Find Our Way Forward: Healing and Justice for DePaul

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Graphic by Danielle Szabo

By Elon Sloan, Guest Writer

What Happened to Us on That Tuesday?

At 5:00pm,the Yiannopolous event attendees filled the first floor of the student center, stretching from the doors of 120 AB, to the opposite end of the building by the Center for Identity, Inclusion and Social Change where I am a student staff member. Many of the students inside the Center are discussing worries about the impending event and Milo’s speech.

A few hours earlier, Milo posted a picture of three campus activists and implied that they looked ugly. The directness of a Tweet about people many of us knew have us reeling and concerned about what was coming next. At the same time, many of my friends and peers are gathering for a protest on the quad, and the Center’s professional and student staff are setting up our front space for the Speak Out event. SoJA Speak Outs are events where students can come to discuss their feelings about tensions present on campus and start processing them with their peers.

The line of attendees not only fills the first floor but spills into the areas outside of both entrances, and getting into the Student Center without navigating a crowd of people wearing Trump hats and elephant shirts is difficult. People in line are taking notice of the Center and its window posters. They are commenting on and taking pictures of students standing inside. A friend of mine finds herself starting to cry as soon as she walks into the Center, and sees how different the familiar space feels. A group of people of color goes upstairs to use the bathroom, not wanting to walk around alone.  On their way back event attendees hold the stairwell door open and yell after them ‘Trump welcomes you all, he’s gonna make America great again!’

All of this is especially troubling considering that the Student Center is one of the most public spaces on campus and the building where students go to access food. I only stayed at the Center’s Speak Out long enough for people to check in and see how they were feeling, but in a short amount of time I heard people express anger, fear, and a sense that their voices didn’t matter to other people in the university, least of all the administration. Nobody wanted to pay attention to dissenting voices or people who were afraid of letting people invoke hatred and bigotry on campus. At the same time, some student were personally drawn to the event. This was ensured by the anti-Mexican message left on the quad the night before, the tweet where Yiannopolous posted a picture of feminist students and insulted them personally, and the occupation of the student center by mostly non-DePaul attendees fueled by hate-filled rhetoric. Everything lined up to make sure that by the time the protest started as many students as possible were made to feel that their values and identities were being attacked. All of those students knew that inside of the event the speaker was starting to say overtly racist, sexist, xenophobic and transphobic things, and was encouraging a crowd to accept and act on his bigotry.

The Speak Out attendees knew this as well and as my SO and the workshop coordinator began facilitating, the atmosphere was still and tense. As I listened to people go around the circle and give their initial thoughts and feelings, I felt increasingly uncomfortable, knowing I had to leave them here. I could see that people were hurt and that Milo and the people who had come to see him were excited at the prospect of hurting people more. I wanted to be there to support.

Just over an hour later I step out of my off-campus meeting to call my SO to ask how the Speak Out event is going and whether I can catch the end of it if I leave quickly. She picks up and listens, but doesn’t answer my questions, instead, she replies that she is in the student center and the doors are locked and she is unsure if she can safely leave. “Don’t come to campus.” She says simply but firmly, “Go home.”

When I left my meeting at 7:15, I was frantically searching Facebook for information about what was happening. My SO didn’t feel up to talking on the phone for very long nor describing everything that was happening to her and the people around her, but I can still remember the strain I heard in her voice with first words she spoke. As soon as I understood that there was a general threat of violence I found myself trying to fathom all of the hurt and fear that I had witnessed, and all of the anger and hate that I had seen Milo display and encourage at other university talks. I tried to imagine what those two forces clashing would look like and what potential violence could ensue. I tried over and over again to figure what all of this meant for my SO and her ability to come out of the situation safely, but the information wasn’t there. I paced around my apartment anxiously for an hour, imagining the worst, until she texted me that she was leaving. I was so nervous about the process of her getting home that upon receiving that text, I stood up and went to go sit outside, where I anxiously watched the front gate for 30 minutes. As soon as I saw her face I felt some relief, but I knew I would spend the night worrying about everyone else.

At that time nothing was clear, but now most people on campus know: Protesters shut down the event, and after leaving 120AB Milo led his supporters around campus. Afterward, the supporters ran back to the student center, which staff decided to close fearing what would happen if event attendees were allowed back into the building.

