UMass Amherst experiences acts of hate on campus

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.   The John Quincy Adams Residence Hall at UMass.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The John Quincy Adams Residence Hall at UMass.

BY EMMA RUBIN ’20

On Nov. 13, in the John Quincy Adams Residence Hall at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass), a student’s door was defaced with homophobic and transphobic slurs as well as a swastika. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst Police Department (UMPD) investigated the event and the school sent out an email denouncing the act.

The incident is one of 15 reported acts of hate to take place on UMass’s campus this semester, according to the school’s official tracker. On Nov. 7, an anti-racist poster in Melville Residence Hall was defaced with the n-word written on it. On Nov. 6, a white nationalist hate group distributed posters throughout several buildings and posted them to lamp posts. And on Sept. 24 and Sept. 27, two posters featuring an African-American man were defaced and ripped.

“Too often this semester, I have shared with you a message like this, condemning acts of hate,” Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said in a Nov. 13 email responding to the incident which took place at John Quincy Adams Residence Hall. “I do so because it is important that those individuals who are the objects of such bigotry know that they are not alone – that every one of us who cherishes the rich diversity of our community stands with them and rejects the hatred spewed by a handful of anonymous cowards.”

Wei Cai, Secretary of Public Relations and Recruitment for the UMass Student Government Association (SGA), said that as acts of hate have occurred throughout the semester, “our initial reaction was ‘how can we support this community?’ because we saw the hurt, pain and fear that it created,” he said.

The UMass SGA hosted a community forum on Sept. 27 to discuss recent acts of hate on campus, specifically in reaction to an incident at Melville Hall where a racist epithet was found on a bathroom mirror, as well as an anonymous tip to the campus police warning them of an “agitated black male,” who, in reality, was an employee on his way to work. “We wanted to give students a platform in order to voice their frustrations, voice that hurt, that pain and really make change, and make demands for the university and inform how we can act upon that,” Cai said.

Many colleges and universities are dealing with a rise in acts of hate in an increasingly divided political landscape since the 2016 election. The U.S. Department of Education found that reports of hate crimes in higher education increased 25 percent from 2015 to 2016.

According to the Hate Crime report for Massachusetts, UMass Amherst reported 11 hate crimes in 2016. Though UMass-specific data could not be found for 2017 and the first half of 2018, FBI Uniform Crime Reporting found a nine percent increase in Massachusetts hate crimes from 2016 to 2017.

Andrés Garcia, a junior at UMass, agreed that there seems to be a correlation between more blatant acts of hate within the U.S. and the 2016 election, pointing to the incidents at Charlottesville in Aug. 2017. “We really haven’t seen anything like that in the past decade until [perpetrators] felt emboldened by Trump and came out of hiding,” he said.

In an effort to condemn the incidents on campus, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion attempted to unite the campus community during the 2017-2018 school year by adopting the “Hate Has No Home” initiative. Its mission statement read, “Together, we reaffirm UMass Amherst’s commitment to ensuring a safe and welcoming living-learning environment for every member of our community.”

But Garcia said that some students treated the campaign as a joke. Buttons, stickers and other free merchandise were available to students to promote the initiative, but he noticed some people would take the promotional merchandise and wear them ironically. “I would see other people’s reactions to those buttons, a lot of people would just kind of laugh at it,” Garcia said.

This year, the Building a Community of Dignity and Respect campaign set similar goals. Its mission statement reads, “Together, we will actively build a community that honors differences, where interactions are thoughtful, and the humanity of everyone is seen.”

The Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) of UMass Amherst sponsored a “March Against Racism and White Supremacy” on Thursday, Dec. 6. The march, from Whitmore Administration Building to the Integrated Learning Center is in response to the acts of hate and is part of a series of demands the group is making to the university’s administration. In the Facebook event description, the organization stated, “the problem is not just that vile horrors continue to occur, but that the people inflicting them on us are seemingly emboldened by the University’s failure to address them and its failure to empower us to protect the people who live, work and study on this campus.”

The demands from the organization include documentation of incidents of hate, predetermined consequences for such acts and that images/slogans of hate not be protected by free speech and disinvestment from university-wide slogans and campaigns. The demands also address the role of police on campus and ask for the abolishment of the anonymous tip line that GEO said targets people of color. Another demand was that the University sever its relationship with Amherst police, which GEO said “encourages highly punitive University measures against students for any number of nonviolent/minor infractions.”

“The UMass Police Department is actively investigating the incidents that have happened on campus this fall,” said Mary Dettloff, Deputy Director of Office of News and Media Relations. “Their protocol includes responding immediately to the site, collecting photographic and video evidence, interviewing students who discovered the graffiti or vandalism, interviewing students who live in the residential areas involved, reviewing card swipes into the residential area’s entrances and interviewing staff in the residence areas affected.”

“There is an ongoing investigative process for all of the incidents reported this semester,” Dettloff added.

Still, Cai emphasized that not all incidents of hate are necessarily reported. “There are plenty that we don’t hear about,” he said. “We need to figure out, in both collaboration with the SGA and the University, exactly what is going on and how can we in fact take action to create more just policies, a more just University for everybody.”

“The University has been good at putting out fires,” Garcia said, “but not getting rid of the source of the racism and acts of hate.” He compared the way that UMass has responded to these acts as similar to the practice of a business, specifically in the case of the incidents at Melville Hall, where he felt that the university tried to keep students quiet about the issue. “If the university’s name is tarnished, they fail to attract more ‘customers,’” Garcia said, referring to the unique position of higher education institutions in serving their students while also relying on their tuition to sustain their financial assets.

Garcia said that while students and community members of UMass seem to be aware of the issues of hate and racism on campus, he questioned if that will actually lead to a more inclusive and safe environment. “Does the awareness correlate to alleviating the problem or fixing the problem? I want to hope so, but as far as I can tell it hasn’t really done so much.”