at this university are taught to be active and vocal members of their communities.
We demand that you, Mr. Schapiro and Mr. Lewis, immediately issue an apology for the irreparable harm that your administration and your police officers inflicted on Tuesday evening. We demand that you, Mr. Schapiro and Mr. Lewis, drop the disciplinary charges placed against the students. Finally, we support student demands for the disarming and eventual end of police presence on all Northwestern campuses to ensure that all students are able to exist on campus free from surveillance, harassment, and brutality.
— Written by student protesters