In the process, many of my friends and people that I have always respected for their work on campus were assaulted, insulted with slurs and other hate speech, and identified on social media for the purpose of doxing and continued abuse online. Milo’s supporters quickly planted the idea that the event takeover was violent. Through Twitter, they painted two people who have committed themselves to working for justice on campus as dangerously aggressive and thoughtless people. People were looking everywhere for an accurate article they could share with their families in order to explain what had happened without reliving the day’s events, but all that anyone could find were articles from conservative news sites that had been waiting to pounce on the protest with disapproving coverage.

The next day I walked into the Center, not for work but just to find community. I saw everyone coming together to support one another. I also saw frustration and despair because other communities throughout DePaul were unwilling to recognize the pain that DePaul protesters had experienced. Everywhere on social media, people’s expressions that they were hurt or needed healing were met with contempt and sentiment against the decision to protest was growing.

Amber Colón, a friend of mine, protested the event on Tuesday and came to school the next day with her arms covered in bruises from trying to defend other student protesters from Yiannopolous’ supporters. The protest was a traumatic day for her and being on campus afterward reminded her of the violence and made her feel unsafe. Even more, the bruises and the fact that a picture of her being elbowed in the face was being passed around online meant that she was constantly identified as a protester wherever she went on campus. Amber told me that the hardest thing to deal with was that nobody was willing to acknowledge that she’d been hurt. She didn’t feel like there were any institutional resources she could access on campus. She’d had issues dealing with Public Safety in the past and she’d seen the video of the Dean of Students telling a student who’d been assaulted that she couldn’t help everyone.

Only a few people were willing to support and advocate for students like her who’d been hurt in the protest, and everywhere else was a battle with someone who was inconvenienced by her problems, or refused to acknowledge them at all. In classes, people who disagreed with the speaker being allowed to come to campus or supported the protests, found themselves either having to stay silent or debate their values with aggressive classmates who were uninformed and assumptive. A swell of voices was growing outside of the university, blaming students for their own injuries and pain because they chose to protest and interrupt the event.

When people cite freedom of speech to protect the right of someone who claims the identity of “troll” to come to campus and insult and provoke students, but not to reaffirm the right of the targeted student body to respond with an organized and publicly planned protest, a bias is being perpetrated. When the president of the university sends out a campuswide email apologizing to a group that chose to bring a speaker who they knew would attack students through social media and rile up a crowd with hate speech, certain lives and issues are being valued above others. Holtschneider choosing to send out an email which ignored students’ assaults and the continued online abuse and harassment experienced by many in the DePaul Community affects students and their ability to feel safe on campus.

While Father H and the administration seemed to be hoping that affected students would stay silent and others would forget, the harm for people on campus has continued. When I learned about the noose which had been found on campus, I could physically feel my anxiety for a couple seconds. I was horrified and scared but I wasn’t surprised. Everyone I knew who had been present for the protests seemed to be worried that more escalation was coming. Before the noose was placed, another student told me she had been followed by three white men from the Dunkin Donuts by 1237 through campus. Other students responded that another Black woman had experienced something similar. Students who were recognizable from online videos, including Amber and other friends of mine, have endured harassment and threats not just online but when they are recognized in person. When the noose was found many of us understood it as not just a visible manifestation of white supremacy present on campus, but as a potential sign that the worst had yet to come. And while thankfully no physical escalation has occurred, many students, especially Black students and students of color, are still anxious about being on campus and feel unsafe.

WWHD: What Would Holtschneider Do?

And now a second email has been sent out. Father Holtschneider has recognized some of the struggles students have faced and has promised to make changes. He held a town hall discussion which I attended and spoke at in order to hear students address his concerns, but he has not promised any significant groundbreaking action. I want to believe that the administration is capable of figuring out how to support its marginalized students, but the actions of the administration before Tuesday and in the past week have not convinced me that this is likely. If precedent means anything, neither the president nor the university will be willing to address the marginalization present on campus as a university-wide concern requiring large scale changes. They will continue to dismiss the needs of students holding marginalized identities in large university-wide forums, while attempting to placate them enough to stop voicing their concerns in smaller more targeted communications and efforts, like councils and task forces.

