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Tracey E. Vitchers

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Violent Hate Speech Incident at Williams College

Posted: 11/14/11 09:53 PM ET

At approximately 12:30 AM on the morning of Saturday, November 12, 2011, an undergraduate student at Williams College called the Campus Safety and Security after seeing written on the wall of an upperclass dormitory in permanent black marker, "All N*****s Must Die."

The violent message spurred an investigation by members of the local Williamstown Police Department, who are being aided in their search for the perpetrator by the Williams College Campus Safety and Security team as well as the College's administrators.

On Saturday evening, a group of approximately 70 student leaders met with Williams College President Adam Falk and Dean of Students Sarah Bolton to discuss the incident as well as to form a proper response to the incident. Following the meeting, students, faculty and staff marched to the Williamstown Police Department -- headquartered on the edge of campus -- to encourage the town's investigation of the hate crime.

All students who reside in the dormitory have been questioned regarding their activities that evening. Additionally, all students who entered the building using swipe card access were similarly questioned as to their purpose for visiting the residence hall. Considering that the incident occurred the night before the College's Homecoming football game against it will most likely be nearly impossible to identify all of the students and alumni who entered the dormitory.

On Sunday, approximately 200 students met in one of the college's student centers with Dean Bolton to continue to voice student reactions to the hate crime and to discuss possible college responses to the incident.

In response to student reactions, the administration in conjunction with the faculty steering committee decided to cancel all classes, athletic practices and other extracurricular activities on Monday to host a college-wide meeting and lunch at 11 AM on the lawn outside the Paresky Student Center. In an email to Williams alumni, President Falk stated that the cancelled day of class would, "be an important day for us to unite to begin to heal from this terrible act and reaffirm that such harmful behavior has no place at Williams -- or anywhere."

During the meeting President Falk addressed the campus community and stated that "It was a terrible moment, and a terrible thing has happened," and called it a "horrible racist attack."

Unfortunately, this violent and racist attack at Williams is not an isolated incident. On Saturday, February 1, 2008, the word "n*****" was written on the wall of a freshman dorm along with images of male genitalia. Students launched the "Stand With Us" movement to call on members of the student body, faculty and staff to unite against hate on campus.

During the 2008-2009 academic year a series of vandalisms occured in which images of ejaculating phalli were drawn on doors in student dormitories and on academic buildings, which led members of the college's Rape and Sexual Assault Network and Women's Center to call for a campus discussion about the use of sexually-charged vandalism as a form of sexual harassment and intimidation.

During the 2009 Thanksgiving Recess, a freshman common room was vandalized and the word "Fags" was painted on the wall. In response, a group of students occupied a building on campus and issued a list of demands that included the establishment of a Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, a full-time Queer Life Coordinator staff position, and gender-neutral housing options for upperclass students, amongst others.

In all of these cases a culprit was never identified and the incidents that spurred student action quickly faded from the collective college memory. To address these hate-charged incidents, touchy-feely events under the label "Claiming Williams" were hosted by the administration to allow students to claim "safe spaces" for themselves on campus. Since when did students -- especially minorities -- have to have a special day or event to assert their presence and basic human rights at their institution of higher learning?

As a Williams alumnus, I am deeply disturbed by this incident. While the reported student, faculty and staff attendance rate of 1000 persons at the campus meeting on Monday is a vast improvement from attendance at similar events when I was enrolled less than two years ago, it is still a depressing reality that less than half of the student body cared to show up at Monday's event. It is even more depressing that community affirmation and acceptance events still have to occur at the number one liberal arts college in the nation in the year 2011.

Colleges and universities, regardless of the size of their student body, have a responsibility to protect their students from hate crimes as well as from threats and acts of violence. While events like "Claiming Williams" and campus-wide lunches may provide a brief outlet for students to voice concerns about the social dynamics of a college community, it ultimately allows administrators to pull a blanket over their own eyes -- as well as the eyes of alumni, trustees and parents -- and pretend as if what has proven to be a systemic problem has been solved through a workshop or an administrator's speech.

To My Fellow Ephs: Keep fighting to end hate at Williams. You all deserve a safe environment in which you can thrive.

 

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