While this happens because of the lack of action from the administration and the widespread misreporting about what happened at the protests, many students and faculty will continue to blame protesters for the violence they were subject to and ignore the need for healing present among the many who were present or affected. When the issues of the protests and Yiannopolous are forgotten, apathy and inaction, when it comes to the concerns of  students of color and LGBTQIA+ students, will still remain DePaul’s status quo.

When looking at DePaul’s history, it has always been student efforts that have created resources for students with marginalized identities. The Cultural Center which became the Center for Identity, Inclusion and Social Change, the African and Black Diaspora Studies Department, and LGBTQA Student Services which was later absorbed into the Center, were all created through student protest or other kinds of action. In the end, it will come down to us as the student body to come together, become aware of each other’s needs, and work together to make DePaul more inclusive for all of us. The president and the administration have shown that they can’t be trusted to act in our best interest independently.

What This Means for Everyone

When I went on Facebook to figure out what was happening, I was forced to think long and hard about the communities that I am part of here at DePaul. I saw many of my Theatre School peers drinking sparkling apple cider and celebrating the second week of Wrights of Spring, while completely unaware of what was going on elsewhere on campus. As a TTS student, I’ve struggled with how disconnected our school is from the rest of DePaul since the beginning of my time here.

We are known as the well-funded college on the edge of campus. And while many TTS students resent such ideas, many others I have encountered believe that we are better than other students because of our lower admissions rate, or the talent present among our alumni. Whenever I invite my friends from other colleges to come to events held in TTS, they are almost always hesitant. ‘Everyone stares at you’ they say, recalling memories of being identified as an outsider the second they walked through the door. I myself experienced that staring for a significant portion of my first quarter here.

On a regular day, what this means is the rest of DePaul may not come out to see our shows, and will see theatre and theatre people as elitist and exclusionary. On a day like Tuesday, what that meant was that people were getting assaulted blocks away from a Theatre School party, and most of us had no knowledge of this, much less any kind of personal stake, or the ability understand that many students would be bringing fear and sadness with them to their classes the next day. I didn’t go to my one class in TTS on Wednesday because I was afraid that nobody in my class would be able to recognize what an alien place campus had become for myself and many other queer students, trans students, and students of color.

Still, to say that The Theatre School is the only community on campus that struggles with insularity would be untrue and unfair. DePaul is a large campus with many students, who mostly live elsewhere in the city. While learning to create and promote programming for my job in the Center I’ve come to realize that the thousands of students who attend DePaul can be broken down into a variety of separate communities varying in size and complexity. As I’ve seen students try to find ways to heal from and react to the protests on Tuesday, the email on Wednesday, and the noose on Thursday I’ve seen a lot of push and pull, and friction between people with different priorities and interests.

I’m not writing this article to shame anyone into feeling guilty about what they didn’t do or know because ultimately guilt and shame do nothing to help people. Now more than ever I would appeal to all of DePaul to act in support of other students’ healing, and to oppose bigotry where they see it on campus. Now more than ever silence and ignorance will hurt us, and keep us from finding ways to build and use our collective power. Looking forward into the fall it is clear that the tensions present on campus will continue to build as the election approaches. As this happens, I have a few things to ask of people who care but have stayed uninvolved thus far.

  • Learn about oppression and marginalization and how they affect our lives as contemporary people and college students. In a basic way, this means listening to people with marginalized identities when they speak out. But plenty of more formal learning is available throughout DePaul and Chicago, including amazing departments like Women’s and Gender Studies, African and Black Diaspora Studies, and Latino Studies as well as others. Every year, the Center for Identity, Inclusion and Social Change hosts plenty of programming and workshops.
  • Support those you know who have been affected. This is not the time to invade the lives of people who are struggling and pester them with offers of help in order to assuage any guilt you might hold. But this is the time to look into the communities you are already part of in order to support people who are asking for help, and to figure out ways to make that community more trauma-informed and inclusive.
  • Fight on the side of justice. Student groups will continue to make demands that the university improve and advocate for their needs. Now is the time to actively speak up in favor of the students who do that, and to keep them from being demonized. Learn from student organizers and advocates and find your place in supporting their work.

Have a good summer, DePaul, and take time to heal. We have no way of knowing what our campus will be like when we come back in the fall. What we can do for now is heal and figure out what justice means for us individually and as a community.

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